How to Save Time and Money Food Shopping

June 16, 2020

By Tobie Stanger | Consumer Reports

Shopping for groceries has been fraught enough of late–and that was before food prices spiked. Now consumers need to find new ways to economize on what they buy at the store while staying safe.

Grocery prices are on the rise throughout the country at a rate not seen since 1974. Overall they rose a seasonally adjusted 2.6 percent between March and April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracks the prices of goods and services that Americans consume. 

Some of the largest increases are due to events you’ve seen in the news. Pork chops were up an average 7.4 percent, the result of temporary shutdowns of meatpacking plants where workers were infected with the coronavirus. For the same reason, fresh whole chicken prices shot up 7.1 percent; uncooked ground beef, an average 4.8 percent. Eggs ballooned a whopping 16.1 percent.

Paper goods and cleaning products increased in price as consumers rushed to stock up to stay at home and protect themselves. As supplies of many grocery categories have dwindled, prices for remaining stock have risen.

Other forces—less visible to consumers—have affected prices, too, says Burt Flickinger III, managing director at Strategic Resource Group, a retail consulting company based in New York.

As the pandemic spread in the spring, supply chains that normally served large grocers became inadequate under the crush of demand. And they still haven’t recovered, he says.

And compared with prior years, packaged-goods manufacturers aren’t providing retailers with much in the way of promotional allowances—that is, payments for displays and advertising to promote their products. As a result, Flickinger says, retailers must use their own funds for advertising, and are passing the cost on.

“Customers are paying $4.99 and $5.99 for 12-packs of Coke and Pepsi vs. the $2.99 to 3.99 they paid last year at this time,” he says.

Finding Tactics That Work

In light of these challenges, Consumer Reports asked experts how you can save money at the grocery now. We also put call out to CR’s Facebook followers—smart shoppers on the ground—for the time- and money-saving tips and tricks that were serving them well. Pick a few of these tactics to try in the coming weeks to shave dollars off your bill.

1. Plan, plan, plan. Planning well to minimizing your trips to the store can keep you safer, save you time, and reduce your impulse purchases. Linda Test of Mena, Ark., says she plans meals to the point that she now shops every three weeks rather than twice a week as she did in the past. Among her tactics is to use up fresh fruits and vegetables in the order they go bad. “Salads and spinach are first,” she says. “Carrots or rutabaga are last.”

2. Shop warehouse clubs and smaller grocers. Warehouse clubs, such as BJ’s Wholesale Club and Costco, are managing their inventory well, so you’re more likely to find the items on your list in stock, Flickinger says. The same goes for smaller regional chains; they may have an edge on keeping their shelves stocked because their distributors aren’t necessarily the same suppliers that stock bigger chains. 

3. Use discount apps. Two we like are Ibotta and Flipp. Both coordinate your store loyalty cards with current discounts and coupons. With Flipp, you scan the app at checkout to apply savings at the point of sale. With Ibotta, you select rebates in the app and photograph your receipts to import savings, after the fact, to an Ibotta ­account. Savings are transferred to a payment app, such as PayPal, or a gift card. Some loyalty programs, notably those of Safeway and Stop & Shop, also let you build rewards toward gas purchases at affiliated gas stations.

4. Plot a path. Some store loyalty club apps let you locate items by aisle. This could help you get through the store quickly and reduce backtracking if your grocer has created one-way aisles. 

5. Use the calculator on your phone. Unit price shelf stickers under each product can help you better compare prices of like items. But if the store doesn’t have the stickers, use your smartphone’s calculator. Divide the price by the number of units in each package you’re comparing.

If, say, one soda’s price is per fluid ounce and the other’s is per liter, ask Google how many ounces are in a liter and do the conversions. You can often do the same calculation from home when checking a store’s offerings online, saving you time in the aisles. (Only nine states require unit price shelf stickers; Consumer ­Reports urges super­markets in all states to use them.)

