Saving money on groceries is hard, but learning how to shop for groceries by unit price can make it much easier. The unit price is the number on the grocery shelf that tells you how much you spend per ounce, per gram, per liter or per gallon.
Some groceries, like fruits and vegetables, are priced per item. But what about things like flour, rice or tomato soup? As consumers, we typically shop for these things based solely on past experience with the brand. If we bought a particular type of flour in the past, or we know it’s the kind our parents bought, we’re much more likely to reach for it on the shelf. But this isn’t always the best way to pick the right one to take home.
If you’re not a math wiz, bring a calculator with you when attempting to shop by unit price.
Getting Started: Where Unit Price is Based on Quality
When it comes to things like meat where brand plays a less critical role in the decision-making process, we often make a selection by the total price or by the way the cut of the meat looks. But have you ever compared the quality of the meat you’re looking at by the unit price? This is easy at the deli counter as well.
Shopping for meat is a great way to cut your teeth at being a unit price comparison shopper. Meat is always clearly labeled when it comes to the price per pound. Filet minon carries a high price per pound. Tougher meet carries a low price per pound. The key is in recognizing that, with meat, quality is reflected in the unit price.
This is because each piece of meat is a little bit different. If the butcher slices a thicker porter house, the grocery store doesn’t want to worry about pricing it exactly the same as all the other porter houses. Of course, the grocery store doesn’t have to worry. This is because the grocery store has a fixed price-per-pound when it comes to porter house steaks. Try comparing different cuts of meat by their price per unit, and you’ll find that in general, the better the cut, the higher the unit price.
So now you might be wondering why sometimes you are able to get an awesome price on a big piece of a great cut of meat. This is because, as with most things at the grocery story, meat needs to go on sale in order to be moved because it goes bad. However, the other reason you are able to find better pricing at some stores when it comes to meat is that their supply is better so they generally have a lower unit price on each kind of cut. Buy a bigger piece and you’ll notice a bigger overall savings on the piece of meat.
Inside the Aisles: Shopping by the Numbers
When you walk away from the meat counter, you’ll likely notice a different trend. Out here in the “wild,” the price per unit has less to do with true quality and more to do with brand. The good news? In the world between the aisles, the unit prices are still there to help you shop smarter and better compare.
Grocery stores make it their business to shelve similar items next to one another so you can buy the one that suits you best. They add convenience by listing the unit price so you can better compare. Try selecting from similar goods by looking at the unit price. You might find the cheapest item by unit price is the one you regularly buy for its brand. This is often because businesses operate more efficiently at a large scale. Simply making more of something than anyone else means you have the chance to buy ingredients at a better price.
However, much of the time, the brand you don’t know as well will carry the lowest unit price. For example, the bagged cereal in the cereal aisle almost always has a lower unit price than the fancier stuff in boxes. This is because the boxed cereal makers know you value the brand and they can charge a higher price because of it. The trick when it comes to shopping by unit price in the aisles is in recognizing that the familiar brand is often selling the exact same thing as the generic or lesser-known brand. For example, over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen or asperin have the same chemical makeup as Advil or Bayer. They’re exactly the same. This can also be true when it comes to groceries.
Beware of “Shrinkage”
One way many of the manufacturers and marketers responsible for selling goods on the grocery store floor do so is by selling a little less of the same thing for a lower total price. You might be looking at a half-gallon (1.89 liter) bottle of laundry detergent and a 1.5 liter bottle of another brand without even noticing it. The price per unit is there to help you recognize the difference in actual bang for your buck in this scenario.
If you’ve ever noticed the ribs under the label of a sports drink bottle, or the amount of air space in a freshly opened bag of chips, you’ve noticed how making it look like more but cost less is valuable to a brand.
What tips do you have for price shopping at the grocery store to save money. Do you compare unit price always? Never? Just in certain circumstances? Please share your best tips in the comments section below.