Over the Easter weekend, after taking my four-year-old to see Horton Hears a Who, we dropped by our neighborhood grocery store to buy soda pop and dog food. By the time we were finished with our trip, I had spent $76.
Naturally, I bought a few other items, but what struck me as the number on the cash register kept getting larger and larger was how little food there actually was for having spent $76. Not that I want to blame all of this on my daughter, but I did listen to most of her grocery suggestions. Aside from the soda and pet food, our cart was full of doughnuts, Lucky Charms cereal, cookies, Goldfish crackers, a bright bouncy ball that retailed for $1.49, and then a few smarter items like some yogurt, toilet paper, paper towels and, yes, some actual food, enough for -- two dinners.
Granted, I broke a lot of rules. I didn't go in with a prepared grocery list, or coupons, and I brought in a precocious four-year-old who I have a tough time saying "no" to, unless it involves her playing with sharp knives or matches. But I'm beginning to think, with food prices rising the way they have been, that it's time to consider the idea of dropping by a discount grocery store.
Until I started doing some research on discount grocery stores, I had forgotten just how big a business this is, and, of course, it's only growing in this economy. I'm wishing I lived in Washington or Hawaii, and then I could be a customer at Stupid Prices, which appeals to me just for the name alone. If I were in Canada, I could check out No Frills, a discount grocery in Alberta and Ontario. Here in Ohio (and from what I can tell, most states; it's an international company based in Germany), we have a discount grocery store chain with the boring name ALDI, which I've occasionally visited, and it is a haven for cheap grocery shopping. I've heard people claim you can save 50% on your grocery bill, probably because they tend to provide half of what a more upscale grocery store has.
There are no baggers, and there really are no bags. Oh, there are, but if you want bags, that costs extra. If you're smart, you bring your own, and while the first time I visited an ALDI and griped because I had to provide some extra coin, I realize now that that's an environmentally-smart way to go. ALDIs have a lot of generic brands, meaning far less variety and brand names, only five aisles and you can't pay by check or credit card. Debit cards, however, and obviously cash will be just fine.
But, hey, if you really want to save money, there's an even cheaper way to go.
Grocery outlet stores, also known as surplus and salvage grocers. The Wall Street Journal profiled the trend last month. While some relatively big chains like Amelia's, SharpShopper and Grocery Outlet purchase much of their inventory from the manufacturers or distributors, smaller salvage grocers buy goods from reclamation centers. They collect food that have been considered unsuitable for sale, generally because the packaging is damaged. After all, just because a can of Campbell's soup is dented, it doesn't mean what's inside isn't good.
So, according to the Wall Street Journal, some reclamation centers sell the goods to brokers, who then sell them to these small salvage stores. Sadly, though, this means fewer bent cans of soup and tuna, or torn boxes of cereal are being sent to food banks.
There are other potential downsides. You really do need to check the expiration date. You may not be bothered that the "sell by" date is two weeks old, especially if it's a bag of chips. But you don't want to buy baby food that's old, and you should proceed carefully if you're purchasing fruit or meat that is clearly past its prime. Not that discount and surplus grocery stores strive to push old, moldy foods on their customers, or routinely sell them -- they'd never stay in business -- but I'm just saying.
But, of course, some of you may be thinking, "Gee, this is great and all, but I really, REALLY want to grocery shop cheaply. Don't you have any other options that are even cheaper?"
I do. You could try going to your grocery stores and rooting through their dumpsters and looking for quality food that has been thrown out. Look, I'm not going to try it, though I am thinking of asking my wife if she'd... No, I don't want to have to sleep in the garage again... So, we're not going to try it at the Williams' household, but it is free, and it's actually done by some people who are not homeless and impoverished.
In fact, Oprah did a show on dumpster dining last month. Most of these people are, along with undeniably saving some money, trying to be sensitive to the environment and not send good food to a landfill. The thinking is that if the food is still in the package, where's the health risk in taking it home? You can learn some about it at this web site, freegankitchen.com.
So if you are starting to see your food bill bringing you less value, you may want to visit a discount or surplus grocery store. And just a bit of advice, leave the kids behind -- especially if you're shopping outside the grocery store.
Geoff Williams is a business journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
Cheap, cheaper and REALLY cheap grocery shopping