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Savvy grocery shopping required in these troubled times

There doesn’t seem to be one of us who are not affected by these difficult financial times we’re living in. While gas has temporarily gone down in price, everything else has gone up. My grocery bill is double what it was a year ago. Higher supermarket bills are just one of the areas we, as a society, have to cope with.
We have to be shopper savvy nowadays. Every penny counts. The troubled economy is hitting every single business. With shoppers cutting back, distributors are selling less of their products to the markets that carry them, reflecting the turnover [or lack thereof] on the shelf to the consumer. With less sales in the stores, manpower is being cut back, which will affect the rotating of stock on the grocery shelves.
Having worked in the grocery business for 22 years, I learned a lot about how supermarkets operate. One of the cardinal rules is that stock has to be rotated when placed on the shelf. Older product comes to the front of the shelf; newer product goes to the back. Next time you shop, check the milk expiration dates – the further out expiration dates should be towards the back. I have noticed, however, that some products, soda pop for instance, that generally have a lengthy expiration date, are showing up on some shelves with shorter dates, indicating product is moving slower as warehouses try to clean out their overstocked merchandise. People are not buying as much as they were a year ago and they are cutting back on luxury items. Believe it or not, soda, cookies, cheese, crackers, pop tarts, ice cream – these kinds of products, are luxury items.
The sign of a well-run supermarket is one that has fresh product and nothing being sold that is past its expiration date. Consumers should check expiration dates carefully before checking out at the register. It’s also helpful to report to the customer service manager anything you find on the shelf that is out-of-code. Some supermarkets are notorious for selling out-of-code products and should be shopped with vigilance or avoided altogether.
It’s helpful to learn the lingo so you can shop smartly. The following are descriptions of what the labels mean:
• The actual term “Expiration Date” refers to the last date a food should be eaten or used. Last means last – proceed at your own risk.
• “Sell by” date: The labeling “sell by” tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires. This is basically a guide for the retailer, so the store knows when to pull the item. This is not mandatory, so reach in back and get the freshest. The issue is quality of the item (freshness, taste, and consistency) rather than whether it is on the verge of spoiling. Paul VanLandingham, EdD, a senior faculty member at the Center for Food and Beverage Management of Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., states, “sell-by” date is the last day the item is at its highest level of quality, but it will still be edible for some time after.”
• “Best if used by (or before)” date: This refers strictly to quality, not safety. This date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a”purchase or safety date.
•”Born on” date: This is the date of manufacture and has been resurrected recently to date beer. Beer can go sub-par after three months. “It is affected by sun,” VanLandingham says. “The light can reactivate microorganisms in the beer. That’s why you have to be especially careful with beer in clear bottles, as opposed to brown or green.”
• “Guaranteed fresh” date: This usually refers to bakery items. They will still be edible after the date, but will not be at peak freshness.
• “Use by” date: This is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. This date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
• “Pack” date: You will find this one on canned or packaged goods, as a rule, but it’s tricky. In fact, it may be in code. It can be month-day-year-MMDDYY. Or the manufacturer could revert to the Julian calendar. January would then be 001-0031 and December 334-365.
Being vigilant is smart shopping. Watch the cashiers carefully and be sure they aren’t crushing your soft items such as bread, cookies, crackers and chips. Items the customer packages, such as ground coffee, should be weighed with a tare weight. That means when the item is weighed, either the cashier programs in a weight of the packaging to be deducted or it is already programmed into the product code the cashier uses to ring up the product. Be wary of cashiers who pile more than one package of such items on the scale, as only the tare weight of one package will deduct from the weight.
Watch pricing carefully. If you are an astute shopper, you carry a list and know the prices. Note what an item sells for on the shelf, either by a written sign, advertised sign or a unit price label. Be sure the item rings up the correct price. If it does not, the cashier should correct it on your ticket and alert a manager to the problem.
Small markets always offer better service and integrity than larger markets. In this economy, businesses are scrambling for customers, so looking for the market that keeps up proper pricing, rotating of stock, stocked shelves, cleanliness and, of course, customer service, are the places where your hard-earned money is well spent.

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