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GROCERY GRADES
WE ASKED EXPERTS TO EVALUATE THE TECHNIQUES OF SOME LOCAL FOOD SHOPPERS WITH AN EYE TOWARD FORMING HABITS THAT ENSURE HEALTH AND VALUE

Food shopping seems to be more of a hassle every day. Prices are high, and the busy lives that most of us lead increases the pressure.

The average weekly household grocery bill (food items only) in 2003 ranged from $52 for one person to $138 for a family, according to the Food Marketing Institute, a trade organization.

Budgeting is wise, but that takes time and effort. Healthy food is important, but it's not always the cheapest way to go.

What's a shopper to do?

Knowing that anyone's grocery shopping skills can be improved, we set out to ease the pain. We asked three different households to collect their grocery and any restaurant receipts for a week. Then we asked two experts to suggest ways the households might save some money and be more efficient.

We talked with Sheila A. Bass, extension educator who is manager of Cornell Cooperative Extension's Eat Smart New York program, a federally funded program that helps food-stamp recipients with healthy shopping.

And we consulted Dr. Arun K. Jain of the University at Buffalo School of Management, whose areas of expertise include retail marketing strategy as well as consumer habits and needs. Each came up with some interesting comments.

Every one of us shops differently, of course, and no week is typical. Our subjects were of differing ages and at different stages of their lives; each had their own unique style of stocking the pantry.

Still, as you read the profiles and comments below, we hope they'll give you some time- and money-saving ideas.

Household: Pat and Robert Quinlan, retired with two cats and one dog.

Capsule Description: Thinking ahead.

Shopping Profile: "We keep enough food on hand to withstand a siege," says Pat Quinlan, and she's quite serious. The couple take advantage of copious shelf space in the basement of their smallish house as well as a chest freezer.

More than enough room, in other words, for provisions. About every six weeks, they make a foray into Sam's Club, a discount store. The tape they submitted from there ran close to $165 and included items like sausage, pasta, meat, bacon and chicken -- all purchased in large sizes and stored.

Pat Quinlan says she also buys items like baking needs, noodles and juice by the case.

"I break down the meat (into small packages) and freeze it," she says.

The Quinlans also keep a running list of what they need.

They shop in both Tops and Wegmans and are very aware of prices. "Sometimes I do better with double coupons than at Sam's Club," Pat says. And sure enough, one of the tapes submitted from Wegmans indicated several coupon savings.

Other items purchased on a weekly basis from both Wegmans and Tops include perishables like milk, orange juice, produce items as well as bottled barbecue sauce on sale and specialty coffees.

The total spent at supermarkets for the week (three visits, two supermarkets) was about $60. A bonus card was used.

The Quinlans eat most of their meals at home. As a general rule, Pat visits a chain restaurant only once a week. That bill -- she took her mother -- ran to a little more than $10.

Experts' reaction:

Bass: She read the shopping tapes carefully and thought that the Quinlans could take even more advantage of their discount-store shopping. Her advice:

"Buy barbecue sauces and tissues at the discount store," she suggested. "These are staples that are cost-effective to purchase in quantity.

"Reduce the purchase of preprepared items, for example, gravy mixes and prepared salads," Bass said.

"Make your own salad dressing.

"When making a large purchase every six weeks at a discount store, be sure to decrease the number of trips to grocery stores," she added.

Jain: "These are very clever shoppers," he said approvingly, although he did have some advice for most people who buy in quantity.

"You have to be careful, because you don't always save money by buying in large amounts. You have to have a place to store the food, and sometimes, especially with a small family, there is waste.

He also had a caveat about coupons. "Many stores will only double coupons up to 99 cents. So sometimes larger coupons don't save you much."

"Since these people are retired, they may have a little time to spare, and they will find that visits to roadside markets and farms may save money," he suggested.

In warm weather, local strawberries, peaches, pears, cherries are delicious. They are cheaper and always better quality than you can buy in stores. Sometimes they have special prices on things like bananas, too.

Household: David and Margie Setzer and daughter, Ashley, 12

Capsule Description: True food folk.

Shopping Profile: "Real foodies" is how the Setzers describe themselves, and they are not exaggerating.

David Setzer is the current head of the local Slow Food organization, dedicated to encouraging the consumption of locally grown fresh food; Margie comes from a restaurant family and is a meal coach at Wegmans.

It's very important for them to avoid fast food or processed food; they shop just about every day. "Look at our freezer -- there's nothing in there," Margie Setzer says proudly.

Since both of them work outside the home -- David is a technology manager -- they are definitely time challenged, especially since they just moved and are spending much of their time getting the new house in order.

They still cook from scratch and, as David Setzer points out, they don't shop for bargains or make grocery lists very often.

"We tend to create menus as we wander around the store," Margie explains. She brings staples home from her job at the market just about every day.

David Setzer likes to shop at small stores to fill in, buying produce from Guercio's on Grant Street or sausage from Spar European Meats and Sausage on Amherst. He brings lunch from home, "usually leftovers," he says.

A week's worth of grocery tapes from early June gave us five receipts, mostly for high-end meat, bread and milk. There are some gourmet items like European butter and olive oils -- the Setzers maintain an informal olive oil bar in their home with five or six types each for its own purpose.

They also buy organic produce and small bags and containers of juice or chips for Ashley's school lunch.

Total supermarket bills for a week came to around $180.

There were also slips from Guercio's for produce and meat, totaling around $75.

Starting this month, the family will be participating in a community-assisted agriculture program in Cattaraugus County that will supply their produce and eggs. That share runs $425 for a period running through October. They share driving duties with a neighbor.

