Are discount grocery stores worth the savings?
Like most people, I’d rather not spend any more at the grocery store than I have to. Over the years, I’ve tried every trick in the book to save money on groceries. And the single best way I’ve found to cut my grocery bill is to shop at discount grocery stores.
Discount grocers like Aldi and Lidl offer much lower prices than big chains like Walmart and Kroger — not just on a few products, but on nearly everything they sell. When I hit my local store, I save money on every single item on my shopping list with no extra effort.
Admittedly, discount grocery stores have their limitations. They offer a smaller selection of products than a regular grocery store, and their quality can be uncertain in some cases. Hours are often limited, and the atmosphere isn’t fancy. But the savings make it well worth it.
Types of Discount Grocery Stores
The term “discount grocery store” can refer to two types of store: salvage stores and limited-assortment stores. Both types of discount grocers offer low prices. However, their selections and the strategies they use to keep their prices low are quite different.
Salvage stores sell goods rejected or discarded by other grocery stores. They’re also known as surplus grocery stores, closeout grocery stores, bent-and-dent stores, or grocery outlet stores. Like outlet fashion stores, they sell products other stores can’t at significantly reduced prices.
Salvage Store Inventory
Salvage and outlet stores can get goods at a discount for various reasons. Their merchandise includes:
- Overstock. Sometimes, supermarkets find themselves with more of a product than they can sell. They sell them to a salvage retailer at a steeply reduced price to clear their shelves. The salvage store passes the savings on to its customers.
- Discontinued Goods. Grocery stores often need to unload merchandise they no longer want to carry. Some of these are out-of-season goods, such as Halloween candy in November. Others simply didn’t sell well.
- Damaged Goods. Supermarket shoppers prefer food in perfect condition. Slightly damaged food, such as dented cans or ugly-looking veggies, tends to get left on the shelf. Grocers sell them to salvage stores for less fussy customers to buy.
- Late-Dated Goods. Some of the wares on a salvage store’s shelves are approaching or even past their expiration dates. However, that doesn’t mean they’re unsafe to eat. Their quality is no longer guaranteed, but they’re still safe and often still perfectly good.
- Unsuccessful Products. Sometimes, a company like Kraft or General Mills tests a new product or new packaging for an existing one and finds it isn’t a hit. Rather than discard the unsuccessful products, they sell them to an outlet store.
- Wreck Salvage. A few goods at salvage stores are literally salvaged. When a truck carrying groceries gets into an accident, goods often fall off. Salvage retailers reclaim the surviving items from these wrecks and put them on their shelves.
Because salvage stores sell items recovered from larger chains, most of their offerings are name-brand products. However, these rejected products sell at much lower prices than usual.
The selections at salvage stores aren’t limited to food, either. You can also find wine and beer, health and beauty products, cleaning supplies, and pet food. There are even some non-grocery products like garden supplies, office supplies, or clothing.
But the selection at these stores is a bit haphazard. It varies weekly based on what other retailers happen to discard. And a few products at salvage stores are unfit for consumption, such as half-rotted produce or severely dented cans.
In short, shopping at salvage stores is a bit like a treasure hunt. You can pick up some real gems, but you might have to dig through a lot of doubtful bargains to find them.
Examples of Salvage Stores
One sizable chain of salvage stores is Grocery Outlet Bargain Market. It has over 400 locations, mostly in the northwestern part of the United States.
This chain’s offerings include fresh meat, produce, frozen foods, health and beauty products, and wines. These goods can be as much as 70% off their retail price. Items marked as “WOW deals” are particular bargains.
There are also many independent salvage stores located across the U.S. They’re especially common in Amish country.
You can find stores near you by consulting the directory at Extreme Bargains or searching online for “discount grocer near me,” “outlet grocer near me,” or “salvage grocer near me.”
There are also chain stores known as job-lot or liquidation stores that sell salvaged and overstock goods. They don’t specialize in groceries, but they usually have some food products for sale. One example is the Ocean State Job Lot in the Northeast.
Dollar stores don’t focus on food, although most carry some grocery items. However, they often use the same methods as salvage grocery stores to score bargains on overstock and discontinued goods.
Limited-Assortment Grocery Stores
Limited-assortment grocers are just like regular grocery stores but with a smaller selection of products. Many of them offer just one brand and size for each product they sell. The stores are smaller and need fewer employees to stock the shelves. That helps keep prices down.
Limited-assortment stores also keep prices low by cutting out extras. For example, they typically don’t have fresh bakery, deli, or floral sections. These no-frills stores often display products right in their shipping cartons so employees spend less time stocking shelves.
If you shop at a limited-assortment store, expect to bag your own groceries. You must also bring your own bags or pay extra for bags at some stores.
