Smart shopping begins with understanding how goods are priced and marketed, and how stores coax you into buying them. It also entails making healthful choices, which has become easier at many stores.
Learn about layout. Supermarkets are organized to slow you down so that you'll buy more. The average store contains 73 product displays to stop you in your tracks. Display items, particularly on "end caps" that frame each aisle, aren't always on sale; they might just be nearing their "use by" date.
Enter most stores and you come face to face with fruit and vegetables, which indicate a store's commitment to freshness, says Jim Hertel of Willard Bishop. The scent of baked rolls, often evident the moment you step inside, stirs hunger—and more buying. Freezer and refrigerated cases without doors encourage unplanned purchases. Coffee bars and piped-in music can make you linger and buy more (depending on the music, of course!). Need meat, milk, or other staples? They're usually in back of the store. To get there, you'll often travel the store's perimeter, the site of especially profitable—and tempting—fresh goods.
Too many hurdles, of course, and you might be out the door fast. Fifteen percent of our survey respondents complained about congested aisles. The biggest offender was Market Basket, where 35 percent of shoppers said clutter was a problem.
Know the high-low game. Most stores lure customers with weekly specials on staples such as cereal, bacon, and detergent, then raise prices on other goods to offset those "loss leaders." You're unlikely to find the specials for less anywhere else, even at warehouse clubs. If you follow the flyers, you'll see that staples go on sale at predictable intervals, so you can stock up and save. In our survey, 11 percent of stores were out of stock on an advertised special. If that happens to you, request a rain check.
Beware of tricky signs. If you see, say, 10 containers of yogurt for $10, know that you're rarely required to buy all 10 to get the discount. You can buy one for $1.
Check your receipt. Overall, just 5 percent of our respondents said they had been overcharged in the last year. But the error rate at Shaw's, a New England chain, was twice as high.
Report frequent pricing mistakes to the Federal Trade Commission (ftc.gov), your state attorney general, or your local consumer affairs office. Chains can be fined for repeated violations. The FTC recommends that retailers offer consumers a reward, such as giving them the item free if there's an overcharge. Many do just that, though they rarely volunteer the information. It's up to you to complain.
Weigh the benefits of organics. Sales of organic products reached $31.5 billion in 2012, according to the Organic Trade Association. They cost more than their conventional counterparts, but it's worth buying the organic fruit and vegetables that can carry pesticide residue even after washing. Consumer Reports recommends buying organic apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries.
Read nutrition labels. Shoppers tend to judge the healthfulness of products by the company they keep. Putting a creamy dip next to cut veggies, for instance, makes people feel less guilty about buying the dip. The truth is on the Nutrition Facts label. More chains are flagging healthier products with shelf tags based on Food and Drug Administration guidelines and advice from dietitians. The Northeast chain Hannaford has a Guiding Stars program that assigns foods one to three stars (good, better, best) based on the amount of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and whole grains, the absence of fats and cholesterol, and added sodium and sugars. (Unrated products have less nutritional value per 100 calories.) Vons (in Southern California and Nevada) has a Simple Nutrition program, Giant (Washington, D.C., area) offers a Healthy Ideas program, and Publix (Southeast) has a Better Choice program.
Learn about staying well. Heather Garlich, a spokeswoman for the Food Marketing Institute, says that in the 1980s, just two supermarket chains had a registered dietitian on staff. Today, 85 percent have a dietitian at the corporate level who helps influence merchandising and marketing decisions. Thirty percent have in-store dietitians. More than half of chains provide nutrition counseling.