Interviewing Your Supermarket

by Holly E. Ordway

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If you live in an urban or suburban area, chances are there are several good-sized supermarkets nearby. Which one should you shop at to get the most for your money? Instead of running from one store to the next trying to get the absolute best price on individual items, I save time and money by selecting one supermarket as my "home base." But I don't just choose the first supermarket I come across! When I "hire" a supermarket to "work" for me, I put it through a tough interview process.

What you'll be looking for in a supermarket depends on your personal food preferences. However, there are five key questions that will help uncover the best supermarket for you.

1) Does the supermarket stock what I want to buy?

Know what you buy, and look for a store that sells it. A supermarket may have a great selection of coffee beans, but if you're not a big coffee drinker, it's irrelevant. In fact, it's a bit of a negative, since that's shelf space that could have been used to stock something that you do like. Also, look for the store to carry several brands of each item that you're interested in buying. The more choices you have, the better chances you have of getting the best price and quality.

Finally, you want a supermarket that has a large selection of products that enable you to cook from scratch, which is much healthier and cheaper than buying so-called convenience foods. If you've been in the habit of eating junk food, make sure that when you evaluate your supermarket, you think of what you should buy now, not what you would have bought in the past with your unwise habits!

2) Does the supermarket have many store-brand items?

In addition to well-known "name brands," most supermarkets also carry a line of products that bears the supermarket's own label; these products are generally substantially less expensive than the equivalent name brand, while having the same (or higher!) quality. "Store brands" are most definitely not "generic," as the supermarket is putting its name behind its product. One simple reason to account for the lower price is that they're not advertised. Consumers are the ones who end up paying for all those TV commercials and magazine ads.

Simply by buying more store brands, you can save a substantial amount of money, so I consider a supermarket's store-brand selection to be extremely important. Look for the presence of a variety of products. Some supermarkets offer a limited number of items in their own brand, while others offer everything from soup to nuts. The more store-brand choices there are, the less you will be forced to buy expensive name brands.

As a general rule, I've found most store brands to be of excellent quality, but that's not to say that there aren't any differences between the store brands. You should try out the store brand of several items that you would normally buy, to see how you like it. A word to the wise: "it tastes different from the brand I'm used to" should not be confused with "it doesn't taste good" or "it's low quality."

3) Does the store have a good produce section?

Eating fresh fruits and vegetables is important to good health. Does the store carry a varied selection of fruits and vegetables, more than just some carrots and potatoes? Does the produce look fresh, not withered or moldy?

Next, are most of the items available loose in bins for you to select, or are they pre-packaged into bags or trays? A good supermarket has its produce loose for the customers to select. If you want to buy only two peppers, in a store with loose vegetables you can choose, and pay for, only two. In a store with pre-packaged vegetables, you might find that the only peppers available are in packs of three, forcing you to buy an extra pepper that might end up being wasted. Also, with loose vegetables, you can easily check for quality. If they're pre-packaged, you can count on the vegetable's best side facing up. If the other side is damaged or unripe, you won't know until you get home and unwrap it.

4) Does it have good prices?

I feel that the average prices of a particular supermarket are among the least important factors in choosing the store. The few pennies of difference in prices between items in two different large supermarkets isn't going to make up for a lack of selection, store brands, or good produce. It's still worth doing a comparison of a few key items, such as a box of cereal, a can of tuna, or a gallon of milk. Smaller "neighborhood" grocery stores often have considerably higher prices across the board, compared to larger supermarkets.

5) Is it in a convenient location?

It's always more convenient to have your main supermarket nearby, or on the way home from work. Otherwise, you may end up wasting too much time, effort, and gasoline in driving to a distant store. Or you might delay going to the supermarket and end up picking up a few items from an expensive corner grocery to "tide you over."

Once you've done your "interviewing," choose the best candidate and stick with it. If you consistently shop at one store, you will be able to take advantage of that store's sales cycle. Eventually, most items will go on sale, and when they do, stock up on them. This will allow you to benefit from buying a substantial amount of your food when it's on sale, while saving the time and effort of making multiple trips to different supermarkets around town.

Holly E. Ordway does a variety of freelance work, from teaching fencing to copyediting technical books to reviewing DVDs, but one responsibility is constant: managing her family's finances and household economy. She is currently also working on a book on how to "spend wisely."

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