The supermarket industry is big. I mean really big. Even in the guts of the 2009 recession this powerful industry made over $547,000,000,000 US dollars. To put that incomprehensible amount of money into perspective, that’s 9174 all-electric Tesla Roadster sports cars.
Perhaps even even more impressively, it’s enough cash to buy you 607 individual Queen Mary II ocean liners, each one full of rooms, theaters, furniture and facilities.
This is the first indicator that they’re not “doing everything to save you money” as they may claim.
So how do you see through the fog and come out of your shopping experience without being drained of cash? Well, easily – but you’ll have to stick to these tips.
1: WRITE A SHOPPING LIST!
I cannot, I repeat, can not stress this rule enough. If you only do one single thing to cut down on your grocery costs then this must be it.
Copy us for example. What we do each week before buying the groceries is decide what meals we’ll have on what day. After a few weeks this becomes a piece of cake to do. You’ll soon know what you’ll need for a chicken stir-fry or vegetarian lasagne without even looking at a recipe book. You can even do it during the ad-breaks!
On the morning of our “Grocery day” (Friday in our house) our refrigerator and cupboards are utterly bare – except for some sauces and spices. This tells us we’re using every ingredient on the list and have no leftovers – also known as money wasted.
2: Stick to the List!
There’s no point in writing a list if you’re not going to stick to it. Supermarkets want you to “treat yourself” – but your wallet certainly doesn’t.
This is where personal restraint must play a part. If it’s not on the list, do NOT put it in your trolley.
I simply don’t care how great the special is, ignore it – unless it’s an item on your list.
Because of this strict system, we have $120 NZ ($85 US) set aside each week for groceries for our 2-person household, yet we always have money left over each week! In fact just 2 hours ago I finished up at $87.90 NZ ($62.25 US) for the whole week’s groceries. This means we can use the leftover money to go out for a nice breakfast or lunch the next day. There’s no reason why you couldn’t do the same.
Important note: For many reasons New Zealand has much higher grocery prices than that of the USA, so for a Kiwi household our results are pretty darn impressive!
3: Ignore the Fruity Crap.
Supermarkets always, always put their produce (fruit & vegetables) at the entrance when you walk in. This is done intentionally because the items are high margin (they make a lot of profit on them). With this being the first thing you see, and with your trolley and mental budget being empty, you’ll subconsciously feel more inclined to pick up a larger bunch of bananas, or 2 or three more apples etc.
Most supermarkets have horizontally-opposed produce layouts so that you have to zig-zag to walk around these 20-feet long food barriers. Your subconscious sees this endless colourful bounty and believes the food in this store is fresh and of high quality. This often increases your wellbeing and subsequent spending.
In reality, the fruit and vegetables are no better than anywhere else. In fact the fruit supplied to supermarket chains is often artificially ripening by filling the transport container with ethylene gas during transit. This explains why beautiful red apples and bright yellow bananas in big supermarket chains often taste empty and bland.
Why not copy us and kill two birds with one stone: Go to your local produce market instead.
Not only will the overall price of the fruits & vegetables be lower than the supermarket (if not, shop around til you find a cheap one – you certainly will), but the produce is often locally grown – not transported in bulk containers from overseas.
This way you’re getting tastier and cheaper produce, while supporting small, local, up & coming businesses.
4: Close Your Nose
Ever noticed that the bakery department seems to be moving closer to the front door each year?
This ties in with the 3rd point about supermarkets trying to trick your subconscious.
Real estate agents often encourage people to put on a pot of coffee or bake something before they bring potential buyers over to look at your house. The inviting smell “Turns them on” so to speak, and they’ll relax and feel better about their potential purchases.
It also makes potential buyers hungry, and this is what supermarket retailers want in a building full of food!
5: Hurry Up!
Along with the bakery moving closer to the front door, have you noticed some supermarkets are even opening cafes by the entrance? Well the name of this mental game is relaxation.
The supermarket wants you to “Chillax”, grab a coffee, sniff some bread & take your time.
This is because statistically you spend around $5 every minute you’re inside a supermarket. The longer they can keep you inside, the higher chance of increased spending.
Sadly for the big chains this tactic doesn’t work on me; I’m able take my time and bargain hunt, knowing I won’t stray from my list.
