Bottom-shelf bargains at the supermarket

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Lots of supermarket chains claim to bend over backward to serve their customers.

But experts say consumers can serve themselves by leaning a bit forward — to find overlooked bargains on the bottom shelves of grocery aisles.

It isn’t where you’re likely to find imported olive tapenade or balsamic vinegar older than a Spanish monastery. But on your next supermarket safari, hunting through the bottom shelf may be the ticket to bagging big savings.

“The better-value items, you will find on the lower shelves,” said Rajiv Vaidyanathan, executive director of the Association for Consumer Research and a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

The size of grocery bills is incentive enough to explore the bottom-shelf alternative. An article in Consumer Reports ShopSmart magazine noted last year that the average family of four spends $10,692 per year on groceries. Just a 5 percent savings comes to $534 annually.

Catching your eye

Vaidyanathan and other analysts say a couple of factors conspire to make the lower shelves a veritable bargain basement. For one thing, consumer product giants around the world covet eye-level shelf space. Sometimes they pay for the privilege, a practice known as slotting, according to the Food Marketing Institute. As a result, undiscovered smaller players don’t always get a chance to rent your attention.

Furthermore, it’s only natural that retailers turn over the best location to top names with big advertising budgets. They’re more likely to fly off the shelves, benefiting the producers and the stores. Yet despite 2010 sales exceeding $562 billion, the supermarket industry’s profit margin is just under 1 percent, according to the FMI.

But frugal consumers can also benefit by taking the shelf less traveled. According to a 2009 study by Consumer Reports, you can lower your grocery bill by looking down. The report adds that higher shelves offer similar deals. “Check high and low,” the report notes. “Supermarkets are in the real estate business, and prime selling space includes the middle or eye-level shelving. Check whether similar products on top or bottom shelves are less expensive.”

A southern direction

What will you likely find? It might include items being discontinued by the store, so they — and their prices — are sent south. They’re joined by the brands less likely to draw a crowd. And some products are in packages whose size — particularly super-sized — limits their popularity. Bulk grains and larger boxes of cereal are examples.

The net savings from bottom-fishing varies by product, store and personal preferences. But Vaidyanathan says some bottom-shelf equivalents have prices up to 50 percent less than their upstairs neighbors.

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.