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Take a plan when you head to the store

I admit it. I did it just last week.

I was scurrying through the grocery store, feeling guilty about leaving my pooch home alone after a long day at work, and just started chucking things into my cart.

I needed paper towels and there they were, on the end cap. Did I check to see whether they were the best quality for the least money? Did I compare the unit price with the other brands of paper towels to be sure I was getting the best deal? Did I dig in my bag to see whether I had a coupon for a better price? Nope.

I thought of poor Olive all alone in her crate, stuck listening to the smooth jazz station on cable, and grabbed the first bundle I saw.

To feel better, I told myself it was probably the best bargain, anyway. It was on the end cap for goodness' sake! That's where all the best bargains are, right?

Well, sometimes. But not always. And because end caps often do display great deals, it's easy to get lulled into thinking that whatever is displayed there is your best bet.

This time, it turned out that if I had taken the time to go all the way down the paper towel aisle, I would have saved $2.

As you probably know, lots of thinking and spending goes into deciding where items will go in a grocery store. That's because placement makes such a huge difference when it comes to what and how much we will buy. Retail strategists have set up stores to extract every dollar possible, and continue looking for ways to improve their odds.

A recent study by UB researcher Ram Bezawada, assistant professor of marketing in the University at Buffalo School of Management, looked at the placement of chips and pop. Bezawada and co-researchers found that when the cross-category items were placed in the same aisle directly facing each other, the weekly sales of each increased by more than nine percent! What's even more interesting is that when the items were moved apart from each other by one aisle, sales dropped by 1.5 percent. Interesting, no?

So what do you think is happening there? Do you think people planned to buy both chips and soda, but just kept forgetting one of them because they're so far away from each other? Or is seeing them together simply irresistible? Who knows?! But either theory does kind of demonstrate why it's important to bring a list and not shop on an empty stomach.

So, when shopping, why not use a little strategy of your own?

Look to the top and bottom shelves. The priciest items are situated at eye level. Check in the bulk aisle for better prices on things such as nuts, chocolate-covered pretzels and cocoa. Unit pricing, the "real price" per unit, listed next to the retail price, is the greatest invention since Froogle. It allows you to easily compare the cost of products across brand and item size using a standard unit of measure. Finally, private label goods often boast the best quality for the lowest price, and are worth a try. Private label (formerly called "generic" products) are my go-to brand for just about everything.

And next time, let the dog out before you go shopping.

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