Grocery shopping should be a simple task: make a list, buy what you need, then go home. But these days it’s much more complicated than that and more than ever consumers are faced with an overwhelming number of options: organic, local, non-GMO, generic, private label—the list goes on and on. With so many choices it can be hard to tell if you’re getting the best deals and the freshest products.
That’s why we’re here to help. We spoke to supermarket employees at major markets around the country to get some insider shopping tips that will save you money and ensure you’re getting the freshest, highest quality food at the best price. Knowledge is power, and with a few tips and tricks up your sleeve, grocery shopping will be a breeze. And for more budget-friendly advice and tips on how to score high-quality foods, subscribe to the Eat This, Not That! magazine—and get 50 percent off the cover price!
When it comes to grocery shopping, the old adage holds true—the early bird really does get the, er, freshest produce. “Shopping earlier in the day can help to avoid busy rush hour business and allow the ability/time to pick the best products on the stand before someone else beats you to it,” says Sprouts Farmers Market spokesperson Diego Romero.
Products are supposed to be rotated so that the freshest items are placed in the back, explains one owner of several stores in a well-known supermarket chain. This is especially true in rear-loading display cases (usually used for things like milk and eggs). So if you want the freshest items, reach towards the back.
However, there’s a caveat: “Don’t assume the freshest product is always at the bottom of a display,” says Romero. “Some items sell so quickly that displays are frequently topped off during the day when there isn’t time or need to rotate the product.”
Produce that is labeled organic has its benefits, but it is not a freshness indicator. “Organic is not fresher or less fresh than conventional, it’s all how it was handled and how long it was in transit,” says one grocery store owner.
Though packing and refrigeration technology means that even food shipped from as far away as New Zealand can arrive in American stores quickly and in great shape, local products have, by their very nature, had to travel less. So there’s chance that they’ve been banged around in transit and a greater likelihood that they are fresh.
It may seem bougie to talk about eating seasonally, but it’s actually just practical. “In the old days we had a three-week season on California Strawberries and now you can buy them 52 weeks a year,” says a grocery store owner in New York. The difference, he says, is the price. Blueberries in-season may cost $1.99 a pint, whereas off-season prices can skyrocket to $4.99 for a half pint.
You may think sales are designed to get almost expired products off the shelves, but in fact, it can simply mean that there’s an abundance. “When the price is the cheapest that’s also when the quality is the highest,” says the grocery store owner of produce.
Sales are not necessarily set at the local grocery store level, but rather trickle down from the companies and warehouses themselves. “The same products that are on sale for you are on sale for me at the wholesale level,” explains a grocery store owner.
If you’re curious about a product or the quality of produce, some stores will let you take a nibble before you buy. “Our Green Thumb experts are happy to slice a sample of any fruit or vegetable, offer tips and recipes and help shoppers find what they need,” explains Danna Robinson, communication manager for Harris Teeter.
It’s fairly common to walk into a grocery store without a plan, buy a ton, then get home and realize you don’t actually have the makings for any cohesive meals. Going in with a shopping list and at least a few ideas of what to cook that week—if not a set meal plan—can help keep you focused on cut down on splurge purchases.
Though a plan is key, you also need to be flexible. “If you come in and you always have a set menu then you’re going to be overpaying,” says one grocery store owner. “If you are flexible you never have to pay full price for anything.” He suggests shopping the sales and making budget-friendly swaps.
For those who like to plan ahead, the grocery store’s website often features the weekly sales circular. Look what’s on sale and plan around that.
According to Romero, if you’re not using the grocery store’s mobile app (and most have one these days), there’s a good chance you’re missing out on deals. “The Sprouts Mobile App is a great way for shoppers to save, offering exclusive mobile coupons and local weekly ads. On the app, we also offer special promos like Checkout Challenges, where the more you shop, the more you save!”
The biggest mistake one grocery store owner sees consumers make is being loyal to particular brands. He sees people paying exorbitantly more for “trusted” brands and says that even if they are slightly better (which often they’re not!) the price difference usually isn’t worth it.