6. Go with store brands. The cost of store-brand foods and beverages is at least 20 to 25 percent less than name brands of the same product, Flickinger says. (When CR members were surveyed about the grocery stores and supermarkets they liked best, three grocers earned top marks for their store brands: national names Costco and Trader Joe’s, and Central Market, which is based in San Antonio and is a subsidiary of the privately owned H-E-B supermarket chain.) You can often find store brands on shelves just to the right or left of comparable name-brand items.

7. Use a cash-back credit card. Check the websites of cash-back cards you already hold to see if they’ve upped their benefits for grocery purchases. Cards offered by Delta, Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, and United have all recently introduced higher percentage rewards for grocery spending, as have the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Sapphire Preferred cards, says Ted Rossman, an industry analyst at CreditCards.com.

If you’re looking for a new cash-back card, consider the American Express Blue Cash Preferred card; it returns 6 percent on the first $6,000 in groceries each year and on certain streaming services, 3 percent on gas stations and transit, and 1 percent on other purchases. Consumers who enroll before June 1 get a $250 rebate for spending $1,000 in the first six months. (There is a $95 annual fee.) Keep in mind, Rossman says, that you may need a credit score of 740 or higher to qualify. The interest rates on these cards are typically above 15 percent, so it’s best to use them only if you pay off your balance each month.

8. Shop at quiet times. Type a specific store location into Google’s search and you’ll get a “Plan your visit” box in the company profile that lays out the busiest and slowest times for every day of the week so that you can see exactly when the store will be the least crowded. If your schedule is flexible, shop around 10 a.m. Thursday, after senior hours typically end, says Keith Fix, CEO of Retail Aware, an analytics company that tracks in-store consumer behavior and is based in Omaha, Neb. Another good time is 10 a.m. Wednesday. Weekends are the most crowded.

9. Review and compare store circulars in advance. You can find most circulars online, and reviewing them there eliminates the need to handle paper copies at the market entrance. Checking the ads in advance allows you to make price comparisons, so you can plan where to shop ahead of time. When we recently compared online circulars for three grocers near CR’s Yonkers, N.Y., headquarters, we found prices ranging from $3.99 to $6.69 per pound for 85 percent lean ground beef. 

10. Embrace digital coupons. A few grocers—including BJ’s Wholesale Club; Weis Markets, a mid-Atlantic retailer; and the Peapod delivery service—have temporarily suspended acceptance of paper manufacturer coupons to reduce touch points that could spread the coronavirus. Still, most grocers still will accept manufacturers’ paper coupons, and may even double or even triple their value at checkout.

Certain retailers do it every day or week; others, less regularly. In the Northeast, Stop & Shop doubles manufacturers’ paper coupons every day. Bi-Lo, in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, doubles coupons with a value of 60 cents or less every day, unless noted otherwise at the individual store. (At both chains, other restrictions apply.)

11. Do a pantry inventory. A four-person family could lose at least $1,500 a year on wasted food, says the Natural Resources Defense Council. Check out the organization’s SaveTheFood hub for numerous tips and tools on how to reduce food waste and save money. Also, use the free FoodKeeper app from the Department of Agriculture for guidelines on how to store foods. Or do as Maggie Pallan, a professional chef in Las ­Vegas, does. She maintains a spreadsheet of what she has at home, to avoid buying duplicates. “I treat my home grocery shopping the same as my business,” she says.

12. Get senior discounts. Several chains, including Bi-Lo, Harris Teeter, and Hy-Vee, offer 5 percent discounts, either on specific days or when you present a special store ID card. Fred Meyer and New Seasons Market discounts are 10 percent. In some cases, you must be at least 60 to qualify; in other cases, you can only use the discount only on select items.

13. Buy in bulk. When 10 cans of your favorite soup go on sale for $10, it’s always wise to load up. And larger packages often have lower per-unit pricing. But while bargains from buying in bulk at some stores have dried up because of health concerns—WinCo Foods, for instance, based in Boise, Idaho, has temporarily closed most of its renowned, low-cost bulk barrels and bins—deals still may be available from other sources.

