In the Dark Ages (or up until around the '60s), grocery shopping meant risking buying questionable meat and getting price gouged. These days, consumer protection is in place to make sure you can be reasonably certain that food you buy won’t kill you, and that you’ll be treated with at least the semblance of honesty.
Still, just because a grocery store isn't actively trying to screw you doesn't mean you're not screwing yourself at the supermarket -- or worse, setting yourself to get sick. We talked with about a dozen grocery store workers from Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Texas, and New York representing decades of accumulated grocery experience. Here are the mistakes you didn't even realize you're making while grocery shopping.
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Grocery stores know people are lazy. We’re going to keep our eyes level as we cruise through the aisles. That’s why the cheap stuff is always above your head, or down by your shins. They know you don’t even want to look there, let alone to tip-toe stands and squats.
This is a standard practice across the country in this industry. Beat it by checking prices just above your eyeline and down by your shins. Most times, you’ll find the store and generic brands below knee-level. According to our panel, the ingredients are usually close to identical. It’s just the label you’re paying extra for.
Missing the "by volume" pricing
Those price tags on the shelves at your grocery store by law show two prices: the price of the item and the price per unit of measure for that item. For example, a $2, 10-ounce bottle of hot sauce would say $2 but would also say $0.20/ounce (or something similar).
That price per unit can sometimes be very small. It can also immediately tell you where you’re not paying enough attention.
Gone are the days when you can count on buying in bulk to save money. Some manufacturers and retailers are profiting off of you assuming this is true instead of verifying that it’s true in every case. Use the by volume indicator to fact-check those bulk claims.
Failing to negotiate
Turns out you can negotiate discounts either with the checker or the manager at most grocery stores. Who knew?
According to our sources, grocery stores are so afraid of extra wastage that they’ll give discounts on any number of items so they don’t have to throw them away. You can also sometimes get a deal on buying in bulk, if you speak directly with the person responsible for that part of the store.
The items most vulnerable to price negotiation are dented cans, and similar items with damaged packaging; fruit that looks old but is still good, like browning bananas; custom cuts at the deli and butcher counters; older bakery items; and full cases of wine.
Remember: the price you pay for negotiating and failing is the same as you pay for not negotiating at all. They’re not going to raise the price on you for asking.
Buying meat from the front of the fridge
When the grocery store guy sees meat that’s expired, he doesn’t necessarily throw it out. Often, he gives it a sniff test, then puts on a new label with a new expiration date. He might not even do the sniff test part.
Then he puts it at the front of the fridge, so it’s what you see and probably buy. Instead, root around in the back of the cooler, where the freshest meat is. That’s your best bet for winning this particular grocery game.
Our experts agree that this applies to literally everything in the store, but it’s most important with meat and dairy since those expire soonest and have the highest stakes for eating it once it’s gone off.
Not decontaminating after the bottle station
When this topic came up in our group interview, they all just about lost their shit. The bottle station is nasty. You have warm, sugary fluid sitting around for days at a time, often in a humid environment with little air flow and no sunlight.
Honestly, I’m amazed some kind of Resident Evil-style supervirus hasn’t evolved in one of those yet. So wash your damn hands afterward. On of our interviewers says he still washes out his bottles and cans to this day due to bottle station PTSD, and that it’s even worse now most stores use an automated machine to do your deposits.
It would be a bit of a project to wipe down every cart you use, and you can’t go to the grocery store in a hazmat suit without looking like an idiot. But you can hit the handle with a baby wipe, and double-bag your produce to protect yourself.
Not checking the store's health inspection records
William Heinrich of Corvallis, Oregon used to work in a grocery store, and now runs a pizza joint. One difference between the two that puzzles him is that grocery stores and restaurants both have to suffer through health inspections… but only restaurants have to post their results.
Bacterial outbreaks. Handwashing stations next to Petri dishes full of Ebola. You name it. That could be going on behind the butcher counter or on the loading dock. They could be forcing the lobsters to have tantric sex yoga on the deli counter. You don’t know. I don’t know. Because they don’t have to tell us.
But you can find out. You don’t need to do it every day, but when you’re choosing “your” grocery store, check them out with the health department.
This might be the weirdest, but it makes a twisted amount of sense. Most grocery stores are set up to direct you to move through it clockwise. This forces you to walk by a whole bunch of potential impulse buys on your way to staples like the butcher, the milk, and your baking stuff.
Sean Wilson never worked in grocery stores, but helped build in the shelves and other displays as a carpenter with a company that did only that. According to Sean, that’s just part of their orders -- and why most grocery stores conform to one or two basic patterns.
Be a rebel. Go in the “exit only” door, scoot past the glares of the checkout people, and make a beeline for what you need. Some studies suggest this will cut your bill down by 40% by not succumbing to impulse buys.
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Jason Brick is a voracious reader, heroic drinker, and super-cool dad (not necessarily in that order of importance). When not testing the theoretical limits of coolness, he practices martial arts so he can beat people up for teasing him about how much he likes playing Dungeons & Dragons. Find out more at BrickCommaJason.com.