CU Professor Offers Tips On How To Be A Better Grocery Shopper

April 18, 1997

Spending a little more time and effort on grocery shopping can mean big savings to your food budget, a University of Colorado at Boulder marketing professor says.

Donald Lichtenstein has studied marketing techniques and consumer behavior in all types of stores for 15 years. From the front of a store to the back, he has suggestions on techniques shoppers can use to get more value for their money.

"I love a deal," says Lichtenstein. "When that blue light goes off something in my blood just starts percolating."

Here are some techniques he recommends to get more for your grocery dollar:

•Cherry-Picking -- Seek out the choicest sale items offered by various grocery stores and buy only those items. Knowing the regular price of the item is essential, so you can tell just how good a deal it really is. Although this requires more time and effort, it can mean big savings, especially when combined with stockpiling.

•Stockpiling -- "If I can find it at the right price -- I buy huge quantities," Lichtenstein says. For example, he recently left a Boulder grocery store with 27 pounds of naval oranges -- just for himself.

The key is to buy items that you have the ability to store, and are sure you will use it before it perishes. He plans to keep the oranges cool in his garage, perhaps next to the four cases of Progresso soup and a dozen bottles of a favorite salad dressing.

•Use Coupons Only When Appropriate -- The best time to use a store coupon is when the item is on sale, he says, basically getting you a "double deal."

Two drawbacks to coupons is that you may be enticed to buy something you normally wouldn't purchase, or the store price may be too high for the coupon to be a bargain. Consumers need to pay attention to in-store price information and consider it when deciding on whether or not to redeem a coupon.

Coupons often offer a better deal on smaller-sized items than larger ones, he notes. The key is to check the unit price. A 25-cent off coupon is a better deal on a 2-ounce size costing 50 cents than on a 5-ouncer for $1.

•Consider Buying Store-Brand Products -- A brand name doesn't always mean better quality and neither does higher price. Store-brand cold medicines may contain the exact same active ingredients as the well-known name brand. Look at the label.

Lichtenstein recommends trying a store-brand version of products you routinely use. If you don't like it, take the product back and tell the store management you didn't like it, he urges. Many stores will refund your money.

"It boils down to this: value for the money," he says. "Don't make assumptions."

•Don't Assume Special End-of-Aisle Displays Are On Sale -- People often assume such displays are offering a special deal. Stores know this and many displays may be at regular price. If an item is on sale the sign will say so.

•Know That Some Items Are Always On Sale -- Spaghetti sauce, soda pop, laundry detergent and disposable diapers are examples found in competitive urban markets. Also routinely discounted are canned soups, tuna, cereals and toothpaste. Buying these items at "sale" prices should be easy if you pay attention, he says.

•Know What Items Cost -- A majority of shoppers don't use unit price comparisons and don't know the prices of the items they purchase, says Lichtenstein. Stores take advantage of these shoppers, he says.

•Buy Lesser Quality If That Quality Is Invisible -- If a cheap plastic garbage bag will make it from your home to where it needs to go, buy it. You're not going hiking with it.

And before ever entering a store, make a list and set a budget.

"If people would expend a little effort it would improve their shopping tremendously," he says.

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