When Consumer Reports surveyed some 24,000 readers last year about their grocery-shopping experiences, we learned that how you shop can have an big effect on savings:
¢ Clip coupons. Consumers saved an estimated $3 billion last year by using manufacturers' coupons. Most of those coupons came from newspaper inserts on Sundays, but you can also download them from Web sites.
¢ Get a store card. These programs request personal information as part of the bargain, but with a preferred-shopper card, you receive automatic discounts on products in the store circular without clipping coupons.
¢ Buy a store brand. Products sold under a store's label account for more than 20 percent of packaged items in supermarkets. The goods are good: Sixty-four percent of our surveyed readers were highly satisfied with their store's brands. They're also a good buy, saving you an average of 26 to 28 percent off name brand across all categories, says Jon Hauptman, vice president of Willard Bishop, an industry consulting firm.
¢ Compare unit prices. Big packages aren't always more economical. In a typical supermarket, the larger size of a given brand is the poorer value about 25 percent of the time, according to a study by researchers at three universities. The Federal Trade Commission reported that canned tuna, peanut butter, ketchup, canned coffee and frozen orange juice frequently turned out to be costlier in larger containers.
Planning your purchases and route through the store can make your trip more efficient. Many chains' Web sites offer time-savers such as online list-making. Most chains also post their fliers online, so you might be able to compare prices at several stores. Just don't assume that all items advertised in the fliers are on sale. Because mere mention of a product in a circular can boost sales by as much as 500 percent - even without a price reduction - manufacturers may pay for placement there.
With list in hand and purchases planned, consider a change in direction. Most supermarkets have their entrance on the right side, and shopper traffic naturally flows in a counterclockwise pattern.
When customers go against the flow and move clockwise, says market researcher Herb Sorensen, there's a tendency to spend less time - and therefore less money - in the store.
Visit the Consumer Reports Web site at www.consumerreports.org.