Some chains even require customers to pay a $0.25 deposit to use a grocery cart. This small fee encourages shoppers to bring the carts back rather than leaving them in the parking lot. That way, the store doesn’t have to pay employees to collect them.
Limited-Assortment Store Inventory
Limited-assortment grocery stores tend to focus heavily on their own private-label store brands. At some stores, that’s practically every product on the shelf.
In fact, some limited-assortment stores, such as Trader Joe’s, have built a bit of a cult following around their store brands. Devoted customers regularly visit these stores for products they can’t find anywhere else.
If you’re loyal to any name brands, you probably can’t do all your grocery shopping at limited-assortment stores. But it’s worth visiting them for staple foods that are often similar regardless of brand. Examples include flour, sugar, salt, vinegar, and cooking oil.
Examples of Limited-Assortment Stores
There are many limited-assortment grocery chains in the U.S. Major ones include:
- Aldi. This German chain has more than 2,000 stores across the U.S. Its stores are small — about one-third the size of a traditional grocery store. It sells primarily store brands, including organic, gluten-free, and European specialty food items.
- Dollar General. This chain has over 17,000 stores in 46 states. Many of them are in small towns and rural areas with few other stores. Its fresh food options are limited, but it has great prices on staple foods, household goods, and non-food items like clothing.
- Food4Less. Part of the Kroger family, this chain includes about 50 stores in Southern California, Illinois, Indiana, and Nevada. Its deeply discounted selections include produce, bakery, dairy, meat, and foreign foods.
- Lidl. This European chain entered the U.S. in 2017. It now has over 150 stores along the East Coast, from New Jersey to South Carolina. It has higher-end goods than many discount grocers, including organic products, fresh-baked goods, and affordable wines.
- Save A Lot. There are over 1,000 Save A Lot locations in over 30 states, many in areas with few or no other stores. Its small, no-frills locations carry primarily store brands. But it gets high marks for its inexpensive meats and fresh produce.
- Trader Joe’s. Loyal fans flock to Trader Joe’s for its high-quality store brands. Its specialties include wine, cheese, organic foods, and goodies like cookies and frozen dumplings. The chain has over 500 locations in 43 states.
- WinCo. This employee-owned discount chain has over 100 bare-bones stores concentrated in the western U.S. Most stores are open 24/7. One notable feature of WinCo is its use of bulk bins like the ones at Whole Foods to cut down on packaging.
How to Save Money at Discount Grocery Stores
To get the most for your grocery dollar at discount stores, you have to shop strategically. Some grocery shopping strategies are the same for both salvage and limited-assortment stores. Others are more useful for one type of store or the other.
Check the Store Hours
Many salvage stores have limited store hours, which helps keep costs down. They’re only open on certain days or hours each day.
But it’s seriously annoying — and a big waste of gas and time if the store’s far away — to plan a special trip to a closed salvage store. So always check the store hours before you go.
Confirm Coupon Policies
One of the most popular ways to save money on groceries is clipping coupons. Unfortunately, that trick doesn’t always work at discount grocery stores. Most salvage stores and many limited-assortment stores refuse manufacturer coupons.
But at the few stores that take them, such as WinCo, the savings can be significant.
For example, suppose you have a coupon for $1.50 off a 12-ounce bag of ground coffee. At a regular grocery store, that coffee might cost $8.49. That means your price with the coupon would be $6.99.
But at a discount grocery store, you might find that same bag of coffee for as little as $3.99. With your coupon, you’d pay only $2.49. That’s less than one-third the regular retail price.
To find out whether you can score bargains like this at your local discount store, check the store’s coupon policy. If you can’t find it on the store’s website, ask a cashier.
Even if a discount store doesn’t take manufacturer coupons, it may issue its own store coupons. For instance, you can sign up for the mailing list at Grocery Outlet to get deals such as $5 off any $25 purchase. Most limited-assortment stores also offer special deals to subscribers, though Aldi and Trader Joe’s do not.
Few salvage stores accept credit cards, and some limited-assortment stores follow suit. That’s because credit card issuers charge merchants a fee to use their cards.
Most stores pass these fees on to customers through higher prices. By refusing credit cards, discount stores can keep prices lower.
Some stores are starting to relax their no-credit policies. For instance, on my most recent trip to Aldi, I was able to pay with my credit card instead of having to use cash. But to be on the safe side, bring cash or a debit card on your first visit to any new store.
Examine Containers Carefully
At salvage stores, it’s common to encounter food in damaged packaging, such as dented cans. In most cases, the food is still safe to eat. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says it’s not dangerous to eat canned food if the dents are slight.
However, if a can has a deep dent — big enough to lay your finger in — leave it on the shelf. Deep dents can compromise the seal, letting bacteria in.
