Grocery Bill Woes: How to Beat Sneaky Supermarket Tricks

Last Updated Jul 29, 2011 12:16 PM EDT

I make a weekly run to Wegmans to do a big shop for the family's groceries. And these days, standing at the checkout watching the subtotal accrue with every item swiped over the scanner, I can feel my blood pressure rising.

Not so long ago, I could get in and out of there for about $100 a week. We'd be set, plus or minus a loaf of bread or a rotisserie chicken, for the next seven days. Yes, that was when my kids were babies. Now our weekly grocery bills are up at least 30% to 40%. I know, parents of teenagers are shaking your heads and thinking, "She ain't seen nothin' yet." But still, it hurts.
I called Paco Underhill, looking for some unconventional advice. He's a shopping anthropologist and founder of Envirosell, a consulting company that tracks human behavior in retail environments. Are my two kiddos really eating 40% more, are prices that much higher, or is there something faulty in my shopping? Am I falling prey to Wegmans' artful displays and the Mozart piped in over the lettuce?

Turns out that's not a good way to start a conversation with Underhill. "Sarah? Let's make something very clear," he says. "We as consumers are responsible for our own financial habits. To look at the merchant and say, 'You're to blame for my overspending, you're trying to trick me,' is both naïve and irresponsible."

OK, let's take it from the top. "How can I spend less?" I asked him.

"Stores like Wegmans and Whole Foods are both managed and designed for the upscale consumer," Underhill says. "If you look at the stores, there's a reason why there's theatrical lighting, which is to make stuff look good. There's a reason why there's fresh produce at the door or a bakery, which is to make you start salivating. Studies over the past 20 years that tell us that somewhere north of 60% of what is bought in a supermarket isn't on our list. The primary way in which someone can save money in their shopping is by planning."

But I do make a list, I think to myself. I can picture it, scrawled on the back of my child's school worksheets: Frozen blueberries, tinfoil, pitas, Special K.

"You'd stop my mother on Tuesday, she knew what she was feeding her kids on Thursday," Underhill says. "She designed menus. No one does that anymore."

Now that I think of it, my list is a set of unrelated items that don't solve the what's-for-dinner dilemma. They don't translate into meals. OK, I need a better list. What other ways can I save money?

"Recognize there is no such thing as saving by putting something in your pantry," Underhill says. "Or in your refrigerator that you don't need."

"Why not?" I ask him. "If I see a brand of cereal on sale that my family consumes regularly, shouldn't I stock up?"

"No. It is not on your list," Underhill replies. "The fact that you're saving 17 cents, or even a dollar, means you're still spending $5 to get the box in the first place. If you don't need it, don't spend the money on it. The more you stock, the more you consume, and the more you stock, the more you waste. Organize your list, and stick to what's on it."

Empty the pantry: Check. Stick to the list. What else?

"Recognize the highest margin area of the grocery store is the produce section," he says. "Americans tend to throw out somewhere in the neighborhood of 20% to 30% of the produce they buy, because they haven't used it. Don't buy a bag of onions; stick to what you actually need."

I'm picturing a lonely bag of yellow onions, currently sitting on top of our lawnmower in the garage, because there's no room for them in the fridge. Does this guy have a video camera on our house? So what's next?

"You owe it to yourself to shop when you're not tired, when you're not hungry, and when you know the store isn't going to be crowded," Underhill says. "Your discipline is shot when you're tired or hungry."

Tired and hungry? No discipline? I think I'm sensing a theme.

"Buy for what you're going to consume," Underhill says. "Stick. To. The. List."

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  • Sarah Butler

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