The Setzers eat most meals at home, visiting restaurants only once or twice a year. Breakfast is basic cereal during the week, more involved on weekends. Dinners are pretty complete with meat, vegetables and seasonal fresh fruit for dessert -- that week, rhubarb was high on the list.

Experts' reaction:

Jain: "These people shop for the value food has to them rather than to simply fill their stomachs," says Jain.

He sees that as a perfectly acceptable thing to do.

"It's obvious that food is very important to them," he says.

Granted, they do pay more for that, Jain says, but everyone has priorities. "Food is one of the pleasures of life," he says. And, he also adds, "The Setzers do save money by eating good food at home as opposed to eating it in a restaurant."

What about the fact that both the Setzers perform shopping and cooking chores? Dr. Jain approves, calling it a "good division of labor." It's especially beneficial because both spouses have an idea of where and how the food money goes.

He also notes, with approval, that even though the Setzers buy high-end food, they save money on private label or generic cleaning supplies.

But he does have a few suggestions, too: Even though Margie Setzer works at Wegmans, it might be better to shop at more than one supermarket, because certain items at different supermarkets are priced differently. They are called "loss leaders" and change from week to week.

Bass:

Even though the Setzers shop daily to procure the freshest food, Bass thought they might cut down the number of shopping trips to only once or twice a week. In fact, she made that criticism for each of our households. "Limiting the number of trips will reduce impulse buying, which saves both time and money," she notes.

The extension educator also believes that the family should prepare a weekly or biweekly menu instead of shopping on instinct.

And though the Setzers tend to prefer fresh food, Bass thinks they should keep a well-stocked freezer anyway. That will help cut down on shopping trips, she notes, and "in addition, by having some foods on hand, they'll prepare themselves in the event of unsuspected circumstances."

Household: Mary Joy Buscemi, single. Lives in her own house.

Capsule Description: A food shopper with a definite philosophy.

Shopping Profile: "This is an unusual week for me," Buscemi says as she hands over her grocery tapes. "I'm moving to Canada with my mother for the summer" and it's been a heavy grocery week.

The week is unusual in other ways, also. Buscemi, recovering from surgery, was off from work, so she's been eating most of her meals at home. Usually she eats out at least twice a week, she says.

And, there's been a lot of food in the house, as well. "People come to visit you, and they bring things to eat," she explains.

As a rule, Buscemi doesn't visit supermarkets very often.

"About every two weeks," she says. The Tops tape she handed in showed a total of about $40, taking advantage of some sale prices and a bonus card. Buscemi also bought some cleaning supplies, cereal, bananas, margarine and milk.

The remaining provision came from small neighborhood shops like the Meating Place on Grant Street, where she visited three times that week, buying meat, fresh mozzarella, homemade basket cheese and baked goods as well as produce. She spent about $130. There was also a tape from Joe's ValuMart in Ridgeway for about $17 (for cooked ham and baked goods).

Buscemi said she patronizes small stores because she enjoys the personal service. "They remind me of stores my family used to go to," she says.

She also likes the selection of food that's offered. "They have Luigi's bread, and that's my favorite," she says. "And very good mozzarella, too."

Buscemi shops in other stores occasionally, too. She goes to Aldi, the discount supermarket, and U.S. Foods, a cash and carry outfit. She produced a $15 tape from U.S. Foods for pepperoni, potato chips, diced onion and other related items. She goes to Johnny's Meat Market on Hertel Avenue for hot dogs.

And she also likes to visit outlets like Big Lots once in a while.

"I'm a smart shopper," she says. "I buy on sale."

Currently she's excited about buying cake mixes at Big Lots for 99 cents. She'll take them to Canada and use them when she entertains.

Left on her own, though, her meals are simple, such as a bagel and coffee for breakfast.

"I seem to skip lunch," she says. "I do like to make a pork roast occasionally for sandwiches, though I'm really not a meat person.

"And I like to make fresh marinara sauce. I keep a fresh basil plant in the kitchen. It only takes about 20 minutes," she points out.

Experts' reactions:

Bass: She had one suggestion for Buscemi: "Prepare for unexpected guests by having inexpensive snack foods on hands like fruit and fresh vegetables," she suggested. "You can always make some homemade dip to go with them.

"Avoid skipping meals to prevent cravings, which can lead to impulse buying," she added.

"If you choose to shop at your local grocery store for your enjoyment of personal service, follow the same tips you'd follow at a supermarket. Don't shop more than once or twice a week, use a grocery list, and don't shop when you are hungry."

Jain: He didn't think that Buscemi's diffuse shopping habits were such a bad idea, either. "I think she is a very good shopper," he points out. He noted that she bought private-label brands, which tend to cost less.

He did, however, spot frozen waffles and packaged salads on the grocery tapes. Uh oh. "Much more expensive than making from scratch," he said. You can buy lettuce in bulk and just make your own salad."

He also worried that she had purchased two loaves of bread on a two-for-one deal. "In such a small household, what is she going to do with the other one?" he wondered.

"Yes she could freeze it, but frozen bread doesn't taste the same."

He noted the purchase of Morton's salt rather than the generic product.

"Salt is salt," he stoutly maintained.

As for shopping in neighborhood stores, Jain approves of it. "Yes, they tend to be more expensive -- they charge for the convenience and generally don't give discounts -- but she is contributing to the stability of the neighborhood," he said.

He had one last comment, too. "She is also buying in small quantities and buying unique items that many supermarkets do not carry."

e-mail: jokun@buffnews.com