Grocery Store & Supermarket Buying Guide
Dinner Is in the Bag

Whether it’s because of more shopping options or lower tolerance for grocery stores that don’t meet their needs, consumers are less loyal to any one particular food retailer than in the past. Instead, they’re cherry-picking to take advantage of vendors’ particular strengths. Each month 68 percent of Americans shop at five or more types of food retailers—convenience stores, discount supercenters, farmers markets, specialty/natural-food stores, supermarkets, and warehouse clubs. In addition, they might go to more than one of each type of store, according to the Hartman Group, a food and beverage industry consulting company in Bellevue, Wash.

A Cornucopia of Choices

Experts say the supermarkets that have anchored many a community are struggling to compete in this competitive environment. Those that are doing well are premium stores such as Wegmans, specialty stores such as Trader Joe’s, and discounters such as WinCo. “Traditional supermarkets are stuck in the middle,” says Laurie Demeritt, the Hartman Group’s CEO.

Which Store Tops Our Ratings

Consumer Reports members’ preferences mirror these trends. But price is and always will be a great motivator. Grocers with the highest scores for competitive prices are for the most part near the top of our ratings. One such store, Woodman’s, which operates in Illinois and Wisconsin, passes savings on by selling certain items in bulk.

Online Grocers Are Making Inroads

Online grocers still represent a modest portion of the marketplace; in the U.S., just 28 percent of households surveyed in early 2018 reported buying food and beverages from online grocery retailers at least occasionally, according to research by the Food Marketing Institute, a food-retailing industry group, and the Hartman Group. But while millennials’ use of online grocers has leveled off in the past two years (43 percent of those surveyed—and 58 percent of those with kids—use the services at least occasionally), interest is climbing among older shoppers. Twenty-nine percent of Generation Xers, for example, say they order groceries online at least occasionally, up from 17 percent who gave that answer in 2015. Fiften percent of the “mature” generation—generally speaking, consumers in their 70s and older—now orders groceries online at least occasionally, up from just 5 percent in 2015.

Amazon is by far the largest online grocer. In 2016 consumers used Amazon’s food and beverage channels—including Amazon Prime and Amazon Pantry for packaged goods and AmazonFresh for fresh and nonperishable groceries—more than any other online grocery retailer, says Cowen, an investment research firm. AmazonFresh tops our satisfaction ratings of four online grocers, though its competitors—Instacart, Peapod, and FreshDirect—are close behind.

Save With Shopping Tactics

Reducing your grocery bill is easy with a bit of imagination and planning. For instance, if you need only a few items during a shopping trip, skip the cart and consider a handbasket; shoppers who wheeled jumbo carts bought more than those wheeling regular or small ones, according to a study by the Cornell University Food & Brand Lab. You also can save by understanding how stores try to manipulate you, and adjusting your shopping patterns:

Shop Clockwise
Most stores have their main entrance on the right side, and customers tend to move counterclockwise, pushing with the left hand and picking up food with the right, says Paco Underhill, CEO of Envirosell, a New York City-based research and consulting company focused on consumer behavior. When researchers compared those shoppers with people who went through a left entrance and shopped clockwise, they found that the clockwise folk spent $2 less per trip, on average.

Beware of ‘Bumpouts’
These displays and shelves that curve or jut out into an aisle catch the eye and make merchandise more tempting. Supermarkets are organized to slow you down so that you’ll buy more.

Don’t Assume There’s an Endcap Sale
When you reach the end of an aisle, don’t automatically reach for the displayed goods. “There’s the assumption that what’s on the endcap is a deal, but often it’s just not true,” Underhill says. “It’s where various manufacturers pay for the privilege to have a secondary display.” Tracking the price of commonly purchased items over a few weeks can help you discern when a sale is really offering a deal. And when there is a sale, grocery stores sometimes reset endcaps and other high-profile displays with sale items the day before the lower price takes effect (but without the new signage). If you grab and go too early, you’ll pay full price. That happened to one of our reporters.

Double-Check the Receipt
When an item scans at the wrong price, the Federal Trade Commission recommends that merchants offer consumers a reward, such as giving them the item free if there’s an overcharge. Some chains do so, but you may have to complain forcefully. Report frequent pricing mistakes to the FTC, your state attorney general, or your local consumer affairs office. Repeat violators can be fined.

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