Casino Shopping!

You don't have to go all the way to Vegas to experience gambling. Just drive up the street and walk into your nearest supermarket. Casino operators hire psychologists to help design their operations. If you walk out of a casino with money, you've managed to beat a cleverly designed layout whose sole purpose in life is to separate you from every dollar and every penny in your pocket.

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It's always easy to spend money in a casino, in fact, that's the easiest thing to do there. But find an exit to leave? Hah. Good luck.

The same is true for grocery stores. Everything in the store is designed to separate you from your money. Suppose you need a gallon of milk and some eggs. Are these items located conveniently at the front of the store? Not likely. To get to them, you walk all the way to the back of the store. You go past displays of "SPECIAL" merchandise. Chances are, you'll end up at the cash register with more than a gallon of milk and a dozen eggs. (Especially if the kids are along for the ride.)

Here's some common store tricks and ways to avoid them.

Wall of Values. The first thing in many stores is a "Wall of Values", a series of displays of items on special for the week. They may or may not be good values. The only way to know for sure is to compare prices. It's not unusual to display items up front that are higher priced than other similar items elsewhere in the store.

Mixed Pricing. Higher priced items may be mixed with lower priced items -- especially in the meat market. Know what you are buying and how much it costs.

Price Tag Problems. If you see a low price tag, make sure what product is refers to. Lower price tags may be located a few inches away from the item they refer to. The items directly above the lower price tag may be the more expensive choices. This is particularly a problem in deli, freezer, and refrigerator sections.

Missing Tags. The high price item, and alternatively, the low price item may not have a price tag. Selection becomes a 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. When comparing prices, carry a calculator with you (or do the math in your head, which gets easier with practice). When deciding the best buy, figure the price per ounce, per pound, per pint, quart or gallon. One common trick is to put a display of big packaged items in the front of the store. These items can be higher priced per unit than several smaller packages of the same item (often a problem with flour in particular). Large sizes sometimes are the best choice, but the only way to know is to compare prices.

Fiddling with the Package Size. Watch out for the latest trick: 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 that 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. Yeah, right, and if you believe that, you'll spend a lot of extra money needlessly. It is a rare situation where the "brand name" is actually better than the store brand or the generic. Often, they all come from the same food factory, they just get different labels on the way out the door.

Coupon Games. 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. The lower 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 you find meat prices are low, the prices of canned goods have probably gone up. And if the canned goods are cheap, the meat is expensive. This can change from week to week and you never know what's high and what's low until you check the prices yourself. If you had extra money, buy extra supplies when prices are low on one or the other.

Watch Out for the 1st and the 15th of the Month. Many people get food stamps and checks 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. Powdered milk may be less expensive at suburban stores.

The Snack Food Game. The biggest money-losing games in the grocery store are the "snack foods". You pay a big price for fifty cents worth of nuts, popcorn, and sugar, or thirty cents worth of potatoes and salt. It is always cheaper, and it is always more tasty, to make your own snack foods. And it's more fun too.

Don't Blame the Grocer Too Much. He's just trying to make a buck. He profits from the fact that many people have more money than sense. 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 the merchandise however it chooses. You have a legal right to not fall for the tricks. That's why it's called a free market. The store won't go broke because you decide to get a better deal and save some money. By shopping smart, you encourage grocers to offer real deals, not trick deals.

Be fair to yourself and your family. Genuine deals can be found but you have to look carefully, with your eyes wide open and your calculator in your hand. If you shop smart and beat the casino shopping game, you win a better quality of life and a more secure future for yourself and your family.

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