How to Use Grocery Store Circulars To YOUR Advantage, Not Theirs

Everybody's familiar with those little advertising circulars grocery stores print and mail out weekly. Most of us dump them directly into the recycling pile without a second thought. In reality, however, your grocery store’s weekly circular is a profoundly useful source of price information for any cost-conscious shopper. In fact, I believe these humble weekly circulars are the most underutilized and underappreciated tools in the empowered food shopper's toolbox.

And yet, if you’re not careful, they can separate you from your money. We'll see why in a moment.

To use a circular efficiently and to your best advantage, you'll want to focus on two key questions:

1) What are the "doorbuster" sale items?
2) What useful information is there on store prices in general?

1) Doorbusters
We discussed doorbuster pricing techniques already in a recent (and brief) post, so I'll refer you there first. To summarize, retailers will, on occasion, offer an item on sale at a ridiculous, hilarious discount in order to lure you into their store.

Stores don't do this out of the goodness of their hearts. They do this because, in general, a significant portion of most retail shoppers' spending consists of impulse purchases--items they did not intend to buy prior to entering the store. The retailer therefore makes back all its doorbuster losses and then some. Sadly, with most shoppers, the store wins simply by getting them to set foot in the store. It goes without saying that an empowered shopper doesn't fall for this common retailing tactic.

Not every retailer uses doorbuster pricing, and not every weekly circular will contain genuine doorbuster items, but this retailing technique offers enormous opportunities to save money, as long as you have accurate context for what grocery items should cost and what really is an attractive sale.

2) Pricing Information
Which brings us to our second point. The most useful aspect of grocery store circulars is they offer you extensive and easily accessible knowledge about prices. The typical circular contains hundreds of items, priced clearly and overtly. This means you can comparison shop from your Lay-Z-Boy just by skimming two or three different store circulars together. No long do you have to stumble from aisle to aisle and from store to store looking at shelf after shelf of products.

And it's not like you have to waste hours every week poring over all your circulars in excruciating detail. Just flip through a couple side-by-side once every few weeks and get a little context for some of the items you often buy ("hmmm, store X generally charges 59c for canned beans while store Y charges 79c").

This helps you determine three things:

1) What are appropriate market prices for items you typically buy,
2) Which of your local stores generally offers lower prices on these typically purchased products, and...
3) Over time, this knowledge gives you an instinctive ability to recognize a really, truly good sale when it happens.

Now you know which store you should generally shop at, and you have the tools to instantly distinguish between a real doorbuster sale and a phony one.

Readers: now it's your turn. Do you use circulars? How, and why? Share your thoughts and ideas below!

Read Next: "When U Know the Cost, You Know the Margins"

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Ros said...

Just commenting to say that I really appreciate these financial posts - money is a concern for most people, and it's much more valuable to learn how to work with what's around you as a system than just saying 'this is cheap, do this'.

Daniel said...

Thank you Ros! I really appreciate it.


Marcia said...

Yep, I regularly look through circulars, and I know which stores have better prices on certain items.

Each week I take a piece of paper with each store in a different corner, and write down the best prices (canned beans is a good example, at one particular store).

Now, I may or may not even GO to those stores. I usually have plenty of other choices in the pantry. I have it written down in case I want to go.

I am out of pasta though. Waiting for the next sale. I can get the regular stuff for $1 a pound at TJs, but still waiting for something better.

Daniel said...

Marcia, with any luck I should have a post up next week on the value (or lack thereof) of going to more than one grocery store. You're reading my mind!


Laura @ 50by25 said...

I read the circulars every single week and make my grocery list from that. I get circulars delivered in my mail from four stores, and while it sounds like a lot of effort to frequent that many groceries, I usually pass each of them in the course of the week and just pop in to buy the two or three items on my list. I would say that 90% of my food is bought on sale, and it's rare that I ever buy something at full price. (And yes, I eat tons of meat and produce.) For produce, I find that you can find a sale on just about anything that's in season, and for meat, I buy when it's on sale and freeze it. You lose a little bit of flavor but for me the convenience of always having a variety of meat that won't go bad is well worth it!