Wegmans, Trader Joe's, Publix Top Consumer Reports Supermarket Survey

New tips to save big and avoid costly in-store mistakes

Shoppers found Wegmans' and Trader Joes supermarkets among the most satisfying chains to shop at according to Consumer Reports latest survey of the best national and regional grocery chains.

Consumer Reports asked 32,599 respondents about their experiences at supermarkets, supercenters, or warehouse clubs in the past year. In total, Consumer Reports Ratings include information from 48,831 store visits.

Rounding out some of the other top-rated chains shoppers found to be very satisfying were Publix, Raleys, Harris Teeter, Fareway, Costco, Whole Foods Market, Market Basket, WinCo Foods, and Stater Bros.

Overall, grocers earned higher marks than in CRs last supermarket survey (2005) for service, checkout speed, quality of store brands, baked goods, and produce. But finding the perfect store was difficult. The few chains that were spotless, offered standout meat and produce, and had helpful and friendly staff and quick checkout earned only average scores for price, at best.

The survey found its hard to find the perfect store. Respondents found Trader Joes, Costco, Market Basket, WinCo, Aldi, and Sav-a-Lot to be better than others at offering low prices. Wegmans and Whole Foods, offered praiseworthy meat and produce and Wegmans, Trader Joes and Raleys earned high marks for service. On the other hand, the least expensive markets generally offered so-so perishables and service.

Walmart, the nations largest grocer and the supermarket where the highest percentage of survey respondents shopped (14 percent), landed near the bottom of CRs Ratings, with low scores for service and perishables. Target proved better than many chains but has only 200 locations with a full grocery store inside.

Respondents still had plenty to complain about. The biggest gripe was mostly about not enough open checkout lanes. Walmart was the worst offender: Half of the respondents who shopped there said that not enough lanes were open. Other leading gripes: congested aisles and out-of-stock advertised specials. One-third of all respondents reported that they had switched stores, usually in search of lower prices.

Savvy shoppers can slash bills

Consumer Reports found several growing supermarket trends including more visible value brands, expanded bonus-card programs, Web-site specials, longer sales, discount drugs, and more coupons, giving consumers greater opportunity to save. By doing a little homework and adjusting shopping habits, consumers can shave thousands of dollars off their yearly grocery bills.

Tod Marks, author of the Consumer Reports Tightwad Tod money-saving blog, found he could cut his bill by as much as 46 percent on the same 30 products at two stores over several days by changing his shopping strategies. First he impulse-shopped and it cost $288.26 for all 30 items. Then paying attention to price, Marks cut his cost significantly using different strategies: Savvy at supermarket: $166.22, Bulk Shopping at warehouse club: $156.16, Buying store brands at supermarket: $154.62.

The full price comparison on Tightwad Tods shopping list is available in the May issue and online at www.ConsumerReports.org.

New tips save big and avoid costly traps

Supermarkets are giant selling machines in which traffic patterns, product placements and even displays and smells lure shoppers to spend more. CR offers13 tips to help avoid the traps. Here are some highlights:

• Look high and low. Supermarkets are in the real-estate business, and prime selling space includes the middle or eye-level shelving. Vendors sometimes pay retailers hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in slotting fees to take on new products or display products prominently. Check whether similar products on top or bottom shelves are less expensive.

• Watch for sneaky signs. Many sales tempt you to buy more than one bag or boxby touting, for example, four boxes of cake mix for $5. But rarely are you required to buy all four to get the discount. Retailers are just planting a number in your head, hoping youll buy a lot.

• Buy bagged produce. Some produce is much cheaper by the bag than by the pound. One ShopRite location recently offered a 5-pound sack of potatoes for $2.99, compared with 99 cents per pound for loose ones in a bin. If the product has a long shelf life, bagged produce is a better buy, unless, of course, the only alternative is the 20-pound behemoth.

• Be selective when buying organics. Organic means expensive, so buy organic versions of produce thats most likely to harbor pesticides when grown conventionally, such as peaches, strawberries, and bell peppers. Organic meats and dairy foods might be worthwhile but not organic seafood because standards arent in place.

• Look at the location. The same food might be sold in several places throughout the store. At Stop & Shop, premium store-brand Swiss cheese was on sale at the deli for $6.99 per pound with a bonus card. In the refrigerated case, the same sliced Swiss was $5.58 per poundno card necessary. A chunk of the same cheese was $4.69 per pound, also without a card.

• Buy at the bakery. More and more supermarkets sell store-made baked goods, often for less than the commercial alternatives. At ShopRite, six hot-from-the-oven rolls cost $1.99; a packaged half-dozen from Freihofers cost $3.19.

Complete grocery store ratings on all 59 national and regional chains, great everyday products, more tips to save, and more on the latest grocery store trends are availably in the Consumer Reports May issue or online at www.ConsumerReports.org starting May 6, 2009.

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