July 20, 2005
Online services can help make dramatic differences in grocery bills
By Jolayne Houtz
Times consumer-affairs Reporter
When checkers at the grocery store started complimenting Sarah Chappelle on her food-shopping savvy - "Good save!" one said approvingly - she figured she was on to something. The proof was in her receipt. Almost overnight, Chappelle had slashed her grocery bill by half.
Chappelle's secret: coupons, grocery-store sales fliers - and the Internet.
The Seattle mother of two signed up this spring for The Grocery Game, … helping shoppers save money at the grocery store.
The Grocery Game pairs coupons with weekly advertised and unadvertised sales, helping consumers stockpile items when they're at their rock-bottom price…
Like many food shoppers, Chappelle said she had no special grocery-shopping strategy before a friend told her about The Grocery Game. She felt coupons weren't worth the bother, and she made several stops at the store each week to pick up things as she needed them.
Chappelle started looking for ways to trim household costs when she left her full-time job to stay home with her young children. Now, for about an hour a week in planning and coupon-clipping time, she said she saves as much as $150 a week.
"I know the value of time," said Chappelle, a former Microsoft employee now working from home as a consultant. "If I spend one hour and I save $144, that's not a bad hourly rate."…
The Grocery Game
Cost: Four-week trial for $1, then $10 every eight weeks.
History: Founder/CEO Teri Gault is a former singer/actress who used coupon-clipping and grocery-store sales to get her family through a financial rough patch. She launched The Grocery Game as a small, home-based business in Santa Clarita, Calif., in 2000. It's now franchised and available in 43 states with about 30,000 subscribers, including nearly 1,000 in Washington.
Shopping pros know using a coupon at the wrong time can be a waste. To get the most dollar-stretching power, they hold it until the item is on sale, too. That's the secret to The Grocery Game, which matches coupons to sales for maximum savings.
Grocery-store items typically follow a 12-week cycle - everything dips to its lowest price at some point during that time. The trick is to catch it at that low point, use a coupon to drop the price even lower, and then stock up.
"After 12 weeks ... your need-shopping decreases, so you end up 'shopping' from your own store at home," Gault said.
Stockpiling requires lots of storage space - Gault said many members use their first savings to purchase a freezer. Subscribers log on to Gault's Web site to see a list of dozens of items on sale each week. Items are color-coded: black (a good deal if you need it); blue (rock-bottom priced for stockpiling); or green (free).
The list states the regular price, the sale price and - where available - the date of the glossy advertising booklet from the Sunday newspaper that holds a matching coupon.
In Washington, the list covers only Albertsons stores and is sorted roughly by the order in which shoppers find the items in the store aisles. It also notes sale items at Fred Meyer stores, because Albertsons accepts competitor coupons.
Average savings among list subscribers is $482 a month for a family of four, Gault said. (She said she spends about one-third of what she used to spend feeding her family of four.)
Gault clips coupons she knows she'll use and files them in a canceled-check file from an office-supply store. Others simply write the date on the front of the booklet and file it, clipping the coupons when they're needed.
Two features set this Web site apart. First, information about unadvertised as well as advertised specials is included in the sale list (Gault won't reveal how The Grocery Game collects that information).
And second, her staff uses a proprietary process to check price history on about 10,000 items every week...
She said her system beats the prices at Costco and other club stores, except for butter, cheese and eggs. She recommends stocking up on those items every four to six weeks at a club store.
The Web site also offers a message board that lets "listaholics" boast about their savings and swap tips.
A sample: "I am so excited!! This is my second week using the list, and I saved 68 percent today!! Whoo-hoo!! The best part: I had my husband go with me today so I could see the look on his face when they hit the total for us to pay!! Priceless. Needless to say, he totally supports my new addiction."