The Truth About Grocery Store Flyers

One tactic I mention regularly for saving money on your food purchases is to watch the grocery store flyer for sales, then plan your meals (and shopping lists) around those sales. This tactic really works – I’ve saved quite a bit doing this over the years.

However, things aren’t quite that simple – you can’t just trust the store flyer.

Over the last several months, I’ve been keeping track of prices on several key items that we buy all the time. Garbage bags, fresh spinach, toilet paper, grapes, Pepperidge Farm goldfish crackers, and so on.

I know what the typical price is on these items – I even have a small price list that has the usual prices for them.

So, a few weeks ago, when I took a long look at the flyers from my grocery stores of choice, I happened to notice that some of the “big sales” listed in the flyer weren’t on sale at all. The price was exactly the same as what I usually paid.

What gives? I did some research – calling and emailing a few people I know in the grocery business – and I came up with a few interesting facts about grocery store flyers.

For starters, a large portion of the spots in a grocery store ad are actually paid placements by the product manufacturers. That “sale” on Coca-Cola? It’s likely that Coca-Cola – or a local distributor – paid your grocery store to have their product inserted into the ad. The price of that “sale” item is often unchanged from the normal price – the only reason it’s in the flyer is to put a few more bucks in the pocket of the grocery store itself.

Why would a company pay for such placements? According to Tod Marks of Consumers Union, a mere mention of a product in a grocery store flyer can send sales of that product up as much as 500%. Thus, in many cases, the small cost of the product mention in the flyer can easily be recouped by a big bump in sales.

Another technique often used in flyers is quantity-based tricks. Let’s say, for example, that you typically buy a quart of cottage cheese for $1.49. In the flyer, you might notice that cottage cheese is on “sale” for $0.99 – but it turns out that this is the pint container, not the quart. Without careful reading, one might head out to the grocery store and grab that $0.99 “bargain” without thinking about it, actually paying more per pint of cottage cheese.

These two factors lead to the real question: how can you trust grocery store flyers at all? Here are some tactics I’ve found that work well for finding the real deals in the flyers.

First, ignore “brand name” products. Quite often, these are placed by the large food companies and don’t actually reflect much of a bargain at all. Just skip right past them. Occasionally, one of these might be a “loss leader,” but you can usually only find them if you’re really good at filtering out all of the noise.

Second, focus on the fresh items. The items that are fresh – fresh produce and fresh meats – are rarely branded at all. These items tend to be the real sales in the flyer (but not always – you should always have a good grasp on what the real prices are).

Third, “quantity” sales are often tricky. Let’s say you see some particular item on sale – 2/$5. That could mean a lot of things – it might mean that the items are actually $2.50 each and you don’t actually need to buy two items to get the discount, or it might mean that just buying one item will cost you $3.29 or so – which isn’t really a deal at all. Read the fine print and don’t just immediately buy more than you need or assume it’s a great deal.

Finally, know your quantities. Sometimes, “sales” loudly proclaimed in a flyer are for very small sizes. Once you’re actually in the store, however, you’ll find that the the larger size is actually the better deal, even though it’s not on “sale.” Sales on small quantity items almost always indicate something that’s not really a bargain (unless you can couple a coupon with it and get it for free).

Flyers have a lot of good deals, but there’s a lot of noise as well. Figure out how to filter through the noise and you’ll save yourself a lot of money on groceries.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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