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TO HELP YOU stretch your grocery dollar--the average U.S. family spends about $5,000 per year--our latest supermarket feature couldn't come at a better time. Our reporter's shopping expeditions prove that you can save hundreds, even thousands of dollars per year. Our Consumer Reports National Research Center survey of 32,599 subscribers reveals big differences among 59 national and regional chains. Some were far better than others at offering low prices (Trader Joe's, Costco, Market Basket, WinCo, Aldi, and Sav-a-Lot), praise-worthy meat and produce (Wegmans and Whole Foods), or top service (Wegmans, Trader Joe's, and Raley's).
In the stores
Our survey also reaffirms that it's difficult to find a perfect store. The few chains that were spotless, offered standout meat and produce, and had a helpful and friendly staff earned average scores for price, at best. The least expensive markets generally offered so-so perishables and service.
That was true even among nationwide chains Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Walmart, Target, Costco, and Sam's Club. Whole Foods was seen as more expensive than other stores with a national presence. And although Costco scored highly for nonfoods in another of our surveys (Up Front, page 8), it and Sam's Club have minimal service, carry a limited assortment of mostly bulk items, and charge $40 to $50 per year to shop. Trader Joe's sells a narrow selection of mostly its own brands. Walmart, the nation's largest grocer and the supermarket where the highest percentage of survey respondents shopped (14 percent), landed near the bottom of the Ratings, with low scores for service and perishables. Target proved better than many chains but has only 200 locations with a full grocery store inside.
Overall, grocers earned higher marks than in our 2005 survey for service, checkout speed, and quality of store brands, baked goods, and produce. But respondents still had complaints, mostly about too few open checkout lanes. Walmart was the worst offender: Half of the respondents who shopped there said that not enough lanes were open. Other leading gripes: congested aisles and out-ofstock advertised specials. One-third of all respondents switched stores, usually in search of lower prices.
Wherever you shop, you can find good deals in this sagging economy. Like consumers, retailers are facing tough times, and they realize that they help themselves when they help customers make ends meet. Here are the trends that could save you money and make shopping easier:
More store brands. Almost all supermarkets offer store brands, and 66 percent of survey respondents told us they'd bought such products in the past month. Store brands sell for 25 percent less, on average, than the big brands, partly because they don't carry heavy product-development and promotion costs, says Jim Hertel, a managing partner with Willard Bishop, a food retail-consulting firm. Increasingly, stores are putting their own names on prepared meals, cold cuts, baked goods, fancy sauces, and organic goods in addition to the usual canned fruit, frozen veggies, and paper towels. Over the years, CONSUMER REPORTS' tests have found many store brands to be at least as good as national brands. Indeed, 70 percent of those surveyed said they were highly satisfied with the quality of store brands they'd purchased.
More visible value brands. Look for more "second tier," or price-oriented, store brands selling for about 35 percent less, on average, than national brands. The names stress value and shopping savvy: A&P's Savings Plus and Smart Price, Safeway's Basic Red, Bashas' Valu Time, and Food Lion's Smart Option.
Expanded bonus-card programs. Next to purchasing store brands, using a bonus card is the surest way to …