Facing higher grocery prices, shoppers change habits
By Maria Cramer, Christine Hauser and Livia Albeck-Ripka
Susan Pollack, a property manager who was shopping one afternoon last week at a Costco in Marina del Rey, California, said she was startled that the price of a bulk pack of toilet paper had surged from $17 to $25.
At her local kosher butcher shop, the prices were rising even higher: more than $200 for a five-pack of short ribs.
“I told my husband, ‘We’re never having short ribs again,’ ” she said.
Global forces such as supply-chain disruptions, severe weather, energy costs and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have contributed to rising inflation rates that have spooked stock market investors and put President Joe Biden’s administration on the defensive.
But the pressure is felt most directly by shoppers doing their weekly runs to grocery stores, where some items that used to be plentiful have been missing for months and where prices for produce, meat and eggs remain stubbornly high.
At a Stop and Shop in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Hagar Dale, a 35-year-old Instacart shopper, pointed out that a single packet of powdered drink mix that once sold for 25 cents shot up to 36 cents in early May. Two days later, it was selling for 56 cents, she said.
“Lord forbid if you have a big shop to do,” Dale said as she left the grocery store with a customer’s order. “You’re penny-pinching.”
Such price hikes have led to sticker shock, resignation and a determination to sniff out bargains.
“You look for more deals,” said Ray Duffy, a 66-year-old retired banker in an “Unapologetically American” T-shirt who was coming out of a Lidl grocery store in Garwood, New Jersey, recently.
“You go shopping,” he said. “It’s something you do.”
Store-hopping and bribing with banana bread
There are plenty of supermarkets in South Riding, Virginia, where Susana Yoo lives.
But she drives 9 miles to Centreville to shop at H Mart, a Korean grocery store, where fresh vegetables, like large bunches of scallions, cost slightly less. From there, she will go to Trader Joe’s, which has “pretty good prices for meat.”
Then, it’s off to Costco for nonperishable bulk items that can be stored.
To save a little money, “I have to go to three different places,” Yoo said.
Alyssa Sutton, a 53-year-old home-theater business owner, left King’s Food Market in Short Hills, New Jersey, a grocery chain where a 13-ounce jar of Bonne Maman preserves was selling for $6.49.
“This inflation thing is a real problem,” she said. “When you’re paying twice as much to fill your gas tank and twice as much for everything, you’ve got to say to yourself, ‘Well, do I really need to buy everything at King’s?’”
Sutton said she grabs staples at King’s, then drives to cheaper markets like Trader Joe’s, where she says fruit and vegetables are more affordable.
“It takes time,” she said. “It takes planning.”
Lisa Tucker, 54, of Gainesville, Virginia, drives a few extra miles to Giant because the food prices are lower than they are at stores closer to her house. She buys in bulk when the prices are favorable — on a recent run she bought eight boxes of cereal because they were selling for $1.77 each — and has enrolled in multiple loyalty rewards programs.
“It’s strategic,” she said.
Tucker also looks for meat that is nearly expired — and therefore steeply discounted.
On Tuesday, Tucker snapped up a soon-to-expire 1-pound package of beef for $3.74, marked down from $7.49. To get a heads-up from meat department staff members about such deals, she said she will sometimes bring them homemade banana bread.
Tucker tells them: If a discount sticker is about to be slapped on some Boar’s Head bacon, “let me know.”
Eating less meat and planning menus on the fly
Angie Goodman, a housekeeper from Culver City, California, usually eats meat once a week. But now that steaks have doubled in price, she said she might have to cut back to once a month.
Goodman, 54, said she makes about $15 an hour, a figure that has remained stagnant as the cost of living has skyrocketed.
“Basic things are very expensive,” she said. “It’s crazy.”
Isabel Chambergo, 62, a warehouse worker in Elizabeth, New Jersey, said that meals she once planned at home are now mapped out while she is shopping, so she can use her phone to scan items for digital coupons. That saves $10 to $15 per shopping trip, she said.
“That’s how I manage,” Chambergo said as she left a Stop and Shop in Elizabeth with her husband, Arturo, 62.
“It helps a little,” she said. “It’s not a lot, but I’m trying to buy healthy things that also fill us up.”
That is, if she can even find the ingredients she needs.
Chambergo said she used to buy a quinoa-and-rice mix at Stop and Shop that she used to make hearty soups. But it has not been on the shelves for at least two months.
Duffy, the retired banker, said he has had a hard time finding square-shaped spaghetti, his go-to for his favorite lo mein.
“The sauce sticks better to square-shaped spaghetti,” he said.
It is normal for grocery stores to have 7% to 10% of items out of stock, but the events of the last 2 1/2 years — pandemic outbreaks, extreme weather, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — have caused that number to trend 3 to 5 points higher, said Katie Denis, a spokeswoman for Consumer Brands Association.
The availability of pasta and grains has been especially constricted by the war, with “both Ukraine and Russia effectively exiting the market,” she said in an email.
“Weather in Europe last year also constricted the durum wheat, which specifically affected pasta,” Denis said.
‘I didn’t buy anything fun today.’
Shoppers are also denying themselves.
At the Giant in Gainesville, Virginia, Kimberly Heneault said she paused in front of a display of coffee creamers and saw they were double the usual price.
“Oh, you know what? I don’t really need that,” she said to herself and moved on.
Pollack, the property manager in California, said that while inflation is not straining her budget, the prices have made her reconsider purchases that were once impulsive. For example, she almost bought an electric shaver for her son, but then she saw it cost $90.
“I go through so much money all the time,” said Pollack, 61, “and it’s like, ‘Wow. I didn’t buy anything fun today.’”