ColumnistsMy Turn

Grocery Store Pet Peeve. Is It Just Me?

By Bruce Frassinelli  

GroceryLiving alone, I am engaged in shelf-to-shelf combat in my own personal version of the supermarket wars.

One of my biggest pet peeves is the requirement to buy multiple items to get the sale price. The most recent affront was a great Cheerios sale price of $1.87, but to get this price I needed to buy four boxes.

I like a bowl of cereal now and then, but It will take me months to eat four big boxes of Cheerios, and by that time the last box will be borderline stale, so there goes my savings.

For the last decade or so, supermarkets have tried to entice me with offers such as 10 containers of yogurt for $5. This was OK, though, because if I bought one or two, I paid 50 cents or $1 — no penalty for the smaller number of purchases. Shoppers in the know realize that you are not required to buy 10 units to get the sale price. You can buy as few as you want and pay only the per-unit price times the number of units.

When I shop, I must be on constant guard for my mortal enemy — the fine print. The other day I saw Kraft Cracker Barrel cheese for $1.97. My eyes widened. I love cheese, and normally this product sells for $3.39, but as I reached for an 8-ounce package, I spied the dreaded fine print — “must buy four, all others $3.19.”

My heart sank. My mood darkened. I felt disrespected, betrayed. I calculated briefly how long it would take to consume four packages of this cheese, especially since I might have a piece or two with a glass of wine. I quickly concluded that it just wasn’t worth taking the chance. Moldy cheese is not my idea of an appetizing accompaniment to Ritz crackers.

Sometimes it is clearly stated that you must buy the advertised quantity to get the advertised price. At other times, I wished I had brought along my magnifying glass. Depending on where the product is positioned, I sometimes must get on my knees to read the small print. Then I’ve got to get up. Well, that’s another story. No combat compensation either.

At least twice during the past year, I went home thinking I had paid a certain price for a product, only to realize that I had paid up to 40 percent more. Why? I didn’t pick up on the blasted fine print.

In each case, I went back to the store to plead my case. Each time I was given a refund, because the store manager agreed that the disclaimer was small and possibly difficult for these senior citizen’s eyes to read.

Now, before I leave the store, I sit on a bench near the checkout and go over each purchase carefully, paying special attention to the bargains I thought I was getting. So far, so good.

I don’t want to be a skeptic, but I figure stores may be counting on the fact that most shoppers don’t check their store receipts carefully and won’t catch the higher price if they missed the fine print and bought just one of the advertised items.

When I was discussing my discontent with pricing policy, a friend, who is married with three children, told me to “suck it up” and “stop whining.” He said the requirement to buy three, four or more works out “just great” with his family of five.

“It’s discriminatory,” I told him, the same argument I made with the manager of the supermarket where I shop. I have complained so many times that the manager decided to shut me up. He told me that even though the advertised price requires multiple purchases, he would allow me to buy just one item at the best sale price.

It’s a bit inconvenient, however. I must go to the service desk where I am charged the higher price, then I am given the difference between this price and the sale price in cash.

“What, are you nuts?” my friend asked. “You sometimes must wait in line five minutes to save 26 cents?” “Hey,” I told him, “better to have the 26 cents in my pocket. Besides, I’m retired; what do I have to do that’s so urgent that I can’t wait around for five minutes?”

Phil Lempert, a California-based food industry analyst known as the “supermarket guru,” advises shoppers to adopt my tactic. In stores where buying the whole deal is required, Lempert said that shoppers should take the items to the courtesy counter and ask if the store will give the discount on just one item purchased. “If not, and it’s a product that will not spoil, see if it is one that you might use over the next 30 or 60 days. It may well be worth the savings to buy both.”

These chains need to realize that not every shopper has a family at home. We seniors who have lost spouses are especially vulnerable to this discriminatory pricing practice. “This is not fair for the elderly who do not need that many of the same item because of storage problems or price,” says shopper Helen Olander of Mexico.

Among large chains, Wegmans promotes consistent low prices so customers don’t have to run around town chasing deals, a spokesperson at the Rochester area-based company said. For multiple-item promotions, in almost every case you can buy just one item at the sale price, the spokesperson said.