10 Ways Grocery Stores Rip You Off

An outing to the grocery store these days can feel like an all-out assault on your wallet. While incomes have been flat for a generation, your grocery bill has likely been mounting. In the past few years, the cost of basic items like eggs has increased by 40%, and overall, since 2005, food costs have shot up by 31.5%. The reasons for the increases are many, including the pernicious effects of factory farms (where avian flu spreads and sick animals die from filthy conditions, causing shortages) and drought (possibly caused by climate change). Often we find ourselves wandering the aisles in despair, looking for bargains, grateful for the “specials” our supermarket has advertised. Anything to save a buck. But how special are the specials?

It may surprise you to learn how many rip-offs lurk in the nooks and crannies of your grocery’s aisles. It is actually possible to save a few dollars buying groceries, but probably not by buying your store’s specials. 

Here are 10 rip-offs at a supermarket near you, along with tips to help you save your hard-earned cash.

1. Bottled water

No one on Planet Earth drinks more bottled water than Americans do. Which is odd, because for the most part, American tap water is among the cleanest in the world. At an average cost of $1.22 a gallon, bottled water costs about 300 times the cost of tap water, and if you are just buying individual bottles, you are paying up to 2,000 times the cost of tap water. Never mind the fact that the planet is already awash in plastic and that, no matter what plastic makers tell you about recycling, 80% of the bottles wind up in landfills. Unless you live in Flint, Michigan, there is little reason to be buying bottled water at your supermarket. If you are suspicious of tap water, buy yourself a water filter (like Brita) and a good, non-plastic water bottle you can carry around with you.

2. Brand names

Most of us have grown up with the idea injected into our brains that brand names are better than generic brands or store brands. Advertising will do that to you. The quality of generic brands may have been inferior 50 years ago, but get over your bias, because the truth is that today’s generic food brands, much like generic medicines, are as good as, maybe better in some cases, than brand-name products. The ingredients in these off-brands are the same or very close to the same, and because there is no advertising and no research and development cost for the manufacturer to cover, you can save as much as 25% if you go generic. There is no reason not to. If you don't believe me, ask most professional chefs. While you are at it, avoid anything with a cartoon, superhero or celebrity on the package. It costs money to put them on the box, and guess who pays for it?

3. Organic produce

There are many sensible reasons for supporting organic, namely the negative environmental impact of pesticide use. But we can still be discerning organic shoppers. Where personal health is concerned, studies have shown virtually no difference between organic and non-organic produce. So if you are on a budget, there is no reason, for instance, to buy organic avocadoes or onions, both of which are grown virtually pesticide-free, according to the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit that studies pesticide contamination. In fact, almost any produce you have to peel to consume is low in pesticide contamination (like bananas, garlic, watermelon, or pineapples). If you are worried about pesticides, stick to organic-only for foods with edible skin (like grapes, peaches, lettuce, etc.). 

4. Anything “gluten-free

Unless you have a legitimate sickness, like celiac disease, that mandates you to avoid gluten, there is no reason to buy anything labeled “gluten-free." For most people, gluten has no effect on our bodies, while the label “gluten-free” has a significant effect on our wallets, with gluten-free products often costing up to three times as much as their glutenous counterparts. And gluten-free products do not contain more nutrients or fewer calories. Ditto for fortified foods (or any foods, really) that openly advertise their healthiness.

5. Microwave popcorn

For roughly four bucks you can buy a 30-ounce bottle of popping corn. From that you can make more than 10 bowls of popcorn. Or you can buy a box of microwave popcorn and make four bowls of popcorn. The advantage to your bottom line seems obvious. Moreover, many microwave popcorn brands line their bags with a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid, which is the stuff they use to make Teflon and is toxic to the human body, linked to infertility and cancer. Convenience is nice, but perhaps better to think twice.

6. Tenderloin steak

Tenderloin steak is, as its name implies, tender, and shoppers pay a premium for that attribute. But tenderloin is also not particularly flavorful, and for half the cost of a tenderloin, you can buy a much more flavorful cut of beef, like flank steak or skirt steak. If you marinate that cheaper cut for a few hours, your result will be a steak every bit as tender as your expensive and bland tenderloin. Plus both the flank and skirt steaks are a lot leaner and healthier for the cholesterol-conscious.

7. Anything packaged for your convenience

Most people don’t work for free, and neither do food companies. Whenever you see products that are individually packaged (like mini-bags of potato chips) or pre-bagged (like salad mixes) or pre-cut (like watermelon or pineapple) or pre-marinated (like meats), someone has done the work for you. And like any good employer, you will then need to pay your worker. These items cost more money, often twice as much as their “inconvenient” counterparts. If you have the expendable cash to pay for the convenience, go for it. If not, buy the larger item, and package, bag, or cut the items yourself and pocket the savings. As an incentive, while you are doing your own cutting and bagging, think about how much wasteful packaging those convenience foods contribute to the landfills.

8. Salad dressing

Why waste your money on bottled salad dressings when in most cases, their ingredients are cheap and it is super simple to make your own, and without all the extra unpronounceables most bottled dressings contain. And skip the croutons too. Save the couple bucks you spend and make them yourself. All you need is old bread, some oil, seasonings, and a few minutes.

9. New and improved

Always, always switch on the radar when an item announces that it is new and improved. Often that new improvement comes with a new and not-so-improved price. Companies have done their studies on human behavior, and they know that consumers will pay more for “new” products, while conversely, it is rare for anyone to even notice the “improvement."

10. Checkout items

There is a reason most items at the checkout line aren’t already in your basket. It’s because you didn’t need them. But by the time you get to checkout, you are tired, your ability to check your impulses has been weakened and temptation awaits you. These “store specials,” gums and candies tend to be expensive and add dollars to your grocery bill. Avoid the impulse.

Most supermarkets make their money on the inside. That is, their most expensive and biggest profit margin items are in the inside aisles, not the perimeter of the store, and it is in the aisles where you will usually find your “specials.” On the perimeter you will usually find the real foods—produce, dairy and meats. In the aisles you will find the packaged, processed and often unnecessary items. Stick to the outside as much as possible. And don’t always look at the price. It is often more important to look at the "unit price," which the store is obliged by law to display under the item on the shelf, or on the label. By comparing unit prices, you can more accurately tell what items are least expensive. As with most transactions, savings are earned by those who have done their homework.


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