6: Block Your Ears (Or Take Your MP3 Player)
Have you ever heard a heavy rock song being played in a supermarket? No, of course not. Every song played in a supermarket is carefully selected by real psychological consultants (not simply by Doris at Checkout Control). Each song is designed to make you feel good – and calm.
Human adults normally walk at around 90 paces per minute. Tests have shown that by playing slower music with less than 90 BPM (beats per minute) we’re more likely to slow down and take more time.
You’ll never hear Evanescence or Offspring playing, instead the likes of Shania Twain and Cher pour from the speakers like audible treacle – with the occasional gentle – (yet friendly of course) reminder about how their Raison d’être is simply to “Save you money”. Yeah, right.
This hollers back to the previous point about encouraging you to slow down and spend more time and money in the warm, pleasurable womb of the supermarket.
7: Look Around
You probably already know about product placement. It’s a simple one, yet it works brilliantly.
The store will place the item they most want you to buy at eye level for the average human being.
This means sweets and flavoured treats for kids are aimed halfway so that both parents and children get a good view, encouraging the kids to pursuade mum or dad to spend a little more. It works well too.
If you pick up a can of, say, kidney beans for 99c – hang onto it – and don’t put it in the trolley until you’ve found a cheaper alternative.
Be willing to be flexible in your shopping list if you can save money. For example, if you’re certain you can’t use another kind of bean that’s cheaper, or if there’s no smaller sized can that will suit your needs, then put the item in your trolley – but only if it’s on your list of course!
8: Leave the Kids at Home
Not an easy one for most parents for many reasons, but you’ll save time, money, and grey hairs.
As you know, checkouts receive brilliant impulse-sales figures from the convenience items on either side of you as you wait to get served by the cashier.
It’s a brilliant idea from a marketing point of view: The customer can go nowhere and can do nothing but look at your product.
Chances are, this is where you’ll treat kids to quiet them down, throwing your budget and shopping list out the window. It’s a shame too, because you came so close to getting through it! Every dollar adds up when you put it on the table when you get home. These checkout temptations work well, that’s why the treats are there!
9: Be Wary of Specials
Not every “Special!” is so special. For instance, at the end of each long aisle there’s always specials and discounted offers. Your brain will tell you that this is a great deal, and perhaps I should buy this item here (if it’s on your list of course).
However you may have just been duped. Go down the aisle that has that item (let’s say, it’s flour) and look at the other ranges of flour. There might be a no-name brand that’s even cheaper than the one one special at the end of the aisle. Distrust every special you see, until you’ve compared everything as efficiently as possible.
10: Work it Out!
Just today I picked up a packet of ham for sandwiches. It was a 150 gram (0.3 lb) packet and it was the cheapest out of the packaged hams at $3.78.
However, I walked across to the delicatessen and looked at the unpackaged ham there which was on special for $9 per kilogram (in US terms, 2.2 lbs for $6.37 US) which was a bargain!
I bought 150 grams there instead, and saved $2 off the packaged product. There’s another couple of bucks going towards coffee out tomorrow.
Same goes with bread – is it cheaper to buy a loaf from the in-store bakery or a packaged brand in the bread section? Have you thought about picking up an even cheaper loaf from a bakery on the way home instead? It all adds up.
11: Avoid “Pick & Mix”
The bulk bins are cheaper because there’s no packaging, right? Wrong!
I’ve seen this time and time again – to the point where I now completely ignore the bulk bins unless there’s a special on which I can compare.
If you’re looking for, say, sesame seeds for a meal on Thursday, take note of the price per kilogram or pound, then go up to the packaged nut/seed section. I can almost guarantee those sesame seeds will work out cheaper per kg/lb in packet form, unless you only need a tiny amount.
12: Use Coupons
Yes, by all means use coupons but only if they’re for items on your list which you wrote last week.
Of course common sense and flexibility comes into play here. If you can substitute frozen peas for frozen beans in a dish, and save 45 cents with a coupon then do it, change your list.
From my understanding, it isn’t the case in the USA, but in New Zealand coupons aren’t often much use.
This is because we only have two supermarket entities: Foodstuffs (who own Pak ‘n’ Save / New World) and Progressive Enterprises (who own Countdown / Woolworths). This means our supermarket competition is weak. In fact, the self-proclaimed (and very debatable) “Cheapest” supermarket Pak ‘n’ Save has even stopped doing coupon/discount mail-out flyers now. This means us Kiwis have to work even harder keep the food prices low.
