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Decoding the supermarket circular

There are tricks to deciphering the weekly grocery ads. For instance, not everything in the circular is on sale.

By Karen Datko May 18, 2010 4:49PM

This guest post comes from Kris at Cheap Healthy Good.


Tuesday evening has rolled around, and it's time for some spur-of-the-moment food shopping. You saunter through the sticky sliding glass doors of your local grocery store, pondering what to purchase with the $15.09 you've budgeted until Friday. Then you spot it, lying prostrate and unused in a misshapen stack by the shopping carts: the supermarket circular.

Cackling like a maniac, you scuttle over to snatch the half-soaked, seven-page spreadsheet. You're hunched and focused, madly scanning the deli section when it hits you: You have no blessed clue how to read this thing. Sure, there are pretty pictures, and yes, the numbers look tantalizingly low, but do you have to buy seven jars of jelly to get the seven-for-$7 discount?

The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind.

Just kidding. The answer is almost certainly "no." More often than not, that jelly is priced individually. Since this isn't intuitive knowledge, like breathing or refusing a pit bull from a man with missing fingers, here are a few decoding tips for the supermarket circular, the mightiest of cash-saving weapons.

At the store

If you don't need it, don't buy it. Lots of circulars advertise sales like "Tuna: 5 cans, 3 bucks" or "10 boxes of Ronzoni pasta for $10." Most of the time, each item is individually priced, meaning you don't have to buy 10 cartons of penne to get the deal. Buy three and it'll be $3. Buy six and it'll be $6. Buy one, it'll be $1, and you won't have all that extra pasta hanging around your cupboards.

Read the small print. Oftentimes, stores will list purchasing requirements in Lilliputian typeface at the bottom of an ad. You don't see it until it's too late, and then you're stuck paying regular price at the register. Watch out for caveats like: "With minimum purchase of $25," "With club card only," and "Limit one per customer."

Look out for loss leaders. Normally depicted in giant photos on the front or back covers, loss leaders are priced at rock bottom to lure in shoppers. Frequently they're perishables, daily menu foods, or other stuff you buy with some regularity -- meat, fruit, vegetables, etc. Hands down the best values in the market, according to Woman's Day (.pdf file). "If you make those two pages … the base of what you're going to eat all week, you'll save about 30%."

Keep in mind that not everything in the circular is on sale. As Consumer Reports informs us, "A mere mention of a product in a circular can boost sales by as much as 500%, even without a price reduction." In fact, SmartMoney says, "Some stores raise prices on advertised specials." If those on-sale hot dogs still seem pretty expensive to you, they probably are. Keep moving.

Do the math. Others call this "comparing unit prices," but either way, it goes for all shopping everywhere. Just because a product is sold in bulk doesn't mean it's a better deal, even if it appears in the circular. In other words, if a 32-ounce bottle of olive oil is listed in the weekly at $10, and the 16-ounce version of that same item regularly sells for $4, the 32-ounce bottle is a rip-off. They're tricking you into buying more product for more money.

Use your judgment. When you finally arrive at that bin of 1-cent-a-pound chicken breast, take a good, long look at the quality of the meat. Is it gray? Does it stink? Is it housing a maggot colony? There's a reason it's on sale. Chalk it up in the loss column and move on. (Same goes for fruits and veggies.) However, if it's pinkish, and still a day or two away from going bad? Stellar. Take it home and freeze what you don't use immediately.

Take the circular with you as you shop. Last week, I saw a two-for-$1 deal on Goya beans in the circular at my local Key Food. When I got to the shelf, there was no indication anywhere they were on sale. Still, I picked up six cans, brought 'em to checkout, and sure enough, got the discount. I don't know if a lot of supermarkets purposely obscure sales, but, man, what a villainous ploy if they do.

Take the circular with you to checkout. Whether the machines register a wrong promotion code, or simple humans make simple errors, you will inevitably pay extra for an item on sale. If you're using a circular to shop and suspect you've been overcharged, show the cashier. Are you correct? Sweet! You can bask in the glorious victory of the righteous. (Are you wrong? Boo! Apologize, smile sheepishly, and back away slowly.)

If you've got a coupon for an item in a circular, go ahead and try it. Waffles are on sale for half off. You have an additional 50-cent coupon. It's worth a shot, right?

Try a rain check. Not all supermarkets do this, but if a circular item is sold out, you can try obtaining a rain check for later. Those 88-cents-a-pound green bell peppers will come in handy in September, you know.

Oh -- and the next time, before you go

Look online. Circulars are increasingly accessible online, and chains are including all sorts of extras to entice you. Instant shopping lists, recipe suggestions, back massagers -- whatever. The Internet availability makes it much, much easier to compare prices between grocery stores too.

Check to see if your market will match competitors' circular prices. Rumor has it that some stores have a lowest-price guarantee, as long as you can prove it using another market's circular. Print it up and take it with you on your next shopping trip.

Start a price book. Are there products you buy with some regularity? Do they go on sale often? Using the online circular and your last receipt, start keeping track of sale prices. This way, youll know when something's just a nickel off, or 75%. Snazzy!

Plan meals around what's on sale. See: Loss leaders; Look out for. That 79-cents-a-pound pork shoulder could feed you and/or the Marine Corps for a whole week.

Prepare to shop at the start of a new sales cycle. Lots of circulars go into effect on Fridays, and end the following Thursdays. Generally, the better-quality stuff will be made available at the beginning. Don't wait.

And that's our ballgame, folks. I specifically didn't go into coupons or the Sunday newspaper supplement, since they'll provide plenty of fodder for a future column. If you're interested in examining either, I highly suggest Coupon Mom. Stephanie Nelson knows the score.

More at Cheap Healthy Good and MSN Money:

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