Discount Grocery Shopping

A recent Star Tribune business story suggested sales have been up 25-30% in recent months at a couple of local "salvage" grocery stores, which cull food that mainstream supermarkets are ready to get rid of (often because it's expired or about to expire, the packages are damaged, or the marketing campaigns are over). I visited the So Low Grocery Outlet in north Minneapolis and Mike's Discount Foods in Hilltop and the Aldi on East Franklin to see how the shopping experience compared.

So Low is located at Lowry and Emerson in North Minneapolis, one of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods, but when I arrive, there are plenty of nice looking cars in the parking lot (along with a couple of MPD squad cars). While So Low isn't nearly as big as a mainstream supermarket, it does have all the requisite grocery departments: produce, meat counter, lots of packaged foods aisles (one devoted to ethnic foods), a refrigerator and freezer case.

The produce quality varies widely: some is ridiculously past its prime--several pineapple are so old they're mushy, and ears of corn are so dry you could make dolls from the husks and pop the kernels--while others, like the greens being misted with water, look just fine. At the meat counter, there's a range of steaks, ground beef, ribs, plus some inexpensive options, like fish heads, you don't see in most grocery shops. In the refrigerated area, there's yogurt that's expired a few days ago and turkey salad that's been past its prime for a week. I find a few examples of out-of-date marketing campaigns (Christmas and Fourth of July-themed Little Debbie snack cakes prices 2/$.99) and new products that perhaps sounded better to corporate marketing gurus than actual shoppers (Green Giant "immunity boost" vegetables and a "breakfast pizza" topped with scrambled eggs and bacon in the freezer).

Some prices seem on par with mainstream groceries, including milk and eggs, while others--an 18 oz. jar of Peter Pan peanut butter for $.99 and a 6-pack of diet IBC root beer at 2/$3--are significantly discounted.

My next stop is Mike's Discount Foods in a Hilltop strip mall (it's just west of Central, on 45th Avenue), which is significantly smaller, but equally busy. While So Low offered most staples, Mike's selection is more hit-or-miss: They're selling everything from grapefruit to generic SPAM to (expired) Yo Baby organic yogurt. The whole setup feels as temporary, like it could pack up and move to a new storefront overnight.

Aldi, on Franklin at Bloomington in South Minneapolis, looks the most like a mainstream grocery store or Costco. It's clean and well-lit, with wide aisles where boxed goods are stacked, not displayed on shelves. Aldi seems something like a low-cost Trader Joe's, where instead of selling gourmet items (goat cheese) at lower cost, they sell more mainstream items (American cheese) at even lower cost. Eggs and milk seemed a little cheaper at $1.45/dozen and less than $3/gallon. As with many generic-brand items, sometimes the quality is on par with popular brands and sometimes its inferior. They do sell some brand-name, unexpired foods that seem the same as in a mainstream grocery store, except cheaper.

All in all, there are deals to be had on discount groceries, but with gas at nearly $4/gallon, the savings are probably not significant enough to make a special trip. If the produce looks fine, it's probably not that different from conventional supermarket produce. I thought it was interesting that most of the bargain items weren't the nutritious staples price-sensitive shoppers need, and instead things like Ben & Jerry's Cake Batter ice cream, Dove chocolates in Christmas packaging. If you don't live near a discount grocery, you'll probably do just as well buying items that are on sale and clipping coupons.

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