Thrifty Spending Issue 93: Feature Article

Bottom-shelf bargains at the supermarket

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.