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By Herb Weisbaum
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/12/2006 6:52:08 PM ET 2006-09-12T22:52:08

Do you always shop at the same supermarket? If so, you might be better off using two stores. Consumer Reports suggests finding a store with good prices on packaged goods and another that has high quality meats, produce and baked goods.

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For its October issue, the magazine surveyed 24,000 readers and concluded  the “perfect supermarket” does not exist. Thus its suggestion to find two favorites.

“Where you find low prices, you’ll often find lackluster help, long checkout lines, and so-so fresh foods,” the editors write. “And where you find great service and goods, you’ll pay.”

No matter where you shop, you need to know the techniques — some would call them tricks — grocery stores use to get you to run up the bill.

Make a list and stick to it
The more time you’re in the store, the more money you’re likely to spend. That’s why the things you need each week — meat, eggs and milk — are in the back.  It slows you down and forces you to pass by the more profitable items along the way.

By knowing what you want before you go to the store, you’ll get in and out faster and buy fewer high-priced impulse items. My friend Phil Lempert, the food editor for NBC’s Today show, says this is one of the best ways to spend less.

Studies show people who don’t have a list will buy about 40 percent more than they had planned, Phil says. Most of those extra purchases “will either be impulse items or items you don’t need.”

Check the unit price
Usually, the bigger size is more economical, but not always. That’s especially true when the smaller size is on sale. The only way to know if the jumbo size is a better buy is to check the unit price.

For example, shopping this weekend I found the 182-ounce Clorox bleach selling for $4.39 or 39 cents a pint, while the 96 ounce size was $2.19 or 37 cents a pint. The smaller box of SOS steel wool pads was also the better deal. A box of 10 pads was $1.89 or $18.90 per 100. The box of 18 pads was $3.49 or $19.39 per 100.

Signs and displays that make you want to buy
Some store signs are designed to get you to spend more. In most cases, when it says “10 cans of corn for $10” you don’t have to buy 10 cans. You can get “1 can for $1” or “3 cans for $3.” Don’t let that sign trick you into buying more than you want.

It’s easy to assume the products on the big display at the end of the aisle (known as the endcap) are on sale. But they may not be. Endcaps are just prime display areas used to move product, often at full price. Consumer Reports says these displays can boost sales by as much as 30 percent.

Where is it in the store
Want to save money on cheese? Supermarket Guru Phil Lempert says head to the dairy case, not the deli counter. The cheese in the dairy case is “typically the same quality,” he says, and you’ll pay considerably less for it.

Expect to pay more — on a per unit basis — when you buy things near the checkout line. At one store, I found a 12-piece package of Eclipse gum at the checkout stand selling for 99 cents or $8.25 per 100 pieces. In the candy aisle, I could get a 3-pack of 12-piece packages for $1.99 or $5.53 per 100 pieces.

You’ll probably pay a premium price for a single cold beverage at the front of the store. A 20-ounce bottle of Snapple iced tea in the checkout line refrigerator was $1.43 or $1.15 a pint. A 4-pack of 16-ounces bottles in the beverage section was $2.75 or 69 cents a pint.

I found the same dramatic difference with Diet Pepsi. A cold 20-ounce bottle at the register was $1.43 or $1.15 a pint. A six-pack of 24-ounce bottles was $3.99 or just 44 cents a pint.

Convenience is costly
Time-starved consumers are immediately attracted to convenience foods, such as pre-packaged salads and cut-up produce. You’ll pay a lot more to have someone else do the work.

On my weekend shopping trip I found a one-pound bag of whole carrots selling for 99 cents. At the same store the eight-ounce bag of shredded carrots was $1.49, about $2.99 a pound.

To save money, buy the whole food and do the chopping, shredding or cutting yourself. In some cases, Phil Lempert says, it may be cheaper to buy a bagged salad mix because you won’t have any waste. This can be true when you buy several different ingredients for your salad or you live alone and can’t use everything before it goes bad.

Save with store brands
Consumer Reports says store brands will save you up to 50 percent without sacrificing quality The magazine’s deputy editorial director Kim Kleeman says you can find many store brands “that are just as good, sometimes better than national brands.” In fact, many store brands are made by the big manufacturers.

Store brands usually come with a money-back guarantee. If you don’t like the product, just bring the unused portion back to the store.

A final tip
Don’t assume everything that’s listed in a store’s weekly circular is on sale. Manufacturers sometimes pay to be listed here. And don’t rely on pictures. Consumer Reports found an ad showing chicken legs and thighs, when only the legs were on sale.

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