How do you decide where to shop?

Distance from home, bargains, cleanliness, customer service, store organization, shopper rewards, bulk discounts...which factor is most important to you? Which should be?

By , Guest blogger

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    A customer shops in the refrigerated section of a Chicago supermarket on May 12, 2008. What do you prioritize when deciding where to shop?
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Why do you shop at your preferred grocery store?

Think about it for a minute. What reasons do you have for shopping at one store over another? Is it purely the prices? What about the location – is it because it’s close to your home? Cleanliness (like my Aldi story a while back)? Store organization? Convenience? Shopper rewards programs? How they treat their employees? How their company behaves? Availability of certain specific goods? Cost to get in the door (a la Costco and Sam’s Club and B.J.’s)?

All of these (and more) are factors when you choose where to shop. Some stores are going to excel in one area or another and do poorly in other areas. A store that excels on prices will often tank in other areas, like employee treatment (like Wal-Mart). A store that excels on prices and employee treatment fails on cost of admission and organization (like Costco). Experiences in some of these areas will also vary from place to place.

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My choice of store centers around a handful of factors. At minimum, a store has to have a certain level of cleanliness or I’ll turn around and walk out.

I won’t bother to go more than about three miles farther than the nearest grocery store to shop, but that rule includes Hy-Vee, Wal-Mart Supercenter, Aldi, Fareway, Dahl’s, Sam’s Club, Super Target, and Cub Foods, so there’s plenty of choice in that range.

I tend to prefer stores where it’s easy to find what I want – the more bad experiences I have wandering around trying to find something, the less likely I am to come back, even if the prices are great. After that, prices rule, in my book.

I’m not too worried about the shopper’s reward policies or their corporate behavior, and the cost of entry issue mostly comes down to “do I save money over the long run.”

What am I left with? I have a handful of stores I prefer to shop at (topped by Fareway) and another handful I’ll stop at for specific sales or specific items.

That’s great and all, but why am I writing about this?

First of all, the sticker price is rarely the bottom line. Almost always, if I strictly chase the absolute lowest price on an item, I end up costing myself more because of the additional costs.

For example, I won’t drive an extra ten miles (and spend that extra time) to save an extra dollar. The automobile wear-and-tear and maintenance costs will eat the savings and you’ll have spent a chunk of an hour chasing that imaginary dollar. I’ll happily spend an extra dollar at a different store to save me that twenty minutes and the wear on the car.

Second, a bit of planning trumps most of the other factors. Be patient on your staples, for example, and don’t be afraid to buy a lot of them when the right price comes along. This requires some planning, of course, but it allows you to buy the items you need from locations that are acceptable for you, ethically or otherwise.

An example: I would have to drive significant extra mileage to hit a CVS (around here, DrugTown is the most common drugstore chain) in order to take advantage of their bargains. What I’ve learned, though, is that patience, planning, and coupon use often trumps their bargains elsewhere, which enables me to not have to spend time and money traveling to CVS to get a “bargain.”

So what’s the best solution?

For me, it’s simply a matter of knowing and using a small handful of local stores, being patient, and hitting the good sales there hard.

Knowing two or three local stores makes them convenient and increases my ability to find things in those stores, making shopping trips faster (and time is money).

It also allows me to narrow my searches for sales. I only really pay attention to a few different grocery store flyers when planning my grocery shopping. I pay attention to coupons, but only in the sense of “this is a coupon for a staple, let’s clip it and see if it eventually matches a store sale.” This attitude saves a ton of time.

In a nutshell, patience trumps “super” bargains for me in that it saves me time and allows me to be choosy about where I shop so I can take advantage of the other aspects of grocery shopping (like convenience and being able to easily find items).

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