Beating high food prices becomes an adventure

Despite cost of gas, Marylanders drive to Pa. to shop at closeout grocery stores

July 22, 2008|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun Reporter

For more than a decade, Henrietta Peters has made the 32-mile trek from her Harford County home to Red Lion, Pa., to buy groceries.

The reason: low prices.

On a recent trip, for example, she paid $5.99 for eight bars of brand-name soap, $1.59 for a 17-ounce box of shredded wheat and $7.50 for a frozen, ready-to-eat roasted turkey.

"The savings far outweigh the costs of the extra gas to come up here," said Peters, 75.

Calculating that the savings on skyrocketing food prices would outweigh the higher gasoline costs, many Marylanders are taking a similar path across the Pennsylvania line to surplus grocery stores.

Also known as salvage grocers, stores such as D&K and Amelia's Grocery Outlet work with manufacturers and wholesale distributors to stock name-brand and private-label products no longer sold by traditional supermarkets for a variety of reasons, including discontinued flavors, sizes, logos or promotional labels. The stores also stock discounted groceries close to their recommended sell-by date.

Sales are up 27 percent for the year to date in Amelia's 11 stores, and there has been a 12 percent increase in same-store sales, said Michael Mitchell, Amelia's president.

During a tour of a Lancaster, Pa., store, Mitchell pointed to cereal boxes tied to movies that have long left the theaters and shelves loaded with pink-and-white cans of condensed soup - part of a breast cancer awareness campaign that ended months ago.

"Our customers don't care," he said. "They care that it's 69 cents every day."

Chocolate-covered mints are only 99 cents for 10 ounces - if you don't mind the Valentine's Day or Easter color scheme. "They're going to eat the same," Mitchell said.

The store also carries some snack mixes with a "new" label, which marketers pull from shelves after a limited time.

The stores will sell dented boxes if the bags inside are intact. Or, in the case of some hot cocoa mix, the store repackages the individual-serving packets in clear plastic bags.

About 5 percent of the items at Amelia's are close to their "best if used by" dates, Mitchell said. According to foodsafety.gov, a consumer Web site maintained by several federal agencies, these labels on shelf-stable products indicate food quality, not potential food-borne illness. The taste, nutritional value or texture of a food might not be as good after those dates.

Jeff Nelkin, a food safety expert, said consumers should use their eyes and noses when buying food at a surplus grocer, just as they would in any supermarket. They should also avoid bulging or dented cans, packages where seals have been compromised or other clues of potential or existing spoilage, he said.

"Spoilage is nature's way of protecting people from getting sick," Nelkin said.

The quality of frozen goods also deteriorates over time, but should be safe to eat if kept at a safe temperature at all times. Large ice crystals or water coming out of a package are signs that the items have been thawed and refrozen, he said.

Each store has its own limits and rules. D&K takes credit cards, checks and food stamps but not manufacturers coupons; Amelia's does not accept credit cards. The stores might have shorter hours than traditional markets.

And though they stock items in every grocery category, they won't carry the full range of sizes and varieties of every product, which are displayed on a mix of warehouse and traditional supermarket shelving. Amelia's doesn't have a fresh meat case but does carry small amounts of produce. D&K has a fresh-sliced deli counter - not stocked with closeout products - but no fresh produce.

On a recent weekday, the customers included older adults with smaller households who appreciated the compactness of the stores as well as the standard-size packaging - no need to buy in bulk to take advantage of savings offered at warehouse stores such as Costco or Sam's Club.

Mitchell said that healthier options such as low-sugar cereal don't sell fast in his stores, so they are priced lower. "We have to keep the mix moving," he said.

Bargain hunters can find some food products at Maryland close-out stores such as National Wholesale Liquidators, though they focus mostly on general merchandise such as furniture. Bakery outlets include H&S Bakery in Fells Point, Entenmann's in Dundalk and Interstate Bakeries Corp. in Glen Burnie, which carries Wonder Bread, Hostess and other baked goods.

Mitchell and D&K's owner Dennis Dobbie said their stores differ from limited assortment grocers such as Aldi or Save-A-Lot, which typically stock only about 1,500 items, mostly their own store brands. Salvage grocers carry as many as 3,000 to 4,000 products, including various name and store brands from across the country. Traditional supermarkets have 10 times as many.

"The nice thing about our stores is you can buy the brand names," Mitchell said. "You don't have to sacrifice by buying the private label."

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