The same guidelines apply to rust. A little rust on the surface that rubs right off is no problem. However, heavy rust can create tiny holes that admit bacteria.
Food in torn or dented boxes is also safe as long as the plastic bag inside the box is intact. Boxed foods with no inner liner, such as pasta, are OK if the box is only dented. But if a box is torn open to expose the food, it’s best to leave it.
Examine Fresh Produce
Fresh produce at discount grocery stores is a mixed bag. On some trips to Aldi, I’ve failed to find a single bag of potatoes without at least one that was visibly rotten. On the other hand, the bagged Brussels sprouts and miniature avocados at Trader Joe’s have never let me down.
Since quality is hard to predict, it’s best to examine all produce carefully for signs of spoilage before you put it in your cart. In fact, that’s a good policy at most grocery stores. Even at big supermarkets, I often find a couple of mushy strawberries in a quart container.
Understand Expiration Dates
Food at salvage stores is often close to or even past the expiration date on the package. But that doesn’t mean it’s unsafe to eat. Dates on food are there to assure food quality, not food safety.
There are several different types of expiration dates, each with its own meaning:
- Best if Used By means the flavor or quality of the food is best before the given date. Past this date, crackers might be a bit stale, or powdered milk might have an off-taste.
- Sell-By dates tell stores how long to keep the product on their shelves. Food is still good up to this date and for several days after. For example, milk doesn’t go sour until five to seven days past its sell-by date.
- Use-By dates tell consumers when the product will be at peak quality. They’re not an indication of safety for most products. The only product it’s unsafe to buy or use after its use-by date is baby formula.
Most products, including canned and frozen foods, are still safe after any of these expiration dates. The only time frozen food might be unsafe is if it has been thawed and refrozen. If the freezers at the store have puddles around them or don’t feel cold everywhere, pass them by.
There’s one non-food product on which dates are important: over-the-counter drugs. According to the Food and Drug Administration, drugs degrade over time. Any medicine past its expiration date may be unsafe or ineffective.
Know How to Spot a Good Deal
Although discount grocery stores generally offer low prices, they’re not always the lowest possible. Sometimes, you can do better at a regular grocery store by buying store brands or stacking sales with coupons.
The best way to spot the true deals is to keep a grocery price book. It’s simply a record of the prices you typically pay for the grocery items you buy most often.
For instance, the page for peanut butter in my price book tells me that the best price I can usually get is $2.85 per pound at Costco. So if I go to a discount store and see peanut butter for only $2 per pound, I know it’s time to stock up.
Consider All Brands
Salvage stores have a wide variety of brands on the shelves. Some are familiar name brands you know and love, like Campbell’s or Coca-Cola. When you find these, you can take the opportunity to stock up on your favorites.
But these name brands aren’t always available. Often, they carry off-brands you’ve never heard of before, like Banquet mayonnaise or Finest refried beans.
Similarly, when you shop at limited-assortment stores, there are very few name-brand products for sale. Most of the offerings are store brands, though they don’t always have the store’s name.
For instance, Aldi calls its cereals Millville and its snack foods Clancy’s. Save A Lot names its store brands after former employees, like McDaniel’s coffee and Sunny’s cookies.
Don’t discount these brands just because they’re unfamiliar. Some of them are just as tasty as the name brands you’re used to. But you can’t be sure until you try them.
To be on the safe side, buy the smallest package the first time you try an unfamiliar brand. If you like it, you can stock up on it next time. And if not, you haven’t wasted much money.
Stock Up When Appropriate
Discount grocery stores are great places to stock up on goods you use a lot. Even if you can’t use something right away, it makes sense to buy plenty, especially at salvage stores. Their stock is ever-changing, so the product might not be there the next time you shop.
But stocking up only makes sense for nonperishable goods or those you know you can use before they go bad. There’s no point in buying six avocados if four of them are going to turn black before you eat them.
The best products to stock up on are canned foods, shelf-stable foods, and produce with a long shelf life. Potatoes, onions, and garlic can all last a long time if you store them in a cool, dry place. Frozen foods are also a good choice if you have a big enough freezer to store them all.
If you don’t like the offerings at one local discount store, don’t let that put you off the idea altogether. Each discount grocery store is different. If you don’t like the store brands at Aldi, maybe you’ll prefer the ones at Save A Lot.
Also, remember that the selection at salvage stores changes frequently. If you didn’t find anything you liked at your local store the first time, it’s still worth going back to see if it has anything better next time.
Shopping at discount grocery stores requires an open mind. The brand names aren’t as familiar, and the packaging isn’t as pretty. But if you’re willing to take a little extra time, these stores offer a way to save money every time you grocery shop.
For more tips on saving at the grocery store, check out our shopping archive.