Grocery Store & Supermarket Buying Guide

When Americans go shopping for groceries, the majority of consumers look first to traditional supermarkets for their needs, as they have for years. But increasingly, they're including other types of retailers as go-to sources for groceries. While 58 percent of Americans say they go to a supermarket almost every time they shop for food and groceries, a quarter also visit a supercenter—a mass marketer like Walmart or Target that includes a supermarket. That’s about a 14 percent increase from 2015, says a 2018 study by the Food Marketing Institute, an industry organization, and The Hartman Group, a food and beverage industry consulting company in Bellevue, Wash.

Mass marketers that don't have a dedicated supermarket but still sell some groceries are getting more attention, too; 15 percent of consumers say they go to a mass marketer almost every time they shop for food and groceries—an increase of 36 percent from 2015, according to the FMI/Hartman study. The same study found "almost every time" grocery shopping at convenience stores tripled—and quadrupled at ethnic grocers, though just 3 and 5 percent of consumers, respectively, make regular shopping trips to those outlets.

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.

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 Stores Top Our Ratings

A common thread among the grocers at the top of the chart is that they receive high marks for cleanliness of the store. Price is also a great motivator. Trader Joe’s, for example, is a standout in both of these categories. Market Basket (Northeast), a family-owned chain operating in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, earns top marks for prices.

Along with cleanliness, quality counts. Gelson’s Markets, a 27-store California-based chain, for instance, was given our lowest mark for price competitiveness, yet it was among the top-rated markets. It receives accolades for its store cleanliness, among other top-rated attributes—including the quality of its produce, meats and poultry, and prepared foods.

Grocery Delivery and Pickup Are Making Inroads

According to research by Bain & Company and Google, a quarter of Americans have used grocery delivery services at least once.

But interest is growing. Offers.com, a website that identifies ways shoppers can save, reports that Google searches for "grocery delivery" nearly doubled between February 2018 and 2019. Walmart is the most popular location for curbside pickup; Amazon is the largest player in grocery delivery.

Research in 2018 by the Food Marketing Institute, a food-retailing industry group, and the Hartman Group shows millennials’ use of online grocers has leveled off lately (43 percent of those surveyed—and 58 percent of those with kids—use the services at least occasionally). But interest is climbing among older shoppers. Twenty-nine percent of Generation Xers, for example, said they ordered groceries online at least occasionally, up from 17 percent who gave that answer in 2015. Fifteen percent of the “mature” generation—generally speaking, consumers in their 70s and older—reported they now orders groceries online at least occasionally, up from just 5 percent in 2015.

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 can also save by understanding how stores try to manipulate you and by 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. Moving in that direction, shoppers tend to spend more money, he says.

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. "End caps are sold to different manufacturers and goods displayed on them are NOT necessarily on sale," Underhill says.

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.

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.

Consumer Reports is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to helping consumers. We make it easy to buy the right product from a variety of retailers. Clicking a retailer link will take you to that retailer’s website to shop. When you shop through retailer links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission – 100% of the fees we collect are used to support our mission. Learn more. Our service is unbiased: retailers can’t influence placement. All prices are subject to change.