Is it just us, or does navigating the grocery store these days feel like you’re stuck in a game of Chutes and Ladders? Dodging inflated egg prices and sriracha shortages at every turn, just making it to the cash register without needing a second mortgage feels damn near heroic.
We’re not imagining it, either. Even as prices in general are slowly coming down to normal across the U.S. economy, grocery prices have stayed high, causing a unique pain point in many households. According to the Department of Agriculture, late 2023 could find consumers paying almost 20 percent more for groceries compared to 2021.
While this issue feels incredibly timely, it’s not exactly new. The grocery store has been a uniquely complicated space since its (relatively recent) inception. The layout of a supermarket is, in fact, designed to make you spend more. And if you’ve ever found yourself tossing a few extra boxes of Cheez-Its into your cart as Christmas music plays in December, that’s no coincidence either.
“Ultimately it should upend our perception of grocery to remember it isn’t about food, it never has been about food,” writes Benjamin Lorr, author of The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket. “Food is the business of eating—grocery, we’ll see, that’s completely different; it’s the business of desire.”
So how do you navigate the supermarket and maybe even save a little coin along the way? Here are 10 tips to keep you from losing it at the store.
Here’s How To Survive:
1. Check your shopping aspirations
2. Ask to break up packages (yes, really!)
3. Memorize your store’s sales cycles
4. Stock up on “loss leaders”
5. Skip single-use ingredients
6. Wear headphones while you shop
7. Face your sell-by date fears
8. Always buy yourself a little treat
9. Skip the grocery store altogether
10. Don’t be afraid to return items
If we are what we eat, we’re certainly eating and shopping to satisfy our aspirations, too. We’ve all spent too much time watching food TV and aesthetically pleasing fridge-restock videos on TikTok, and it’s hard not to let that aspirational energy affect you at the grocery store. Whether you aspire to lose weight, eat more leafy greens, or simply be the kind of person who has a well-stocked seltzer selection, it’s important to realize if those aspirational purchases are not in line with your actual needs and values.
Grocery store managers know what they’re doing. Have you ever noticed that when you walk into a grocery store you’re usually greeted with an edenic produce section, overflowing with abundance? In an interview with Progressive Grocer, Ron Bonacci, VP of marketing at the regional grocery chain Weis Markets, notes that grocers have tapped into that aspirational secret sauce to influence consumer habits. Combined with the popularity of Food Network and shows like Iron Chef, Bonacci claims that these shows have influenced a whole generation of shoppers to become chefs in their own home, making the grocery store an experiential (and aspirational) playground.
Publix fans love the store’s legendary subs. But did you know that you can actually ask them to break up various items if you only need a smaller amount? If you only need a little bit of an item for a recipe, Publix will break down any package (yes, even meat!) to your specifications and relabel it accordingly. Only need a half a package of bacon, two chicken breasts, or a quarter of a cantaloupe? Consider it done.
Even if your favorite store doesn’t allow breaking up packages, you can often save if you hit the salad bar for smaller quantities of items you don’t necessarily want large amounts of. This will end up being cheaper due to the cost per weight of salad bars (think items like celery, feta cheese, pre-cooked beets, cucumbers).
Similarly, stores like Trader Joe’s always encourage sampling before you buy, even if it’s not the sample of the day. Employees are encouraged to open up packages of items so you can try before you commit to a purchase, whether it’s a new kombucha or a regular ice cream flavor.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
As you’d expect, grocery stores operate on pretty regular sales cycles, and they typically last six to eight weeks and are often seasonal or holiday-specific. It really pays to know when to expect major markdowns at your favorite stores. According to Lifehacker, Wednesdays are one of the best days to shop for grocery deals, since “new sales advertisements [go] out on Wednesday, but also some grocery stores [honor] the previous week’s sales” meaning you can pick up two weeks’ worth of sales in the same week. The same is true of Sunday’s newspaper ads,so be sure to hit the grocery store after weekend brunch.
I worked at Trader Joe’s, and you might be surprised to know that there’s actually a day during the week when prices fluctuate up and down across stores and product signs must be re-done. And that’s not to say that prices are always increasing, either. Oftentimes, there are items that actually decrease in price, meaning you might be able to pick up an even cheaper bottle of wine, bag of avocados, or box of cookies they’re hoping to sell more quickly. While they’re hard to detect, prices at Trader Joe’s and other nationwide chains like Kroger and Aldi’s change weekly, so it’s useful to keep an eye out if something you typically skip due to its price is actually affordable another week.
Grocery stores run on very thin profit margins, so there are items they will sell at a loss—but this is also strategic. These items are called “loss leaders,” and they are sold below cost to entice customers to enter the store and buy more. They’re also, no lie, typically located in the back of the store. That way, you will definitely get distracted by wine, chips, and fancy cheese along the way.
