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Shopping tips and tricks

Supermarkets aren't saints. They only offer "specials", "mark downs" or discounts for two reasons:

  • the product will not keep and they can help recover at least part of their costs (or their storage space cost for a new line of products will exceed the profits on this product).

  • the discount will attract customers in, who will spend on other higher profit items, in such numbers that the cost of the discount will be exceeded.

The first reason is cause for concern. Many fresh foods rapidly lose their nutritional content once they are harvested. Vegetables and fruits rapidly break down vitamins because the supply of nutrient rich sap has stopped. Some have virtually no nutritional value after 3 days at room temperature.

The Wrap rort"

They will also resort to deception too - cashing in on customers not comparing prices. Here's a typical example from Safeway in Coburns Road in Melton, Australia in July 2009. The product doubles in price with a wrapper, on a different shelf only a few metres away.

loose and packaged brocolli The cost of packaging

The price of wrapped versus unwrapped brocolli

They have brought in new retail codes of practice in Victoria that require supermarkets to also disply the price per Kg or 100grams for smaller items, but even so, people don't stop and think (and the price per Kg is in smaller type too). This example is from way back in 2009 but it still goes on today in all supermarkets, especially in the meat section where the price of a piece of meat can treble, simply by dicing it and selling it as stir fry.
Look for unwrapped products and compare the prices, they are often cheaper.

The specials switch

The supermarkets also have another deceptive trick when it comes to specials. They will advertise a special and put a small amount of stock on the shelf at the special price. When that stock runs out more of the the next door stock is used to fill the space on the shelf. Of course it's just an innocent oversight that the special label is not removed. This is common with drinks.

For example, a supermarket stocks 2ltr and 1.25ltr bottles of coca cola sided by side on the shelf. They advertise the 1.25ltr bottles at a discount and only put 25 bottles on the shelf, knowing this will sell out by lunchtime. At lunchtime when the 1.25ltr bottles have all sold out, they fill the gap with 2ltr bottles and leave the "special" price label on the shelf. We now have 2Ltr bottles with 1.25ltr special price labelling. Here's where a little psychology comes into play; you came to the supermarket to by coke (on special) and not having your size, you will be inclined to take the larger size, not on special. The less observant customers will think they are getting a bargain and with no 1.25ltr bottles as a size reference, they will put a bottle or two in their shopping trolly. At the checkout, they will probably not notice the difference or if they do, will be reluctant to make a fuss. You came in for 1.25ltr bottles at a cheap price and went out with 2ltr bottles at the normal price.

I actually raised this with three supermarkets here and they all blamed it on their stacking staff who "must have forgotten to change over the shelf labels". That means, since there's at least 4 shelf stackers at each of the supermarkets, thats 12 people coincidentally all made the same mistake and only on specials labels too!
I'm not a statistician but I reckon that defies the odds!

Check the ticket on the shelf actually matches the product

Soft drinks shelf in a supermarket at 9:50am and at 3:00pm

Watch what happens to the lemonade on special (with the red and yellow shelf label).

The List Law

This one will save you a fortune! It's a simple rule (the hard part is sticking to it!):

If it's not on the list - I'm not buying it.

While you are at home, before you go shopping, make a list of the things you are short of. It's important to do this before you leave to go shopping. Now organise that list into the shops you will visit (so you are not doubling back) and the most economical order to visit those shops. When you go shopping, you go to the shops on your list, in the order you wrote them down and you only buy what's on the list. It's important to keep the list in your hand at all times, as a reminder when you see those impulse buy items. This does two important things:

  • Restricts your spending to buying only what you need and helps you resist those impulse buys that sap your budget.

  • We tend to focus on the savings we get from lower prices but the simple fact is if we saved $5 but have to have to double back to get something we forgot, there went the $5 on fuel and other transport costs. Having a shopping list and checking each item off the list as it goes in your basket, is a good way of making sure you don't forget something.

Become a basket case

This one isn't about supermarket psychology, it's just common sense that we tend to overlook. Grab a basket rather than a shopping trolley. When you have to lug it around the shop, you are naturally reluctant to put extra things in your basket. If you have a trolley, you don't mind one or two extra items to push around. This works brilliantly when you have children. Let them carry your basket and put a few heavy items in it to start with (like a 3 litre bottle of milk). They will be reluctant to add to their own burden. I make the kids carry the shopping list too. With a pen in one hand and my shopping list in the other, I can check off the items I came to buy. It's pretty difficult for little hands to grab something as we go past. I keep them busy by getting them to cross off the items we have found. Keep them busy by finding the items and crossing them off the list when they put them the basket. The added distraction of being busy, gets their focus away from the lolies and toys aisle. Make shopping a rushed affair when you have kids with you, so it's exciting and they will be too busy to be tempted by those impulse items that the supermarkets put out for kids.

