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When a Supermarket ‘Deal’ Is No Deal at All

Here's why grocery come-ons called BOGOs are no-go's for many empty nesters

I love bargains, but there’s one sales promotion that’s beginning to bug me now that I’m an empty nester: the “Buy One, Get One Free” specials at local supermarkets and drug stores.

These twofers, dubbed BOGOs, seem to be particularly popular “when the economy is bad and food prices are rising,” says John Morgan, executive director of the Association of Coupon Professionals, a national trade group of retailers and manufacturers based in Drexel Hill, Pa. And the pitch is even harder to resist if, like me, you're a penny pincher who's already planning to buy one of the promoted products. “You put ‘free’ on anything and a shopper’s eyes light up,” Morgan says.

But here’s the problem: I frequently wind up throwing away the "freebie" because my small household can't use both items before they go bad or reach their expiration date. Recently, I had to toss out a BOGO bag of frozen shrimp that had turned into a solid mass.
The end result: I not only wasted money, I felt guilty ditching unused food and contributing to the nation’s garbage glut. The average U.S. family spends from $500 to $2,000 a year on food they never eat, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article.

(MORE: Drip, Drip, Drip: Beat Those Aggravating Added Fees) 

I’m not alone in my frustration. Mona Doyle, a longtime consumer researcher in Philadelphia, says she often hears consumer complaints about BOGO deals from people in their 50s and 60s. “BOGOs make older shoppers feel like second-class citizens because deals that appeal to large households don’t necessarily work out for smaller ones,” she says.

So why do supermarkets keep flogging BOGOs instead of, say, half-price promotions?

Stores and manufacturers want to push as many items out the door as fast as they can — and BOGOs encourage shoppers to buy more than they really need. Grocers usually make more money by selling two items, even if each is sold at what amounts to 50 percent off, especially if the manufacturer has lowered its wholesale price to encourage the promotion. Manufacturers also benefit in another way: by encouraging the purchase of, say, two boxes of Brand X cereal, Morgan says, they “shut out the purchase” of Brand Y cereal for a couple of weeks.

So what should you do about BOGOs if you’re a deal-loving empty nester? Here’s what the experts suggest:

  • Make sure you'll really be able to consume the items before their expiration dates and that you have enough storage room in your pantry, refrigerator or freezer before stuffing your grocery cart with multiples of an item.   
  • Shop at supermarkets that routinely offer low prices as opposed to stores that use what’s called "high/low pricing," a strategy that slashes prices periodically for promotions but sets the costs higher than competitors normally do.
  • If you want to buy just one item instead of succumbing to the two-for-one pitch, ask the cashier for a single unit at half-price. “I do that all the time,” says John Stanton, professor of food marketing at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “If cashiers say they can’t do it, ask to speak to the manager. The worst they can do is say no.”

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