smart spending

Bottom-shelf bargains at the supermarket

A recent supermarket trip gave concrete examples of the phenomenon. A 17-ounce bottle of olive oil at eye level was 46 cents per ounce. A 51-ounce bottle of the same brand was 31 cents per ounce on the bottom shelf, one-third less. A 16-ounce jar of kosher dill pickles was 17.44 cents per ounce on the prime shelf, while the 46-ounce lower shelf jar was just 6 cents per ounce, or two-thirds less. An ounce of grape jelly was 12 cents in a 12-ounce jar in a prime location, while the unit price was 6.5 cents in the 32-ounce jar down below -- a savings of nearly half.

Certainly, it makes no sense to buy a bigger size if you won't end up using it all. And smart consumers should remember there are frugal alternatives at eye level, too. Most notably, private labels, which boost grocery chains' profits, are often put next to the name brands. That way, shoppers can easily and quickly compare prices, says Timothy Richards, chair of agribusiness and resource management at Arizona State University.

And a word of caution: Some items on remote shelves actually carry premium prices. Those would be products with special appeal to limited but loyal shoppers willing to reach -- and pay extra -- for them. Health foods and ethnic delicacies are frequent examples. "They expect shoppers who really want it are going to look for it," Richards says.

Down with that

Vaidyanathan attributes bottom-shelf bargains partly to consumer psychology. Often, the offerings are literally and figuratively looked down upon; there's a mistaken notion that shelf height equates with quality. In fact, they're perfectly good goods. "A lot of people don't end up seeing what's at the lower level," he says.

Richards advises shoppers to trim grocery spending by fighting the tendency toward impulse buying. Many in-store marketing efforts are designed to induce unplanned purchases, which often translates to grabbing what's closest. Even organized shoppers can fall victim. An example: "People walk in with a list that says 'milk,' but they buy a different brand than what they normally buy."

Vaidyanathan endorses lists, but says to complement them -- by setting your sights low. "People with a list who go in knowing what they're going to buy, they're going to find bargains down on the lower shelves," he says.

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