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Image: Janet Cool displays frozen meet during the grocery auction
Matt Rourke  /  AP
Runner Janet Cool displays frozen meat during the grocery auction in Dallas, Pa.
updated 3/25/2009 2:09:58 PM ET 2009-03-25T18:09:58

Out of toilet paper? Need to pick up a few things for dinner? Take a number and start bidding.

Many bargain hunters these days are trading supermarket aisles for the auction circuit in search of deep discounts on everything from cereal to spare ribs. Past the sell-by date? Bidders are happy to ignore that detail if they're getting a good deal.

As consumers seek relief from the recession and spiraling food prices, grocery auctions are gaining in popularity as an easy way to cut costs. The sales operate like regular auctions, but with bidders vying for dry goods and frozen foods instead of antiques and collectibles. Some auctioneers even accept food stamps.

When Kirk Williams held his first grocery auction in rural Pennsylvania last month, nearly 300 people showed up. Astonished by the turnout, he's scheduling auctions at locations throughout northeastern Pennsylvania.

"Right now, people don't have a lot of spare pocket change," said Williams, 50, operator of Col. Kirk's Auction Gallery near Bloomsburg, Pa. "They're looking to save money."

Rich Harris, 28, who was recently laid off from his welding job, showed up at Williams' auction in Dallas earlier this month looking for meat for his freezer and snacks for his kids. With his wife pregnant with their third child, "I'm basically trying to expand my dollar right now," he said. "The deals, they seem to be fairly good."

Grocery sales make sense for auctioneers, too. Sales of baseball cards, estate jewelry and other auction staples have "fallen off a cliff," Williams said. He hopes to average about $12,000 in sales per auction, which would net him a profit of about $1,000.

The popularity of the auctions — which sell leftover or damaged goods from supermarkets, distribution centers and restaurant suppliers — comes at a time when people are stretching their grocery budgets by using more coupons, buying inferior cuts of meat, and choosing store brands over national brands.

The economic downturn, paired with the worst food inflation in nearly 20 years (grocery prices spiked in 2008 before easing in January and February), has caused a "seismic shift" in consumer behavior, said Brian Todd, president of The Food Institute, an industry information service.

"Food is one area where they can save," he said.

The increased interest has fueled growth in the auctions, which can be found in at least nine states from Oklahoma to New York.

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Banana Box Wholesale Grocery, a Kutztown, Pa.-based food brokerage that supplies salvage grocery stores around the nation, has seen a marked increase in calls from auctioneers getting into the food business, said manager Greg Martin.

At Steve Schleeter's grocery auction in St. Mary, Ohio — where attendance has swelled in recent months — some regulars have told him they now do most of their shopping at the auction and only go to the store for milk and lunch meat. He estimates his customers can knock 50 percent off their grocery bills.

Cherish Francik, 42, who works for the Social Security Administration, said she wouldn't have been caught dead at a grocery auction or even a discount food store a few months ago. But the tough economy has turned her into a tightwad.

Now she brags to her co-workers about her frugality.

"Most of my life, I've been a brand-name shopper. It was a quick change for me, a real quick change," said Francik, whose haul from the Williams auction included trail mix, honey-barbecue chicken nuggets and a spiral-cut ham. "I guess it's sort of a thrill now to find something that tastes good and is the right price."

Inside the auction hall in Dallas, a small town north of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Williams uses a singsong, rapid-fire delivery to sell everything from frozen broccoli (six boxes for $2) to pork ribs ($20 for a 14-pound hunk) to candy bars (10 Baby Ruths for $2). Especially popular are the frozen foods — pies, bratwursts, chicken breasts, popcorn shrimp, whole hams, french fries.

Displaying an 11-ounce bag of cheese curls that retails for $1.99, the veteran auctioneer chants: "Dollar and a quarter, dollar and a half. Dollar and a quarter, buck and a half. Buck and a half, buck seventy-five."

His colleague, Roger Naugle, stops the bidding at $1.50.

"Who wants the cheese curls?" Williams says. "Down there, No. 17 wants two. No. 7 wants one. No. 33 takes two. Guys, who else? These are so good. Anybody else on the cheese curls? Anybody, anybody, anybody else? All fresh and in date."

As workers fan out with armloads of bags, Williams tees up the next item. And on it goes, for hours. Customers head to their cars balancing precariously overloaded boxes of food.

Some of the goodies have wound up here because they're out-of-date. But the auctioneers stress that they're still OK to eat. The Food and Drug Administration does not generally prohibit the sale of food past its sell-by or use-by date — manufacturers' terms that help guide the rotation of shelf stock or indicate the period of best flavor or quality.

"There is not one thing in this sale today that Kirk or myself will sell you, that we would not, do not, will not, or have not taken home to our own families!" Naugle tells the crowd.

Linda Dennis, a group home manager from Wilkes-Barre, said she wasn't phased by the Feb. 9 sell-by date on a bag of frozen pizza bites.

"The quality and taste may go down, but that doesn't mean you can't eat it," she said.

The same kinds of goods sold at grocery auctions also find their way to salvage stores, flee markets, closeout sales and food banks, though Williams said he avoids merchandise that is severely damaged or well past expiration.

Like any auction, grocery auctions aren't automatically a bargain. Savvy bidders should know what things cost at the supermarket to make sure they're truly saving money. The excitement sometimes leads bidders to overpay.

"Every once in a while, a customer bids it, and you're going, 'I'm pretty sure that's cheaper in the store,'" said Schleeter, the Ohio auctioneer.

For the most part, though, the auctions pair food that needs a home with consumers who want to save a buck.

Marvin Mason, who runs grocery auctions in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio, said the percentage of shoppers who use credit cards and food stamps instead of cash has increased, indicating more people are showing up out of necessity.

"We've had more people who are needy, who have to watch their money," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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