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Become a supermarket sales psychic

Following predictable sales cycles can save you 50% or more on groceries.

By Teresa Mears Jan 13, 2010 4:15PM

I don’t clip a lot of grocery coupons, because I don’t find many for items I want. Clipping coupons doesn’t pass my cost/benefits test. Neither does buying in bulk. I save more by living in a small space. But the grocery strategy that I do find worth the time is paying attention to sales cycles.


Have you ever noticed that items you buy routinely seem to go on sale the week after you buy them? Pay attention. Most items go on sale at predictable intervals. If you keep track, you can get those items for 50% off nearly every time you need them.


Many items go on sale every 12 weeks. I don’t have room for a year’s supply of anything, but I can certainly fit 12 weeks’ worth of tea bags in the cupboard.


Among the items that are on sale so often you should never pay full price are cereal, tea bags, granola bars, yogurt, salad dressing, Wheat Thins and similar snack crackers, frozen dinners, canned tomatoes, name-brand toilet paper or paper towels, soda and ice cream. Bagged salad mixes are often on sale, too, though shopping for perishables is trickier. I rarely buy meat, but it, too, goes on sale in cycles.

Charlie at Pay Less for Food explains how the sale cycle works, using Marie Callender frozen dinners as an example. Over nine weeks, the price varied from $2 to $4.29, the regular price. He notes that some of the “sales” are better than others. Why spend $3.99 in Week 7 if you can get the dinners for $2 in Week 9?


To know that $3.99 really isn’t the best sale price, you have to know the range of prices for the dinners. He and others suggest keeping a price book, a practice popularized by Amy Dacyczyn, author of “The Tightwad Gazette.” Cynthia Ewer of Organized Home says your price book will get more valuable over time, as you gather more data and can know when a sale item is really at the rock-bottom price.

You can keep a price book in a notebook, but J.D. Roth at Get Rich Slowly has links to several computer programs that allow you to do your price book as a spreadsheet. The Grocery Game, which costs $5 per month per store, does some of the work for you, keeping track of prices and noting which are particularly good, in addition to matching sale prices with coupons.


Stephanie Nelson at Coupon Mom, which also links store sales to coupons, notes that it isn’t necessary to track prices of 200 items to save. In her free e-book, “Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half," which you can download as a .pdf file if you sign up at her Web site, she suggests tracking prices of the most expensive items you buy as well as the items you buy most often.


Some products go on sale at predictable times of the year. Lean Cuisine frozen dinners have already been on sale several times this month, as has yogurt. Flash at Grocery Coupon Guide says that most items go on sale once every three months, but the rock-bottom price might appear only once a year. Flash also says manufacturers' coupons come in three-month cycles, more or less.


New products, new packaging for old products and special occasions or events such as National Dairy Month also yield sales. Flash provides monthly links to the items you can expect to find on sale each month. For January, in addition to diet frozen dinners and yogurt, look for 100-calorie packs of items and cereal such as Special K and Smart Start, plus oatmeal.


The coupon queens among us are stacking coupons along with these sales, which can really increase your savings on some items. Hold on to your manufacturers’ coupons for a month, and you are even more likely to be able to use them on sale items.


As a household of one, I find that my best money-saving grocery strategies, in addition to watching sales cycles, are cooking at home (of course), eating minimal meat and being careful not to buy more than I will use. I try to buy mostly healthy foods, even when ice cream is on sale.


What are your best tactics for saving money on groceries? Do you find coupons worthwhile? Do you shop at multiple stores? Stock up on a year’s worth of canned tomatoes? Buy everything at Wal-Mart?

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