Costco’s famous rotisserie chicken is one of the most popular loss leaders in the country. They also include common items such as milk, eggs, and bananas. Loss leaders are often items that can then be paired with a product that’s more profitable, like pricey cereals, cheese (which you might buy when lunch meat is on sale), pre-packaged salad mixes, and even beer (because you’re definitely going to buy chips, too).
Those boxed cake mixes, flavored yogurts, and pre-packaged rice mixes are convenient—but you’re paying for it. Since these items have straightforward, limited uses (i.e. you’re not going to use a strawberry Greek yogurt for topping tacos like you would with plain) they leave little options for improvisation come mealtime. Opting for more open-ended ingredients (like all-purpose flours, rice, plain yogurts, plain cream cheese) makes creating new and exciting meals way easier. That’s not to say you need to enjoy them plain; add a swirl of jam into yogurt, try out a new homemade cake recipe, or make a lime-zest crema for topping your next batch of tacos.
And blast your favorite Taylor Swift album. No, really! Did you know that the tempo of music played in stores has been shown to influence profits? According to a study conducted by marketing professor Robert Millman, playing slower-tempo music in retail environments actually increases the amounts that people spend since it encourages relaxation and lingering, causing customers to shop more slowly and buy more. Even if you don’t want to blast Midnights in the grocery store, knowing about this common environmental trigger will keep you aware of how you might overspend.
According to Benjamin Lorr, author of The Secret Life of Groceries, consumers could save just by being more flexible with sell-by dates and short-coded items like bread, milk, and eggs. After all, sell-by dates are mere guidelines, aren’t technically regulated, and don’t magically turn inedible or risky on best-by dates. Chucking food out based on sell-by dates rather than actual freshness also puts a costly burden on supply chains that then affects prices.
“I am a much less picky consumer than I used to be,” Lorr says. “Not even from a food waste perspective, but simply from the fact that that pickiness puts such a strain in the whole system.”
Much like restrictive diets, having an overly stripped down grocery list can actually lead to budgeting burn out, where you might even overspend to cope. Limiting too many “fun purchases” is, at the end of day, truly dreadful. And there’s psychology to back this up, too. Dr. Jorge Abram Barraza, professor of applied psychology at USC, specializes in the neuropsychology of the decision-making process that motivates costly behavior. He says that something called “moral licensing” is a common way we fall prey at the grocery store.
Moral licensing is when we believe our past moral decisions balance out our current, less-than-savory actions. If you’ve ever thought, “Well, I work hard, so I deserve xyz,” you’re likely familiar with moral licensing. While moral licensing is incredibly common, it’s helpful to create a grocery budget that includes what you value that’s also sustainable, so that your own tendencies to morally license yourself don’t steer the cart too far into Treat Town.
Simply put, no one wants (or needs) to be a stickler over every single purchase. It not only sucks, but you have to eat to live—and we personally live to eat, too. Since life is short, keep ice cream at the ready. Future you (and future you’s wallet) will be glad you did.
The winding aisles of grocery stores have a way of forcing us into serious option-fatigue. But thanks to online grocers like Misfits Market, skipping the brick-and-mortar store altogether means you can avoid those impulse purchases and help save the earth in the process (we love an overachieving moment).
On average, Misfits Market customers save around $23.04 per weekly shop. This means up to $1,200 in savings over the course of a year. Misfits Market keeps shopping sustainably affordable, by slashing shipping costs by bringing products directly from supplier to consumer, as well as upcycling surplus stock and unusual cuts of meat (like bacon ends and salmon tails).
I’ve been a diehard Misfits Market fan for over a year and, outside of a few items I get at Trader Joe’s and Target, I very rarely have to spend much time in a store. Most importantly, a recent shipment even included a dozen cage-free eggs for $2.99! The deals are great, of course, but it’s also my key to meal-planning and limiting waste.
With more time to look around and decide, grocery shopping online is a whole lot less stressful. I even make a fun little routine out of my weekly shop. My shopping window is Saturday/Sunday, so I really luxuriate in it by pulling up some of my favorite cookbooks and food websites to pick a few recipes for the week. I then mix and match based on what Misfits Market has available that week, and know my total before I check out so there are no surprises.
If I took anything from having worked at a grocery store, it is that we’re all human and there is no shame in returning items. No one is immune to making errors when scanning items: it’s frighteningly easy to accidentally ring up over $75 worth of bananas with a simple scan. So do yourself a favor and double-check your receipts.
Tried something new and it wasn’t for you? There’s no shame in returning it. Your return likely won’t affect their profit margins nearly enough to warrant any returner’s remorse. Of course, there are those “characters” that all employees notice attempting to return the same frozen pizza over and over, but those scammers are very few and far in between.
Illustrations by Zachary Ellis
Mackenzie Filson is a food writer and contributing digital food producer at Delish. Her favorite ice cream flavor is chocolate-pine. If wine was an astrological sign she’d be a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. She’s never met a bag of Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos she didn’t eat in one sitting.