What the clerk knows about grocery shopping that you should find out

Secrets of a Grocery Clerk

contributed by Bradley McHugh

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I have worked in the retail grocery environment for two years in two different grocery stores in different areas of the country. I am a cross-trained meat, deli, and produce clerk who also serves as a meat cutter and night closing clerk. I am also a notorious tightwad.

Here are five juicy secrets of grocery shopping that I have never shared before.

1. You don't always get what you pay for.

There is an urban legend that teaches us that national brands are always superior to less recognized ones. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Store brands, generics, and smaller brands can often deliver comparable results for less. You just have to know where to look. Larger national brands tend to have larger displays, more colorful packaging, and more prominent placement. Most off-brands are simply packaged, tucked away in less obvious locations, and are given a smaller display area. Pay close attention to the price per unit, which is often displayed on the price tag. If that information is not there, simply divide the price by the number of ounces, pounds, or units.

2. Come prepared.

If your neighborhood is anything like mine, you have to deal with a weekly flood of sales fliers. Buried in that stack are the circulars from your local grocery stores. Stop and look through them. Circle any deals that look interesting and write them down in a notebook. This method of comparison-shopping is more effective in my experience than clipping coupons or other methods commonly advertised by the frugality publishing industry.

Related: 8 Essential Money-Saving Grocery Shopping Techniques

3. If it's still on display, it's probably still good.

I have worked in three of the most expensive departments in a grocery store, namely meat, deli, and produce. These departments tend to attract sharp-eyed, discriminating customers who want to save a nickel.

  • Meat department: If the meat is not green, gray, or a funky shade of brown or if it doesn't smell bad, it is still good.
  • Deli Department: Stay out if you want to save money! Most of the time, we offer the same basic item in a vacuum-sealed package for much less.
  • Produce Department: Markdown produce is only a deal if you plan to use that ingredient on the same day you bought it. If you want to extend the life of droopy vegetable bargains, you might want to try my secret produce preservation spray. Mix about a half-tablespoon of salt and about a teaspoon of baking soda in a one-quart spray bottle. Spray on wilting vegetables. This also works as a produce wash.
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4. Be nice to your clerk.

Grocery store clerks have subtle ways of getting their revenge on jerks by slow service, "forgetting" to inform you of store specials and discounts, giving you a bum steer on a recipe, or re-directing you to another employee halfway across the store. If you do not want this to happen to you, be nice to your clerk. Please.

In return for your kindness, clerks have ways of rewarding you. We may be able to speed your order up a little or give you a small discount after speaking to our manager. We can inform you of specials, bargains, and deals you may not have been aware of. I know that I have shown some of my favorite customers the prime deals in the markdown bin before I had shown anyone else. I have bent over backwards on many occasions to help a nice customer. I do not do that for rude, impatient people.

Related: What Successful Shoppers Know About Groceries

5. You pay more for convenience!

The more processed a grocery item is, the more expensive it is. Precut fruit? Prepare to be taken for a ride. Our profit margins on that are close to 100% of the original value. Here are a few more examples:

  • We take a $5 watermelon and turn it into $9 or $10 worth of slices. Guess who pays for that? The convenience customer will. It takes less than 10 minutes to cut your own fruit in most cases.
  • Do you like the hot pizza from the deli? That was probably the same store brand pizza that was offered over in the frozen section for almost half the price per slice.
  • Do you enjoy the fancy gourmet burgers in the meat department? It's just plain old hamburger that is mixed with a few spices.

The list of inflated convenience items goes on and on. Food that has not been overly processed contains a lot fewer chemicals and unpronounceable compounds that give you cancer and other nasty diseases. To live a longer, healthier, richer life, you should take my advice and shop wisely!

Bradley McHugh is a young grocery clerk with two years of very colorful experience in supermarkets. He lives and works in the small town of Leetonia, OH, and one day plans to open his own grocery store near there.

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