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How to make the most of grocery shopping

Grocery stores are getting bigger and more complicated. Unless you have all day, wandering aimlessly through the store can be frustrating, and it can wreck your budget, says Susan Mitchell, a nutritional consultant for SuperTarget stores. Her advice: shop with a plan.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Most people pay for their groceries with three currencies — money, time and angst.

Grocery stores are getting bigger and more complicated. Unless you have all day, wandering aimlessly through the store can be frustrating, and it can wreck your budget, says Susan Mitchell, a nutritional consultant for SuperTarget stores.

"Start with a plan," she says, "preferably a running grocery list that you add to at home every time you run out of something." That can keep you moving swiftly through the store and cut down on impulse buying.

Here are some other time, and money-saving, tips for your next shopping trip:

1. Pick a shopping strategy and stick to it.

When most people shop, they either hunt or gather, says Adam Roberts, who wrote "The Amateur Gourmet: How to Shop, Chop, And Table-Hop Like A Pro (Almost)."

His theory is that most amateur cooks, and most Americans for that matter, are hunters who shop with a list and go about tracking down the items the need. And usually in a hurry.

Great chefs, his theory goes, are more likely to be gatherers, who go shopping just to see what looks good, what's in season or what strikes them as interesting.

2. Keep a well-stocked pantry.

Sometimes the best tricks start at home. Grocery shopping can feel less overwhelming if you keep a well-stocked pantry, says Roberts. That means keeping things such as pasta, rice, eggs, cheese, olive oil, butter and spices on hand.

These items act as wonderful backdrops for whatever you bring home that's seasonal or fresh. And having plenty of goods on hand alco can make the shopping take less time and feel less overwhelming.

It also can help you save money. If you know what's in your pantry before you leave the house, you'll be more likely to eat what's in your cupboard, says Liz Crawford, a consumer strategist at consumer reasearch firm Iconoculture Inc.

3. Use a menu plan.

Spend a few minutes before shopping to plan out the meals for the coming week. And this doesn't just mean dinner; figure out lunches and breakfasts, too. Then assemble your shopping list based on those.

This saves time and money because you only buy what you need. And if you have a plan for using the foods you buy, they are less likely to sit uneaten in the back of the refrigerator.

"It may take 15 minutes or so on the front end," says Mitchell, "but you make it up in the time spent at the store, and you keep your budget in check. You can take advantage of your store's weekly sales when coming up with recipe and menu ideas."

4. Know your store's layout.

Once you know what you need, the next thing that will improve your efficiency is knowing your grocer's layout, says Bill Chidley, vice president of strategy and research at Design Forum, a retail design firm in Dayton, Ohio.

Pay attention to where your store places things you need. (Is the drink you want for your toddler in the juice section or the baby aisle? Are protein bars by the cereal or the vitamins?)

This helps you navigate the store and keeps you from crushing your bread and chips with bulkier items such as bottled water and laundry detergent, says Chidley, whose clients include chains such as Kroger and Meijer.

And know that the perimeter of the store, by design, is set up to slow you down.

"The big outside aisle is called 'the racetrack,' " says Crawford, who studies the way new products are marketed.

"That's where the shopper is encouraged to browse," she says, and spend more money on things like pricey cheeses or imported olives. So if you want to stick to your list, avoid stopping at the little islands along the racetrack.

5. To keep your shopping trip efficient, try to avoid the crowds.

"Avoid shopping on Saturday or Sunday or even Friday night," when stores are at their busiest, says Herb Sorensen, president of Sorensen Associates, an Oregon-based marketing research firm that studies the way people shop.

But stores also tend to stock up for the weekends, which means that's when the freshest items are available.

Sorensen suggests shopping early on Friday afternoons. By then much of the stocking for the weekend is done, which means you get fresh food without the crowds.

Another idea is to ask a cashier when the slow times are so you can adjust your shopping schedule, Mitchell says.

6. Find out about delivery days.

Ask your store managers when fresh produce comes in, when breads are baked and when seafood is delivered, Mitchell says. And it likely varies by supermarket and location.

The fresher your produce or baked goods, the longer they will last after you bring them home.

7. Use coupons, but use them wisely.

Use coupons for products that you would normally buy, but skip any others, no matter how good a deal. If you wouldn't have bought it without a coupon, you're not really saving money.

"In my supermarket shopper traffic research, people with coupons bought more items than people without them," says Kenneth Herbst, an assistant professor of marketing in the Babcock Graduate School of Management at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "Though they saved money on the specific items for which they had coupons, their bill in the end was higher."

8. Ditch the plastic.

Crawford says that if money is tight, pay with cash.

"People tend to spend less if they pay with cash," she says. "It's tactile and immediate."

Unlike using your debit card, using cash can really remind you how much you've emptied your wallet after you've filled up your cart.