Another little trick that helps the budget, is to bring your own shopping bags, rather than use the shop's plastic bags. This has two benefits - there will be a few less bags going into your rubbish and landfill plus you will be more inclined to buy less because it will overfill your bag. Shopping at discount supermarkets, like Aldi's, who don't supply bags and don't bag your goods, is also a help. You are limited by the bags you brought with you.

The Hidden Cost of Transport

Keep in mind that you also pay money to get there and back again. The trap in most household budgets is we forget that the cost of food also has the hidden cost of our transport to go shopping. Even if you anal enough (sorry I meant diligent) to add up all you shopping dockets, they won't include you cost to get there and back again. I have seen families say they can't afford a trip to the beach with their children but they don't plan their shopping and will take the car to the shops almost daily. They would probably use more fuel going shopping than the beach and back.
We used to look at the specials flyers that arrived in out letterbox and if there was something on special, we'd go to the shops and buy it. Where is the saving when you spend $5.00 in petrol to buy a product on special for $2.00 less than the usual price?

You haven't saved $2.00 - you have lost $3.00 (Petrol costs less saving = $5.00 - $2.00 = -$3.00).

Try to make less shopping trips because each one costs transport and is another chance to get hooked by their advertising.

Minimise your shopping trips and plan each one for the most economical route to reduce transport costs

Old photo of Coles 1914 store

Nothing over 25c
When the first Coles store opened in 1914 in Smith Street Collingwood, it advertised,
"Nothing over 2/6d"
(25 cents). Can you buy anything in Coles today for 25 cents?
How times have changed!

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Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple

Incomparible products

Here in Australia we had basically two grocery chains that have the 80% of the grocery market - Safeway and Coles.

Another firm called Aldi's came into Australia. They appear much cheaper, however they are not always as cheap as they may seem. Aldi's use a lot of brands from outside Australia - that's cost us jobs for our children - gone. It also allows them to stock brand names that no-one else does, so you cannot compare the products exactly.

an Aldi food market

Aldi store's products are often incomparible to it's competitors

They go to considerable lengths to make their products incomparable in other ways. For example you can by a jar of Nescafe coffee cheaper at Aldis, than at Coles or Safeway - or so it seems. But have another look - same shape jar, same label but put them side by side and they are a liitle different. Now compare the nett weight (the contents without the container) and you'll find the Aldi's version is smaller. You haven't been ripped off. The items we tested worked out approximately the same price per gram weight but you thought you got a bargain but it turns out you didn't. The whole purpose is to make the products either incomparible (by rebranding them) or by making then seem cheaper by selling you a smaller quantity.

This is a brilliant retail move too. It's even fooled the price testers too. Choice magazine and all those price watch writers, compare prices by buying a basket of the same goods at each supermarket. They buy a medium jar of coffee at Coles, Safeway and Aldis and of course Aldis come out cheaper. It's a medium jar size, only a little smaller but too big to compare with the small size jar, so from their perspective, it compared with the other "medium" sized jars and is cheaper. Aldi comes out looking like a saint and wins a lot of very credible and very influencial advertising.

Update - The consumer watchdog has got wise to this and requires the stores to display their prices differently. They display the unit price underneath the advertised price, e.g the packet might be 500gms and the next door one 450gms. They have to display the price per 100gms. It's a help if you stop and read it but most people don't bother.

In some cases Aldi's also buy from the same suppliers as Safeway and Coles for some products, but get them packaged under a different brand same. Once again, their goal is to prevent you from doing a direct comparison with their competitors.

The rule is, compare the pair, gram for gram.

Supermarket aisle

Big shopping trolleys are so convenient - too convenient!

Trolley Tales and Tips

This one is a real common trap with young families. Faced with carrying a toddler on your hip as you shop, parents of young families will grab a shopping trolley. Retail market research revealed that retailers would actually sell more if they turned part of their shopping cart into a child carrier. As Mum trundles junior around, she is bombarded by the "I want" and the tantrums, so will be tempted to give in and buy something. That's why retailers are putting baby seats on shopping trolleys in many stores - it's not just popular demand - with the child sitting in a seat above the basket, you can fit more in your trolley now.If you have to shop with a toddler, you don't have much choice. Be aware of the temptation and you stand a better chance of avoiding it.

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Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple

At our local Coles store, they brought out shallow shopping trolleys. With a family of three adults, we found these ideal. They fill up faster than the deep trolley. Over three months, without telling anyone, I tracked our grocery bills and generally they were between $12 to $18 dollars less for the trips that used the shallow trolleys. Unfortunately Coles market research must have been doing the same thing because now the shallow trolleys require a $2 coin deposit but the deep ones are free. I asked the store manager why and he told me it was to stop the shallow trolleys going missing. That's strange because most of the trolleys I see deserted are the deep type, not the newer shallow ones.

Basket of Fresh herbs

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