Save at the Supermarket: Boost Your Price Power!

On any trip to the grocery store, it's the first and simplest question: what's the price?

Time was, it was easy to know the price of any grocery item; before computers, each can, carton and bottle sported a physical price tag.

Old-school physical price tags made food costs clear--and to raise prices, grocers had to re-tag food items.

This labor-intensive process discouraged wide swings in pricing. Shoppers knew what food cost, and it was easy to notice rising prices.

Hello, 21st century! In today's supermarket, finding the price of any item is no longer so straight-forward. What's a savvy shopper to do?

Today's computer-powered POS systems allow grocery stores to change item prices with a few keystrokes at the home office. Last week's $2.49 bottle of salad dressing? Today, it'll cost you $3.69!

This ability to reprice groceries on the fly has led to a perfect storm of supermarket promotions and price manipulation, all designed to do one thing: make it difficult to know how much food really costs. These pricing games are intended to obscure the true cost of groceries, and to trick shoppers into seeing bargains where they don't exist.

That $3.49 bottle of dressing? Well, the "club card" price is $3.29, and this week, if you buy $10 worth of the manufacturer's products, you'll earn a coupon good for $3 off your next shopping trip. Add in cents-off coupons, factor in store rewards .... and you'll need a calculator and about 3 minutes to answer the simple question: "What's the price?"

How to fight back when a trip to the supermarket feels more like a pop quiz in math class? Learn the difference between "unit price", "shelf price" and "target price" to cut through the pricing maze. Focus on these price pointers to guide buying decisions at the grocery store:

Compare Costs According to Unit Price

It's the grand-daddy of all pricing considerations: unit price. For most foods, it's expressed as the cost per ounce--and it will tell you at a glance whether the 16 ounce bottle of salad dressing is a better buy than the 8 ounce bottle.

For those of us who aren't enamored of arithmetic, it's not always easy to calculate this price on the fly. To find unit price, divide the total cost of the item by the number of ounces: a pound package of pasta that costs $1.60 carries a unit price of 10 cents. The larger, two-pound package that retails for $2.40 has a unit price of just over 7.8 cents, making it the better buy.

However, reaching that conclusion took this math-phobic writer three minutes and some pencil scribbling on the back of an envelope.

Thankfully, many jurisdictions require grocery stores to list unit prices on shelf tags. Wear your reading glasses to find the tiny type, but the information you need will be found in the small print!

Making buying decisions according to the unit price also protects against what our friends at The Consumerist term the "grocery shrink ray".

Our 16-ounce bottle of salad dressing stands next to a "new improved" package of the same flavor. Close inspection shows that the new bottle design contains only 14 ounces of dressing--but it's being sold at the same price as the older model.

Comparing unit prices guards against inadvertently paying more for what looks like the same product.

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Printables: 

Price Book
Shopping List