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Buy this, not that: Pro tips to save at the grocery store

By Nathaniel Meyersohn, CNN Business

You’re probably not too happy with your grocery bills these days. But there are strategies to help you shop without breaking the bank.

Food prices rose 1% in February, the largest monthly increase since April 2020. Over the past 12 months, overall food prices increased 7.9%, the biggest jump since July 1981. Grocery store prices rose at an even faster clip.

Every food item tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics was more expensive last month than it was a year ago. Meat, eggs and soup prices have the widest gap from last year, jumping by double-digits through February.

“When it comes to saving money on groceries, consumers have many options, but it does require making changes to our routines and some savvy decision making,” said Carman Allison at NielsenIQ.

Here are some penny-pinching tactics recommended by the pros.

Make a shopping list

Grocery stores are well trained in the science of stimulating your taste buds.

The best way to avoid impulsive buys that add to your grocery bill? Make a list beforehand of what you’re there buy — and stick to it. Don’t get distracted by all those desserts and snacks that aren’t on your list.

Planning ahead and shopping with a list help keep you focused on what you need and reduces time browsing around, where temptations can take hold.

Be deliberate at the store and don’t add extra stuff to your cart while you wait in the checkout line, where stores tend to put hard-to-resist sweets and other eye-catching items.

Shop around

Finding the best deals means shopping around and comparing prices on products at different stores. One might have better prices on eggs, but another might be cheaper for fish.

“I do not have allegiance to any one supermarket. If you’ve got the best price, you’re my best friend at that moment,” said Edgar Dworsky, a former assistant attorney general in Massachusetts and founder of Consumer World, an education resource.

But don’t just compare prices among the same types of stores. Supermarkets, big box outlets, wholesale clubs, discount grocers and dollar store chains all have different prices and promotion strategies. Check out co-ops and farmers’ markets too.

“People can save a lot of money if they know how these stores are set up,” said Victor Martino, the founder of grocery consulting firm Third Wave Strategies. He recommends shopping at at least two different store formats.

Look for promotions and deals

Stores put out weekly advertisements for sale items in print and online.

Find out when a store releases those offers. Many put out their circular ads on Wednesdays, so that’s often the best day to find deals. Check them out and compare.

If there’s a great deal, consider stocking up on the product.

“When apple juice is 99 cents a gallon, I will buy a case or two,” Dworsky said.

And to make sure you’re actually getting a good deal, take a look at the price history of products on websites such as CamelCamelCamel.

Use a store loyalty card

Most supermarkets offer free loyalty cards with special deals and savings for members. Some grocers’ loyalty cards also offer savings on gas.

Use them.

If you’re not using a loyalty card, “you’re throwing money away,” Dworsky said. “It’s absolutely crazy.”

Switch to store brands

Stores’ private-label brands used to be considered cheap knockoffs. But grocers have spent a lot of time and money in recent years improving their products.

House brands are often produced by the same manufacturers that make the big-name items, but they’re typically cheaper. Switching to a private label alternative can save shoppers anywhere from 10% to 40%, according to David Bishop, a partner at grocery consulting firm Brick Meets Click.

Experts consider Costco’s Kirkland Signature to be one of the top private-label brands. Other store brands include Great Value from Walmart, Simple Truth from Kroger and Good & Gather from Target.

Beware of ‘shrinkflation’

Less cereal in the box. Smaller snack sizes. Ice cream gone missing in a container.

You’re not losing your mind. You are actually paying the same price or more these days for everyday items but running through them more quickly because their sizes have shrunk.

The reason? A sneaky tactic known as “shrinkflation,” deployed by consumer product brands and grocery stores. The phenomenon has been going on for decades, but it typically becomes more common when companies’ costs go up, such as during the inflation surge we are seeing today.

There’s a way to beat shrinkflation though, say experts: Compare unit pricing — the price per ounce or per 100-count — on similar products to see which is the better deal.

Buy frozen meat and veggies

Meat has seen some of the sharpest price increases during the pandemic.

In February, meat prices rose 14% from a year ago. Chicken was right behind, up 13%.

“Frozen chicken breasts are good quality, can be defrosted one at a time and the savings are significant,” said David D’Arezzo, a former chief merchant at Dollar General and an executive at pharmacy and supermarket chains.

Frozen vegetables are also a good option, he said. They don’t go bad or spoil like fresh vegetables, a hit to your wallet.

Another tip for buying veggies: Buy them at peak season. If you buy tomatoes or other produce when they’re off season, you’re likely to pay more.

“If you shop seasonally, you can save 25% to 30%,” said Martino of Third Wave Strategies.

Look for ugly produce

Look at the day-old produce racks or produce outlets in your area to save.

There are also “ugly” produce sellers online such as Imperfect Foods and Misfits Market that buy and resell quality fruit and vegetables that grocery stores have rejected at steep discounts.

“Why not pay half price for slightly-dinged produce?” Dworsky said.

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