13: Use Powdered Milk
I know, I’ve probably just lost your respect by suggesting this but it is worth considering – or I wouldn’t have mentioned it.
Our household is now strictly powdered milk only. This is because 1: my wife drinks it like it’s going out of fashion in her home made cappucinos, and 2: because fresh milk in New Zealand is very expensive.
The cost of milk is a sore point for many Kiwis. New Zealand is a dairy country, and we export milk products to dozens of countries – yet a 2 litre (0.52 gallon) bottle here costs $3.20 NZ ($2.26 US).
I’m not worried any more though, because I now like the taste of powered milk and have no qualms about drinking it by the glassful. It saves us $6 a week too! Ka-ching!
14: Ditch the Luxury Goods
You don’t need Super Mango Herbal Spice Magic Tranquil body wash. You just don’t. End of story.
Buy the generic or less-fancy toiletries such as body wash, toothpaste and sanitary items.
Contrary to popular belief, your skin doesn’t actually need or eat the “Citrus goodness” in those fancy body wash/shampoo brands, it actually goes straight down the plughole.
Just buy whatever’s on special, regardless of how few apples or cinnamon sticks went into it.
15: Eat Something Before Shopping
You’ve probably heard this one before, but it hasn’t lost any of it’s meaning over time.
Eat a sandwich before going to the supermarket, and make sure you have some water.
Obviously, you won’t lust over food items you don’t need if you’re “full”, and by remaining hydrated you’ll be able to easily calculate what’s cheaper in your mind: 500 grams (1.1 lbs) of oatmeal for $2, or 400 grams (0.8 lbs) for $1.80.
If it’s a product you’re likely to use in a short time, then you’re better off spending the extra 20 cents and getting the much larger packet. It works out cheaper in the long run and being able to do it in your head gives you a feeling of satisfaction.
16: Take a Calculator
I mean, how else will you keep track of your budget? Unless you’ve convinced Professor Stephen Hawking to wheel alongside you every time you go shopping, you’re not going to be able to keep a running (or wheeling in Prof. Hawking’s case) total.
The calculator on your cellphone will do fine, just remember to add every item into it that goes in the trolley. A calculator is also a massive help when figuring out how many dollars per kilo/pound each item is, so you can buy larger sized, but better overall-value goods – if you’re going to use them.
17: Don’t Eat the Free Samples
No, I’m not some fun-nazi trying to deny you a little treat here & there, I’m telling you to walk past those snacks because it’ll make your mouth water during and after eating.
You may say, “I’ll sample it, but I’m not buying it” in your mind – and you might be right – but that little sample cup of soup etc will reignite your hunger – causing you buy more in the next aisle. Supermarkets love clients that offer free samples; it’s a win win. The sample giver will increase the sales of their product, while boosting other sales in the supermarket too.
18: Forget Loyalty Cards
Customers who have a loyalty card are more loyal – to the supermarkets profit margins that is.
If you have a loyalty card you’re statistically shown to buy 42% more groceries than a person without a loyalty card.
Chop it up now.
No, I mean stop reading and do it right now.
19: Pay by Cash
What? Cash? Are you serious? You mean old-fashioned paper money?
Yup! I sure do!
Leave your cards at home and only take what you think you’ll need. Be strict with yourself and don’t bring an extra $50 “just in case”. If you can’t afford it, then put something back.
It comes back to self control, and customers with self control is what supermarkets absolutely detest. The big chains spend a lot of money in promotions, marketing, and psychological research to ensure your wallet is well and truly pillaged when you leave.
Another benefit of paying by cash, is that when I get home I put any leftover money on the table so I can see how many notes & coins I have left over. This is nothing more than a mental boost but I recommend you try it!
Then you can pop out and use that unspent money to properly treat yourself – or perhaps put it into a jar each week for that future holiday or occasion?
Bottom line: be wary of everything you see inside a supermarket and stick to your list. I consider it a personal challenge every time I get in the car to buy the week’s supplies.
You might even end up like me; walking out with a spring in your step, knowing you’ve got everything you need while giving this powerful industry as little of your money as possible!
You can probably tell by now the reason I like electric cars: they save bucketloads on gas (which is currently $5.40 USD/gallon here in New Zealand!). Check out my tutorials here if you’re interested.
P.S. If you have any other grocery tips or observations I haven’t mentioned, please post them below!