You Don't Have to Go to Vegas to Gamble! Just Walk into a Supermarket!

It's always easy to spend money in a casino. The same is true for grocery stores. Suppose you need milk and eggs. Are these items located conveniently at the front of the store? No way. You have to walk all the way to the back of the store. Chances are, you'll end up at the cash register with more than milk and eggs. . . especially if the kids are along for the ride. . . If you walk out of a supermarket with money in your pocket, you've beaten a clever scheme whose purpose is to separate you from every dollar in your wallet. Here are some common store merchandising tricks and how to avoid them. LET THE BUYER BEWARE!

Wall of Values. Many stores feature large displays of "special" items in the front. The only way to know if these products are really good values is to compare prices. Sometimes items up front are higher priced than other items elsewhere.

Mixed Pricing. Higher priced items may be mixed with lower priced items. Know what you are buying and how much it costs.

Price Tag Problems. Lower price tags may be located a few inches away from the item they refer to. The item directly above the low price tag may be more expensive. This is a big problem in deli sections.

Missing Tags. The high price item -- and alternatively -- the low price item may not have a price tag. Selection is price roulette. Put those items in a special part of your basket and check their prices as you go through the checkout line. If they are more than you want to pay, tell the clerk you don't want them.

Large Sizes Aren't Necessarily the Best Buy. Carry a calculator with you (or do the math with pencil and paper or in your head) to compare prices. Figure the price per ounce or pound or whatever the measurement. Large sizes can be more expensive per unit than the smaller sizes. Large sizes are may be the best choice, the only way to know is to compare prices.

Fiddling with the Package Size. Sometimes they keep the price the same, but reduce the amount.

Big Displays Aren't Always the Best Buy. Big displays may offer big deals or no deals. The only way to know is to compare prices. A big display only means the store bought a lot of it.

Brand Name Games. Big corporations spend billions of dollars to convince you that Brand X is better than Brand Y. In reality, the brand name and the generic or store brand come from the same food factory, they just get different labels. Buy canned goods based on price.

Coupon Games. This is the first cousin to Brand Name. Even with a coupon, the item may be more expensive than the store brand. If you just have to have the name brand, coupons are better than nothing, but don't fool yourself that you're getting the best deal. Stores that offer double coupons may have higher prices in general than other stores, so compare prices.

Look high and low on the shelf. The high priced items are usually placed at eye level on the shelf. Low priced items will be either high or low on the shelf.

Meat Goes Down, Canned Goods Go Up. There's no such thing as a free bag of groceries. If meat prices are low, the prices of canned goods have probably gone up. And if canned goods are cheap, the meat is expensive. This changes every week. Buy extra supplies when items are on sale. By keeping a month's worth of basic groceries on hand, you are insulated from these regular "price mood swings" at the grocery store. If canned goods are high, don't buy canned goods that week, wait until they are cheaper.

Watch out for the 1st and the 15th of the month. Many people get government benefits and paychecks on these dates. Stores nearly always have some great deals at these times, but other items may go up. Take advantage of the deals, but you may want to wait for the rest of your list. Watch the price of powdered milk at these dates and just before. Also, powdered milk is often much less expensive at suburban stores.

The Snack Food Game. The biggest money-losing games - the absolute worst deals - in the grocery store are the snack foods. You pay a big price for a few cents worth of popcorn and sugar or potatoes, grease, and salt. It is always cheaper, and it is always more tasty, to make your own snack foods.

Look for alternative ways of getting food. Shop at farmers markets, or join a food cooperative that features local producers, and most importantly, grow some of your own food. Gardening is like finding money growing in your back yard.

Don't blame the grocer too much. He's just trying to make a buck like everybody else. He profits from the fact that many people have more money than time. And some of the problems (especially in the meat and deli sections) may be caused by customers moving things around. But don't be fooled by the merchandising games. The store has a legal right to price its merchandise. You have a legal right to buy or not buy the merchandise. The store won't go broke because you decided to get a better deal and save money. By shopping smart, you encourage grocers to offer real deals, not trick deals. Be fair to yourself and your family. Genuine deals are out there, but you must look carefully, with your eyes wide open and your calculator and pencil in hand,

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Robert Waldrop