Coupons don t cut> it for grocery savings anymore.
Although inflation has been modest lately, the Agriculture Department predicts food-price inflation is likely to jump 2% to 3% in 2011. That means food companies and supermarkets will soon be facing higher overhead costs.
Prices of commodities such as coffee, cattle and grain are rising, and they can go up only so far before the food industry is forced to reduce package size, raise prices or both.
When a food that depends on one commodity like coffee goes up, we see it pretty fast in retail prices, says Jack Plunkett, chief executive of Plunkett Research, a market research firm.
Consumers who want to keep rising food costs in check will need to adjust their spending substantially, says Phil Lempert, the founder of grocery information site Supermarket Guru. For the last two to three years, people did the easy things, like coupons, he says. Now we re going to have to be a lot smarter.
Here are 11 tricks to eat well and save:
Most brands are discounted just once during a 12-week sales cycle, says Teri Gault, the founder of shopping site The Grocery Game. The prices of seasonal items, like BBQ sauce in the summer, and competitive categories, such as cereal and soda, are cut more frequently. If you re brand loyal, check the sales circular against what s currently in the pantry. It s better to buy a jar of Skippy peanut butter on sale this week than at full price two weeks from now when you ve run out, Gault says.
Do some cooking prep
Stephanie Nelson, the founder of The Coupon Mom, has a five-minute rule for buying precut foods such as bagged lettuce and sliced carrots: If she can do the work herself within that time, buying the cheaper raw produce is a better deal. You ll pay three times the price for bagged lettuce as for a head of lettuce, she says.
Explore the store
Check all the locations within the store for where a particular item on your list might be found. For example, cheese can be purchased from the cheese counter, the deli and the dairy case, Lempert says. Wisconsin cheddar is Wisconsin cheddar no matter where you buy it, but it s cheaper in the dairy case, he says. Compare prices at the seafood counter against those in the freezer case. Most items at the counter are freshly frozen, meaning they were frozen and have been defrosted, he says. Out-of-season produce is also likely to be cheaper -- and tastier -- in the freezer section.
Meat prices are among those rising fastest, with beef and pork prices up 6.7% and 6% in July over the same period last year, according to the consumer price index. That s going to be a real pressure point, Plunkett says. Opting for one vegetarian meal per week could save a family hundreds of dollars a year.
Plan out meals
Let the sales circular tell you what you re going to eat that week, Gault says. Instead of planning a meal and buying everything at full price, see if the sales circulars inspire any ideas, especially for meat or produce.
Buy 'must-go' foods
Stores routinely discount baked goods, produce and meat by 50% or more as these items approach their sell-by date or become less attractive (think bruised apples or slightly stale bread). Find out what time of day the manager does that, says Nelson, who freezes overripe bananas for use in banana bread.
Watch for store sale tricks
Don t assume anything [about store sales], Lempert says. Stores have twice as many unadvertised sale items as they place in the weekly circular, so it can pay to pay attention while wandering the aisles. However, shoppers should stay keen. Aisle displays are less likely to point to items on sale than they are to pinpoint items the store wants sold, he says. Also, check the fine print: A four-for-$3 deal on cans of tuna fish may or may not require you to buy four to get the sale price.
When you get coupons, save them until the item goes on sale, Gault says, adding that the best day to buy most groceries is Sunday. Armed with a fresh batch of coupons from that day s paper, shoppers can match them against store circular sales.
Check unit prices
Don t assume that the bigger package is always the better deal, Nelson says. The Federal Trade Commission found that larger size packages of tuna fish, peanut butter, ketchup, coffee and frozen orange juice were often more expensive per unit than smaller counterparts. Crunch the numbers before you buy, especially if you have a coupon.
Check circulars for all the stores in your area that sell food, and base your weekly shopping trip on which has sale items you want. Be store flexible, Nelson says. Also keep an eye out for deals when you re in other stores that sell food, such as drugstores (which often have better deals on milk) and superstores like Target and Wal-Mart. Their prices are not usually worth an extra food shopping trip, but they can yield extra savings if you re there shopping for something else, she says.
Try store brands
Most store labels are produced by big-name brands, using different packaging, but prices can be as much as 50% cheaper. Willing to experiment? Compare the nutritional information and ingredient order of a favorite brand and a store label, Lempert says. If it s identical, you re probably going to be satisfied, he says. Most stores offer a money-back guarantee on their own brands, so keep the receipt just in case.