We all want shopping deals, and retailers are quite tuned into what makes us want to buy. The key is sorting out what's really a deal and what is really a "deal."
Is shopping at an outlet store always a bargain? No. In fact, it's rather common for outlets to stock stuff that never even went to the company's regular stores. Savvy shoppers know when they're finding a real deal. The rest of us need to watch out for when we're being tricked.
Consumer Reports' ShopSmart magazine in its September issue reveals what it found after sending an expert around to identity some of the "latest bum deals." Here are three:
Retailers often have to deal with minimum prices set by the manufacturers. So, one way they make their sales seem better than they are is by creating an inflated "regular" price.
ShopSmart's advice: "Never take the promise of huge savings at face value. Always comparison-shop. Also, always try to negotiate."
On such sites as DealDash and QuiBids, consumers are enticed by what appear to be super-cheap deals. But, ShopSmart warns that while "penny auction" sites can be alluring, there are hidden charges. Unlike on eBay (EBAY) and other traditional auction sites, these sites charge for bidding in advance. If you don't win the bid, you lose.
ShopSmart's advice: "Think of these sites strictly as entertainment -– like gambling –- not smart shopping. Or just skip them."
Most of the time, when a consumers comes across a deal that is advertised as "buy two for $5," it is safe to assume that buying one will cost $2.50. But that assumption could cost you. Sometimes the deals are contingent on buying more than one item. That has to be disclosed, but isn't always that obvious.
ShopSmart's advice: "Look for any fine print on the sale sign, and watch the cash register."
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The best deals of the week go to loyalty card users. These items often include what are known as "loss leaders" -- items sold at little or no profit for the store. Why do stores do this? To draw you into the store, with the hope that you'll pick up other items as you shop. Some stores also reward you for spending more. Safeway (SWY) and Stop & Shop offer discounts at partner gas stations. Deals are also advertised in the weekly circular, and you can scan those savings onto your smartphone through apps such as Spoofee.com or SundaySaver.com.
You might like to see and feel every apple or potato you put into your shopping cart, but you can save as much as 36 percent by buying bags of produce. The same is true for multipacks of grocery items such as soap, toilet paper, soda and yogurt, especially at stores such as Walmart (WMT) and Target (TGT).
Many popular deli meats and cheeses sliced fresh at the deli counter may cost less than the pre-packaged variety. SmartShop found the same brands (including Boars Head and Alpine Lace) as much as 30 percent cheaper at the deli counter. You also get to buy the exact amount you need, reducing potential waste.
These racks, usually found in the back of the store, include a hodgepodge of items marked down by as much as half. That's because there is an imperfection in the packaging or the item is being discontinued. Check the expiration date to make sure that you're not buying something that's been sitting on the shelf too long.
Several new subscription services rival Amazon.com's (AMZN) Subscribe & Save service. ShopSmart likes FamilyCircle.com, Plated.com and Target Subscriptions. FamilyCircle.com offers organic produce and seasonal items that can be shipped to your home weekly. It's only available in Washington state, Idaho, Alaska and San Francisco, but there are plans to expand. Plated.com provides measured ingredients to make a chef's recipe from scratch. Target offers household and personal care items at a 5 percent discount (10 percent for REDCard holders). It also offers food, even though the selection is limited. The best thing about them: membership is free.
Shoppers can save as much as 60 percent by choosing the store brand over a national brand. Many people find the taste and quality of store brands to be just as good as the more costly brand names.
Walmart and Target, the big players in this category, offer savings of up to 70 percent on toiletries, drugs and other items. A recent Consumer Reports survey ranked Target better for customer service, quality of perishable items and cleanliness, while Walmart came out slightly ahead on price. Both will price match items you find cheaper at other stores.
There may be a stigma to shopping at dollar stores, but if you can get past that you can find some real bargains. Many leading dollar stores have been increasing the number of food items they sell. Family Dollar Stores (FDO) -- which agreed this week to be acquired by Dollar Tree (DLTR -- recently added 400 food items. Savings of up to 28 percent can be found at dollar stores over supermarket prices.
Club membership is down, but Costco (COST), Sam's Club and others are still great places to save if -- and this is a big if -- you have the space to store bulk purchases. ShopSmart found savings of up to 63 percent on some items. It also gives high ratings to some of Costco's Kirkland brand, including its bacon, laundry detergent and toilet paper.
Most times it makes economic sense to buy the large size package of cereal, paper towels, etc. But there are some items that you get just as much bang for your buck on the medium size. Check the unit price. SmartShop found the medium size price is the same as the jumbo size for Cheerios, Hellman's mayonnaise and Skippy peanut butter, but go for the super size of Heinz ketchup and Folgers coffee.
Boxed gives you warehouse prices (and sizes) without paying a membership fee. Checkout 51 offers weekly specials on items such as Campbell's (CPB) soup or Prego sauces. You also get cash back for every $20 you spend. Flipp is great for checking store circulars for weekly specials. You can put items right onto your shopping list, and the app helps identify the best deals. All three of these apps work on Android and Apple (AAPL) phones and tablets.
Convenience stores and drug stores may be easy to run into and pick up some essentials, but you'll pay top dollar for that convenience. ShopSmart's price check found these stores consistently charged a lot more, often more than double the price at supermarkets, Target and Walmart on basics such as milk, bread and eggs. A half gallon of milk at 7-Eleven costs $3.12. Compare that to the average supermarket price of $2.30. And a loaf of whole wheat bread at CVS (CVS) cost $2.91. At a dollar store the same loaf costs -- yes, you guessed it -- $1