Using Consumer Reports to Assemble Your Grocery List

Long time reader Bob writes in:

I like reading all of your suggestions about making a grocery list and searching for bargains. My technique is actually pretty simple. I trust Consumer Reports completely – they’ve never led me wrong. So each month when I get an issue, I write down their “best buys” in each product category. That’s what I buy – I just look for the best deal among these. I often use coupons for things on that list, too.

I actually really like this idea – it provides a wonderful balance of getting quality items for a good price. In fact, I decided to give it a try myself with a few product categories just to see the results with my own eyes, so I pulled out the May 2009 issue of Consumer Reports and went shopping with five product categories in mind.

Kids’ Breakfast Cereal
Consumer Reports identified four best buys for cereals for children, balancing health, tastiness, and price: Cheerios, Life, Kix, and Honey Nut Cheerios.

I pulled out the grocery flyers this past weekend and found a sale at Target on the General Mills cereals (Cheerios and Life). I then flipped through the coupons and quickly found a coupon for those cereals.

End result: the price for a “double box” of Cheerios or of Life, after the coupon, was cheaper than almost any other cereal in the aisle, with only some generics beating them. After doing an ingredient and Nutrition Facts comparison, Life was our product of choice. The kids utterly love it and it’s pretty good for them, too.

Glass Cleaners
Consumer Reports identified five best buys for window cleaners: Windex No Drip Foaming Action, Sprayway Ammonia Free, Windex Crystal Rain Ammonia Free, Glass Plus, and Streak Free with Ammonia (the Wal-Mart store brand).

The solution here is a simple one: shop at Wal-Mart and get the store brand at roughly a third of the price of the other brands.

I’m far from an expert on this category (as I don’t make coffee at home – keeping it as an out-of-home treat keeps me from getting addicted to the morning joe), but Consumer Reports identified Eight O’Clock 100% Colombian, Caribou Coffee Colombia Timana, and Kickapoo Coffee Organic Colombia as the three best choices.

In the stores I visited, Eight O’Clock 100% Colombian was the cheapest of the three by far, usually costing less than $5 for a 12 ounce bag of whole bean coffee. Here’s the trick, though – there were many coffees that were less expensive.

Since I’m not familiar with this area, I asked my wife for some input and she said that unquestionably, the price premium of the Eight O’Clock coffee over Folgers is worth it. She claims the volume difference in the containers is deceiving, since it takes substantially more Folgers to make good coffee than whole bean Eight O’Clock. So, three votes for the Consumer Reports model.

Tub & Tile Cleaners
Consumer Reports says Comet Scratch Free Disinfectant with Bleach, Ajax with Bleach Scratch Free, Kaboom Shower Tub & Tile, and Green Works Natural Bathroom Cleaner are the best choices, with Green Works being not quite up to the standards of the other but the best of the “natural” cleaners.

Coupons for Comet are extremely easy to come by and they reduce the cost of Comet below the store generic brand for that item. It works well for cleaning our tubs.

Creamy Peanut Butter
This was the one area where there was some debate. Consumer Reports identifies Smucker’s Natural and Smucker’s Organic as the two best buys for peanut butter.

Smucker’s Natural is substantially cheaper than Smucker’s Organic, ringing in at $2.49 for a 12 ounce jar at my store of choice. However, there were several peanut butters available for substantially less on the shelves. Having tasted Smucker’s Natural, I can say that it is quite noticeably tastier (much stronger peanut flavor) than many of the lower-end brands, and the texture is better, too. An ingredient comparison shows that it’s healthier as well.

For me, Smucker’s Natural would be the purchase if I had a coupon for it. Otherwise, I’d put off buying the peanut butter.

My Conclusion
From my experience, Bob’s strategy simply works if you’re trying to get the maximum value for your dollar (and not just seek the bottom dollar). This strategy pairs up well with looking at coupons and flyers, reducing the price benefit that the store brand has over the “best buy.”

Will I switch to this strategy? Perhaps not completely, but I am starting a list of the Consumer Reports best buys. It works surprisingly well.

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