For instance, while Amazon Prime was offering 5-pound bags of all-purpose Gold Medal flour for $13.30 each and Target was all out of that product, we found 5 pounds of generic all-purpose flour for $3.99 at Baldor, a commercial food distributor that’s based in New York and is now delivering to residences in locations around the East. The catch? You have to place a total order of $200. 

14. Barter and share. If you buy in bulk or find yourself with more of some items that you need, consider trading with neighbors and friends. Annette Economides of Phoenix, who with her husband, Steve, runs the website MoneySmartFamily, says she has bartered the citrus that grows on her property for food from folks she has found through a local Facebook gardening group. She recently got a carton of eggs, which had been hard to come by, in return for oranges and rosemary that grow on her property. “It was a great deal for me,” she says.

15. Track prices. For a few weeks, record prices of the items you buy the most when food shopping. You’ll be able to find the best prices for specific goods and can stock up when a true price drop happens. Price-tracking also helps you see when a “10 packages for $10” sale really is a sale and not just a come-on.

16. Do the math on grocery delivery annual memberships. If you expect to use grocery delivery on a regular basis, calculate the value of an annual membership before you sign up. For instance, Instacart Express costs $99 per year; you pay no additional delivery fee if your orders cost $35 or more. Minimum order fees are $3.99 outside of Instacart Express, so you’ll break even on the annual fee after 25 orders. (Over a year of use, that means you order about every two weeks.)

Alternatively, skip the delivery altogether and opt for pickup, which is typically free, though you may want to tip the person who loads your car. While Walmart’s annual delivery fee is $98 after a 15-day free trial, its pickup is free and its employees do not accept tips. 

17. Shop the drugstore. Convenience stores, drugstores, and even gas station mini-marts are handling an expanding variety of fresh foods since the pandemic began, and some are beating traditional grocers’ prices for staples such as milk and eggs, says Heidi Chapnick, owner and CEO of Channalysis, a retail grocery and healthcare consulting company based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. But be mindful of expiration dates, she adds.

“Because some of these companies are new to selling so many different types of fresh food, their employees may have less experience and training in handling fresh products in refrigeration,” Chapnick says.

Food that has outlived its expiration date can still be sold, assuming it is “wholesome and fit for consumption” and not dangerous to consumers, according to the Food and Drug Administration. So it’s best to just check to see if something you’re buying has expired.

18. Look for “as is” items. The overripe bananas you’ll find at a discount could be perfect for homemade banana bread. Learn where stores have their clearance sections, Economides says.

19. Grow your own. Yvette Beltran-Southwell, who lives north of Dallas, says her family grows rosemary, English thyme, two types of oregano, sage, Italian parsley, basil, and numerous other herbs to economize and reduce food waste. “I have a garden, but even when we were in a town house with limited space, I grew herbs outside in containers,” she says. Homegrown plants also last longer than bunches purchased at the store and refrigerated, she says. And of course, they regenerate throughout the growing season.

20. Get creative with recipes. CR’s Facebook followers have plenty of ideas for stretching their grocery dollars, especially with regard to meat. “We choose recipes that are more plant-based, with meat as a side dish,” Beltran-Southwell says. “On occasion we have breakfast for dinner because it’s fun and cheaper.”

Caroline Sauers of Rockaway, N.J., says that to cut back on ground beef in meatballs, she uses fillers—crackers, rice, mashed potatoes, and even cauliflower that’s steamed and then pulverized in a food processor. Linda Test’s family supplements meat servings with lentils and beans, and eats vegetarian twice a week.

“Beans and other legumes are linked to many health benefits, are inexpensive, and are a great alternative source of protein,” says Amy Keating, a registered dietitian who leads food testing at Consumer Reports. Check CR’s other ideas for meat-based and meatless options.

21. Use your freezer right. Freezing large quantities of sale and seasonal food saves the average family of four $2,000 per year, Economides says. “Why pay $4 a pound for blueberries in winter when you can thaw the ones you bought in summer for 99 cents?” she asks. The Economideses even freeze milk and cheese. Every 30 to 60 days, they check the freezer and build menus based on what’s there.