Most Americans shop for groceries at least once a week, but that doesn't mean they like it. Although the 24,000 readers surveyed last year by the Consumer Reports National Research Center were generally happy with the supermarket they used most often, they still had complaints.
About 30 percent griped about closed checkouts, 16 percent about congested aisles, and 11 percent about out-of-stock advertised specials. Forty-two percent of readers had actually quit shopping at a nearby store they used to patronize, citing high prices, long waits, and poor selection, among other problems.
The frustration is easy to understand. The average household spends nearly $5,000 a year on groceries, yet it's hard to find top service, rock-bottom prices, and great goods in a single store. Our top-ranked conventional supermarkets--Wegmans, Publix, Raley's, and Harris Teeter--generally scored high for service; meat, produce, and baked goods; and cleanliness, but those stores did not have the lowest prices. Many stores that emphasized low prices fell short in other critical areas.
We can cut your aggravation. Our survey results, interviews with experts, and shopping trips to all sorts of stores yielded dozens of tips that will save you time and money, and inoculate you against store tactics that can trick you into buying more than you need.
For one thing, you can look beyond old-style supermarkets to a new shopping landscape with more competition and more ways to shop. Among the choices:
* No-frills warehouse clubs, such as Costco, BJ's, and Sam's Club. You'll find big bargains, if you don't mind big bottles and boxes. But there are drawbacks: Service is practically nonexistent, brands are mostly limited to best sellers, and there's a $40 to $50 annual membership fee. Survey respondents told us that clubs have the longest checkout lines.
* Supercenters such as Wal-Mart, Meijer, and Fred Meyer. They are inexpensive and offer everything you'd find at a drug and mass-merchandise store (a regular Wal-Mart or Target, for instance), plus banks, hair salons, and maybe even eyeglass stores. But at about 170,000 square feet, roughly five times the size of a typical supermarket, supercenters aren't the smartest choice if you're in a hurry.
* Limited-assortment stores such as Aldi and Trader Joe's. Their strong suits are low prices and small size, which make them easy to navigate. But they sell less stuff (700 to 2,000 items vs. about 45,000), focus on private-label brands, and don't sell many perishable foods.
The Ratings on page 40 provide details about 54 supermarkets of all stripes. Although most chains are regional, you're likely to find at least two or three where you live. Two high-rated chains with stores scattered across the U.S., Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, may also be options. Trader Joe's stresses store brands and unusual items (think carrot ginger soup or dried calimyrna figs). Whole Foods is pricey, readers said, but it earned top scores for service, meat, and produce. It carries many organic items.
Whatever store you choose, if you know how to work the system, you can shop smarter, cheaper, and faster.
CR Quick Take
Our inside look at prices, service, perishables, and shopping options you might not even know about (Amazon for paper towels?) reveals that:
* It can make sense to shop at one store for staples and another for fresh food. That's because the perfect supermarket …