The same grocery store owner in the tip above is also a huge proponent of generic or “private label” options and says there are a lot of misconceptions about quality. He sees people paying significantly more for brand name products when their generic equivalent is exactly the same. “Consumers are so blinded by advertising,” he remarks.
Don’t dismiss generic or “private label” options! There are a lot of misconceptions about quality. One grocery store owner sees people paying significantly more for brand name products when their generic equivalent is exactly the same. “Consumers are so blinded by advertising,” he remarks.
Don’t assume you’re getting a deal just because you have a coupon. Often folks will get really excited about sales or coupons and feel that they are getting a better deal than they really are. So it pays to do the math and compare prices.
Don’t be afraid to chat up the folks who work at your local grocery store. “For example, shoppers can trust our in-store butchers for cooking and product selection tips, placing special orders, seafood seasoning, custom cuts and more,” advises Diego Romero of Sprouts. From the produce aisle to the fishmonger, these experts can offer some true insider tips specific to that store, and can help you find exactly what you are looking for.
Along those lines, if your grocery store has a butcher, use them! Ask them to trim the fat off the meat or tie up your roast for you. Usually, you can even pick out meat that has already been packaged and bring it to them with these requests. Of course, if you want extra-thick steak, these are also the people to ask.
One benefit to shopping at larger markets is that they probably have a higher turnover, meaning that produce hasn’t been languishing on the shelf for a week or longer. Romero notes that Sprouts, for example, gets daily fresh produce shipments from the farm or packing house, and that staff are “constantly culling and rotating with fresh produce throughout the day.”
At the end of the day, no matter how often the stock is refreshed, nothing beats using your senses to check your produce. “The best indicator on freshness is your eyes,” says Romero. “If it looks fresh and vibrant, it probably is. Smell and touch are critical to auditing the ripeness of a cantaloupe or avocado or the crispness of an apple or a cucumber.”
Though certain items might be on sale at certain times of the year (pumpkin puree around Thanksgiving, for example), a grocery store owner says that there isn’t any one time of year when prices are lower across the board. So feel free to stock up on favorites that come on sale, but no need to wait until a particular holiday or time of year.
Though we can make generalizations about best times to shop and what produce is freshest, so much varies store to store. “So much is neighborhood specific,” says the grocery store owner. He finds that places with older populations tend to get busy earlier while younger crowds tend to shop later. Knowing the quirks and specifics of your local market will help you get the best experience.
While it’s convenient to shop at just one store for all your needs, you’re paying a price for that convenience. So if you really want to get the best deals don’t be afraid to shop around. Even if you don’t keep up with a dozen circulars every week, you can still get a sense of what stores tend to have the best prices (and quality) on different product types.
To really assess whether you’re getting a good deal, look at the price per ounce rather than the total cost. A family pack of chicken breasts, for example, will cost you more total but often be a better deal per pound (and you can freeze what you don’t use right away!). But things like a tri-pack of peppers can seem like a good deal until you catch a peak at the price by weight (loose is usually cheaper in this case).
Bummed that a sale item appears to be out of stock? Ask for a rain check! Most supermarkets will give you a coupon you can use at a later date when the item is back in stock.
Don’t see something you want? Just ask! “If our shoppers cannot find what they want at their Harris Teeter, we encourage them to ask for a member of management. Our teams will work to see if we can place a special order,” says Robinson.
One of the best things you can do is to be an informed consumer. Learn the difference between food labels like all-natural and organic to make sure if you are paying a premium it’s for the reasons you want. The grocery store owner, for example, says that though it’s a hot button issue, he’s wary of the stink against GMOs and finds people bulking the label in with organic, when in fact they are two separate designations. Whatever your stance on it, do your homework so you make sure you know what you’re buying.
Forget pesticides—do you know how many hands have touched that pear? People have no qualms about manhandling the food in grocery stores then returning it to the shelf, so do yourself a favor and give all your produce especially a good rinse before digging in.
This goes without saying, but don’t shop hungry. Or hangry. Never shop hangry. Mistakes will be made. Money will be spent. So have a snack before setting foot in the grocery store. Your wallet (and humanity) will thank you.