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Beat the stores at their own game

When we go shopping, most of us are paying SOME attention to the cost of our grocery items. While we may not be a walking database of pricing, we certainly make conscious choices to take sale items over full price items....but is the sale price you're getting today REALLY the best price you can get?

Supermarket pricing runs in quarterly, or 12 week cycles. At the early part of the cycle, an item is going to be at its full retail price. Let's use brand-name soda as an example - full price is usually somewhere around $1.60 for a 2 Liter bottle in my area. This will generally be when the shipments first arrive, and they have some time before sell-by dates approach expiration. Unless you're in dire need of a particular item, there's no reason to jump on a purchase at this point.

Eventually items will go on sale. HOWEVER this is what is referred to as the "phantom" sale price. It's discounted, but not by much (maybe 15-30 percent). Our soda will be at about $1.45 at this point. If you're running low on something it's probably enough to get you to buy right then and there, but it's hardly the best you can do.

There is often one more price drop before you hit the golden mark - this is when you'll see the 2-fer and 3-fer sales that LOOK like fantastic deals, but this is just a marketing tool that plays on your perception of a good price. Not everybody will take the time to do the math and figure out what they're actually paying per unit. Soda at this point will hit the 4-for-$5 mark, which is about $1.25 per bottle. It's a decent deal, but we haven't hit rock bottom yet.

A side note on these 2-fer deals - unless specifically mentioned in the flyer, the store does not require you to buy the full number of items to get the sale unit price! So if you're low on Progresso soup and they're on sale at 5 for $8, grab two or three to get you through, but don't feel pressured to max out the item count just because the store says you should.

Finally, at the end of the 12 weeks - the Promised land of sales!! Items hit rock bottom price - for our soda example this would be when the 2 liter bottle goes for $0.75, 10-for-$10, or something close to that. THIS is the time to stock up and fill your pantry or freezer with these items. You end up saving over 50%, and that is WITHOUT coupons. (This is where the Couponmom system really shines)

Most sites that talk about the sales cycle recommend keeping a price book, as different items start and finish their 12 week cycle at different times. Keeping track of the rock-bottom price for the items you use regularly will help you know when to stock up and when to shop in your pantry. Keep a small notebook with
your coupons - write things in pencil as you go through the sales flyers and only change the price when you find something lower - note the date as well and soon the cycles will show themselves and you can plan your shopping lists accordingly.

Another thing to watch for is the Loss leaders - these are the items that the store will practically give away, to draw you into the store and fill your shopping cart with everything else you hadn't planned on buying. These will usually be on the front or back page of the flyer, with the other best deals for that week. Stock up with these little gems but make sure that's all you buy - don't get drawn in to buying other items at full or early sale price.

And finally, learn how to properly store what you've got. Filling your pantry and freezer with bargain finds is wonderful, until the bugs get into the flour and the meat has freezer burn and is near inedible. Over the next few weeks I'll share what I'm learning about proper food storage and ways to make sure that your stocked pantry doesn't turn into a compost pile.

Week 3 of my shopping challenge is on - the sales flyers arrive today so tomorrow afternoon I should have the next shopping excursion planned out! Is it bad that this is feeling more and more like a sporting event?

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