Dollars1
When is a bargain really a bargain? If you are like the majority of shoppers, you like the thought of getting the most for your consumer dollars. This is especially true when it comes to household items and foods that are consumed daily. For many families this can mean monthly, weekly or daily trips to grocery markets — coupons in hand — or to discount clubs or membership warehouse clubs that hold the allure of savings based on purchasing in bulk. But all of this begs the question: Is it really a bargain?

AS SHOPPERS, WE ARE CHANGING
According to a 2002 consumer poll conducted by Food Marketing Institute and supermarketguru.com, consumers still conduct their primary shopping at supermarkets but feel that they save money and receive better value by shopping at warehouse clubs. It seems that we are more willing to shop at different types of stores and take the time to seek out value. When 1,375 people from all 50 states were polled on supermarketguru.com, 83 percent said they primarily shop at supermarkets, 11 percent said they are most likely to shop at super centers such as K-Mart or Super Wal-Mart, while 3 percent said they primarily shop at warehouse club stores like Sam’s or Costco.

HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN IT IS A BARGAIN?
Whether we use coupons or visit discount or warehouse clubs, there are a few things to keep in mind in determining if a “bargain” really is a bargain. If you decide to purchase an item in bulk, establish your own price book. Savvy shoppers suggest that you make a list of items that you use each month, together with their prices at the various stores you frequent. By computing to the pound, ounce or unit price, you will quickly have at your disposal the knowledge you need to determine if an item is truly a good buy.

OTHER FACTORS TO BE CONSIDERED
Determine what type of shopper you are. Some people are extreme strategic shoppers. They use coupons, carefully plan their shopping outings around store sales and capitalize on store policies and promotions. Others feel that shopping at local supermarkets makes better sense for them because of the way they buy their food. They often use coupons and store discounts and special promotions to maximize their shopping dollars. Such a shopper is Stephanie Nelson, who operates CouponMom.com. This Web site provides printable coupons, lists many free items and assists shoppers on available discounts and promotions.

WAREHOUSE CLUBS
An article in SmartMoney, by Kelli B. Grant, states that“while supermarket prices are often 22 percent to 27 percent higher than wholesale prices, there’s only an 8-percent to 15-percent markup at warehouse clubs, according to Warehouse Club Focus, a trade publication.” Grant’s article ran Nov. 19, 2007. Many of these warehouse clubs have yearly membership fees. They start at about $35 per year, depending on the warehouse club and type of membership that you purchase. Take the time to compare the types of memberships available and the cash-back programs, along with additional savings perks available to club members. One warehouse club allows you to split the cost of your yearly membership with a friend or associate. Others allow only family members to be included in the yearly fee and, in some cases, only those who live in your household.

REASONS TO BUY AT THE CLUBS
Aside from the fact that you can buy many items, including paper goods, in bulk at possibly impressive savings, SmartMoney lists specific areas to consider:

STAPLES
Staples such as milk, eggs and butter are products where the savings can be from 10 percent to 20 percent, according to SmartMoney. In doing my own market research, I found that the cost of milk, eggs and butter was indeed less expensive than at a local supermarket. However, one local supermarket was running a special promotion on a gallon of milk that was one-third the cost of milk at the two warehouse club stores. This price was available only when you made an additional purchase of another product. This may not be an issue if you were already going to purchase the additional item.

WINE, BEER AND LIQUOR
If you are looking to save on wine, beer and liquor, SmartMoney says that you could be looking at a savings of up to 30 percent. In my own survey, I found this to be true. Not only were you able to buy in larger quantities, but the perunit cost was much less than that of local establishments. In some cases, the cost of certain liquor items exceeded the 30-percent savings.

GASOLINE
While many of us are feeling the pressure of higher gasoline prices at the pump, warehouse clubs can provide some relief. The average savings at warehouse clubs can be approximately 5 cents to 10 cents per gallon. You may want to visit a price-comparison site like GasBuddy.com or GasPriceWatch.com to make sure you are getting the best deal.

PRESCRIPTION DRUGS
Prescription drugs can be very expensive, and this is where warehouse clubs can be of assistance. Because of federal law, you don’t need a club membership to access the pharmacy counter. Just bring in your prescription, and you may find the savings can be as much as 50 percent. This is according to Gabriel Levitt, vice president of research for PharmacyChecker.com, which rates online pharmacies.

SUMMING IT UP
Whether you are a supermarket or discount store shopper or a warehouse club devotee, it pays to be informed. If you take the time to examine your own spending patterns and the items that you purchase regularly, you can save hundreds if not thousands of dollars over time. It’s your money, so make the most of it.

Written by MICHELLE ONODA