Recession Mood Favors Basic Food

CHEAP EATS

October 31, 1990|By Charlyne Varkonyi

Something happened to many of us during the materialistic 1980s. Somewhere between eating the goat cheese and duck sausage pizza and driving the BMW, we forgot how to be smart grocery shoppers.

We were too busy. Too sophisticated. Too trendy.

But guess what, folks? We spent as if there was no tomorrow, and tomorrow has arrived. Gasoline prices are skyrocketing. Inflation has awakened from its Rip Van Winkle nap. And talk of "recession" and "new taxes" has replaced the "where should we go out for dinner" conversation.

Now, instead of going to the grocery store to buy what we want to eat, many of us are going to have to start looking for what we can afford. This new conservatism may mean the return of the shopping tools of leaner times -- from making shopping lists and clipping manufacturers' coupons to meatless meals and tuna noodle casseroles.

Advertising Age magazine says grocery manufacturers are already bracing for recessionary changes where cost and basic food values will be more important.

Adweek says brand loyalty is softening and "value" will be the new buzzword.

So, where do we begin making these tough food choices for even tougher times? We can't just go back to the way we used to do things the last time we tightened our budgets because our lives are more hectic than they were 15 or 20 years ago. One of the biggest challenges is how people today will balance the shrinking dollar with their shrinking leisure time.

More households today have dual-career families and many spend as much as three hours a day commuting to and from work, according to Connie Pergerson, registered dietitian and extension agent with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service in Anne Arundel County.

"All this has cut back on the available time we have in the day and has made us turn to convenience foods, fast foods and so-called treats as a means of saving time," she says. "We have used eating out as a way of saving time and being together with the family and have not done the basic day-to-day preparation of foods."

The result: When we go to the supermarket, we often go without two of the best tools for saving money -- a shopping list and manufacturer's coupons. And instead of heading for the whole chicken that has to cook in the oven for a couple of hours we grab the more expensive skinless, boneless chicken breasts that we can broil in minutes.

"We don't have the time, and we aren't making the time," Ms. Pergerson says. "If we are going to cope with inflation, increasing taxes and higher gasoline prices, we have to find time go back to some of the preshopping concepts."

Manufacturers are offering more coupons than ever before -- 276.6 billion in 1989, compared with 23.4 billion in 1972. But redemption rates are down -- from 7.1 percent to 2.7 percent in the same time period.

Although even a novice shopper can save 10 percent to 15 percent on his grocery bill using coupons, a five-year study done by Southern Methodist University showed that people use coupons for psychological rather than economic benefits.

Shoppers say they use coupons because it makes them feel smart, says Ambuj Jain, assistant professor of marketing at SMU's Edwin L. Cox School of Business and creator of the study. But he predicts a shift in attitude as the economy changes.

"You have to stretch your dollar somehow," he says. "The more financial constraints, the higher the benefits people see in coupons."

Coupons are offered for everything from paper products and laundry soap to coffee and cereals. On a recent trip to local supermarket we saved $17.60 on a bill of $125.76 by using manufacturers' cents off coupons that were doubled in value by the store.

But it's rare to find a cents-off offer on fresh foods such as meat and produce. And that's where the shopper has to watch the specials.

"The one thing that ends up being costly is lack of flexibility," hTC says Wells Willis, national program leader for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, a program geared to teaching low-income people how to stretch their food dollars.

"If you go to the store and find that broccoli is high and spinach and green beans are a good buy, you should switch. A lot of stores will have unadvertised specials that will fit in with your meal plan."

Linda West Eckhardt of Ashland, Ore., author of "Good and Cheap" (Texas Monthly Press, 1983), says the best way to save money in the grocery store is to shop as few times as possible to avoid temptation.

"We should all strive for a broad and varied diet of unprocessed foods," she says. "Shop the perimeter of the store [where the produce and the meat and dairy products are]. Make a path by the dried beans and rice. Then get out of the store."

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