We learn from a grocery marketing expert

How to Read Your Grocery Ad Like an Insider

by H.M.


What used to be affectionately considered the grocery game has become the grocery war. The drugstore on the corner now sells fresh produce. Grocery stores have apparel sections, and you can pick up an Amazon Echo next to the avocados at Whole Foods. As more companies battle for your grocery dollars, it has become increasingly confusing to determine how to find the best deals. Most retailers still publish a weekly ad (either in print or online or both), which is reliably the best place to find the best prices each week. Read on for six tips on how to read your grocery ads like an insider and save the most money!

The Best Prices Are on the Front Page

The real estate adage everyone knows is "location, location, location" and the same holds true in your weekly grocery ad. Retailers know that they have to grab consumers' attention on the front page or no one will bother looking through the rest of the ad. Therefore, the hottest prices go on the front page. These are the features that are designed to bring you in the door and on which the retailer is often losing money. Pay attention to these features, and if something you buy is on the front page, you likely won't find a better price by waiting.

The Next Best Thing

If the front page is where the best prices are located, what about the rest of the ad? Generally speaking, you'll find great prices on any part of an ad that is separate from the rest of the circular. This includes a cover page that falls completely away, separate pages in the middle that pull out, and extra flaps (called "gates") that fold over other pages. The deals won't be as hot as the front page features, but don't turn your nose up at them! The extremely limited space on the front page means that many great prices are forced onto these "second best" areas at only slightly higher retail prices. Don't be afraid to stock up, because some of them will never make it to the front page at all.

Approach the Core with Caution

The purpose of a weekly ad is, of course, to bring customers into the store. Unfortunately, retailers have budgets so they can't just spend indiscriminately and lose money on every item in the ad. With that in mind, it pays to familiarize yourself with the layout of your favorite grocer's ad.

You'll notice a common core that appears every week and doesn't fall into the other categories mentioned above. These are the areas that you won't see unless the retailer already has your attention (i.e. inside of the ad), so they effectively don't have to work as hard to get those items on your list. These are the areas where items are featured at retails that are only slightly reduced or not reduced at all. This doesn't mean you can't find great prices in these spaces (sometimes a smaller vendor can't afford a better feature even with a great price), but it does mean you should be cautious and not assume that you're saving money just because the item is in the ad.

Know Which Categories Are Most Competitive

Not all products in the grocery store are created equal, as you no doubt can tell just by the way your local store is laid out. Milk is on everyone's list, so it is located in the back of the store in hopes you'll pick up other items during your travels to grab a gallon. This logic also applies to how grocers advertise each week. What does that mean to you? Well, you can count on everyone in town charging about the same for milk, and if they put it on the front page of the ad, it's not going to be more than a few cents less than the everyday retail.

It's only going on the front page to get you into their store, so they can get the rest of your order. Therefore, if the other features in the ad are no good, then saving a nickel on milk isn't going to get you very far.

Timing Is Everything

Just as not all products are created equal, neither is every week on the calendar. While retailers will compete with each other every week, things get really heated during key holidays. You'll already know that Thanksgiving and Christmas are key weeks, but so are Halloween, Easter, July 4th, and even Valentine's Day. These are the weeks when grocers really get off their wallets to win your visit, so they invest heavily to get you excited and in the door. In these weeks, the old rules don't apply and virtually every item in the ad is a great deal. If it's not perishable, stock up!

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Read the Fine Print

As I've mentioned a couple of times in this article, it is extremely common for grocers to advertise an item at a retail that is below their cost. This only makes good business sense if it is controllable, so it is equally common for there to be fine print associated with these deals. Most retailers have a general price disclaimer at the bottom of their ads, but super-hot features may come with their own. Here are the most common disclaimers to watch for:

  • Limit - Usually this is per household, per transaction. For example, in a $0.99 gallon milk ad with a limit of one, the $0.99 retail will only apply to the first gallon purchased in each transaction, with all subsequent gallons ringing up at a higher price.
  • Must-buy - These are designed to allow a retailer to put a very attractive retail in the ad while tightly controlling their investment. It is usually used on items where customers normally buy more than one, such as canned soup or fitness bars. In these cases, the hot price only applies if you buy a minimum number of items. For example, you may be able to purchase canned soup for $0.88 when you buy 8 cans. If you don't buy 8, you don't get the price. Further confusing the issue is that a must-buy disclaimer can take two forms, including a minimum quantity (buy X or more to get the price) or multiples (buy in multiples of X to get the price). Read carefully to maximize your savings!

You now have the secret tricks to reviewing an ad that will give you an edge against your fellow shoppers and peace of mind with how you spend your money. Happy saving!


H.M. has more than a decade of experience with the nation's largest traditional grocer, and is an expert on supermarket merchandising and promotion planning.

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