October 16, 2005
The Grocery Game
Web site helps supermarket shoppers get rock-bottom prices
BY LAURA MEADE KIRK
Journal Staff Writer
Carol Ann Zelley used to hate grocery shopping. Now, it's a challenge: She likes to see how much money she can save each week playing the Grocery Game.
The Grocery Game is an online service that tracks advertised and unadvertised sale items at select grocery stores nationwide, then alerts subscribers whether coupons are available for those items -- as well as where to find the coupons.
The service also tracks sales cycles at these stores, so it can tell subscribers whether an item is at its rock-bottom price -- meaning it's time to stock up -- or whether it's likely to go on sale for even less money sometime soon.
Sometimes, with coupons, items can even be had for free.
Teri Gault, who founded the Grocery Game, said her weekly shopping list means people don't have to waste time or money checking weekly circulars, or going through coupons, or driving from one store to the next for the best price.
But unlike other Web sites that may compare sales prices for different grocery stores, Gault said her site is the only one that tracks the coupons and the rock-bottom pricing.
By following the advice on her weekly shopping list for at least 12 weeks, she said, they're virtually guaranteed to get the best prices on everything from food to paper goods to toiletries at a single grocery store. And, she said, the prices are often cheaper than buying at warehouse or department stores, as well.
That's what Zelley's noticed, too. "I've only been doing it about a month, but it's fabulous. We save tons of money," she said.
Best of all, she said, it makes grocery shopping fun.
Zelley, who lives in Providence, admits she was skeptical at first.
She was used to spending about $200 a week on groceries for herself and her husband, a resident at Rhode Island Hospital, and the refrigerator still seemed empty. "It was depressing," she said.
When their daughter, Charlotte, was born last March, she decided to quit her job as a pharmaceutical sales representative to stay home with the baby. But the decision meant the Zelleys needed to find ways to save money -- especially on the grocery bill.
She'd never been one to clip coupons or price shop. "When the circulars came, I would put them immediately into the recycle bin," she said. Besides, she and her husband eat mostly organic foods, and she figured there weren't even coupons for those.
But then she heard about the Grocery Game, and decided to spend $1 for a four-week trial period (after that, it costs $10 every eight weeks).
She was immediately surprised to learn that many of the foods she and her husband like -- such as organic eggs and soy milk -- do go on sale, and coupons are often available for them.
She started keeping track of her purchases on a spread sheet, to see if the Grocery Game really did save them money. She quickly found that with the shopping list and coupons, even toiletries, paper goods and items such as light bulbs cost less than what she'd typically spend for them at Target and BJ's. "Not only is it convenient, it saves time and gas not to have to go to three different stores at a time," Zelley said.
She spent $40 on groceries one recent week, far less than she used to spend. Best of all, she said, "I used to dread (shopping). Now, it's actually become fun for me to go and see how much money I can save for the week. . . . You really do realize it is a game."
GAULT DIDN'T CONSIDER it a game at a first.
In a telephone interview from her native California, she explained that she was simply looking for a way to save money on groceries while raising her two sons. So she was clipping coupons and spending hours at different stores, looking for advertised and unadvertised specials. After all, she said, "The stores have a lot of sale items -- so many they can't possibly put them all into the circulars."
She soon noticed that her local supermarkets had definite sales cycles -- predictable times when certain things, such as paper towels, would go on sale... By tracking the sales trends, she found she could then use her coupons to stock up on groceries and other goods when they were at their lowest possible price -- or were even free. She now stockpiles a few months worth of groceries, paper goods and toiletries she bought at their lowest possible prices instead of paying full price on those items if she happens to need them on any give week.
She won't disclose her tracking strategies, and some market analysts question whether tracking is even possible, given that every store has its own sales strategy. But Gault insists that by riding out sales at a particular store for about 12 weeks she generally would get the lowest prices -- saving her from having to bounce from one store to another.
"If you pick the right store, the sales will come to you," Gault said.
AT FIRST SHE SHARED this information with family members and friends, and then realized that others might be interested too. So five years ago, she created Teri's List, an online tracking service that was first made available to members in southern California.
She featured a specific chain of stores and every week would list the items on sale -- whether advertised or not -- as well as the original price, sales price, any available coupon, final price and percentage saving. She'd also note which items were "free" when a coupon was available. She'd let them know whether the coupon was available in a circular in that week's Sunday newspaper, as well as which circular had it. Or she'd tell them to dig into their files to find a coupon from previous weeks, with a specific date.
She'd then recommend that people stock up on certain sale items, listed in blue, because they were at rock-bottom prices or were at least cheaper than at any other store in town. She'd advise them to buy other sale items, listed in black, only if they were a necessity, ... a discounted price that wasn't necessarily the lowest price of the 12-week sales cycle -- or because other brands cost less at other times. "Free" items are listed in green.
Subscribers could then print the shopping list, gather coupons and head to the store prepared to save.
Stockpiling is the key, she said. "Over the course of 12 weeks, you should have a well-rounded stockpile of everything except produce and liquid milk," Gault said. This significantly reduces the weekly shopping bill.
On the Web site, www.grocerygame.com, there's also a place to share shopping and coupon tips. Gault said her subscribers were soon talking about how much fun it was to track the sales and save lots of money.
"I realized that a lot of people thought, 'This is really a game,' " Gault said. So she renamed her service the Grocery Game, and she refers to herself and other subscribers as "players".
Best of all, she said, "It's the only place where everyone who plays wins."
THE GROCERY GAME quickly caught on, and it has since spread across the country, with franchises in 32 states -- including Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut -- with more than 100,000 registered users so far. Gault said they research stores in different regions and track the sales cycles of 10,000 items to determine which store or stores to include in the service. In Rhode Island and Massachusetts they selected Stop and Shop as the featured chain. She wouldn't say why other stores in this area, such as Shaw's, weren't included, except that her franchisees try to pick "the best markets for our strategy."
Robert Keane, a spokesman for Stop and Shop, initially said he'd never heard of the Grocery Game. After looking into it, he declined to comment on it.
Gault said many stores have no idea what her service is about, but she insists it's a good thing for any store included on Teri's List, because she's essentially saying supermarkets offer the best deals -- with better prices than can be found at department store chains and warehouses. "What we're doing on the broader scope is promoting the local supermarkets. That's not our goal intentionally, but that's what's happening. . . . We're driving people back to the supermarkets," she said.
Gault also said her service doesn't affect the store's bottom line in any way, because the store sets the sales prices and manufacturers absorb the costs of their coupons.
"It's a win-win," Gault said.
BUT IT'S NOT a game for everyone. To benefit fully from the Grocery Game, consumers need to clip coupons -- something few do.
Luica Moses, an editor for Supermarket News, a trade publication for the industry, said only about 1.5 percent of the millions of coupons issued are used.
So this type of service could be beneficial, but "it depends on the kind of shopper you are," Moses said. "If you're on a budget, you're sales driven, you want to use coupons but you consider it a pain -- maybe this kind of service can help you."
Gault said her subscribers often save at least $100 a week by using coupons.
Moses said there are other Web sites that list sales from grocery stores and some even note when coupons are available. But Gault said hers is the only service that lists both advertised and unadvertised sale items, as well as tracks coupons and rock-bottom pricing during sales cycles.
Nora Ganim Barnes, director of the Marketing Research Center at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, questioned whether anyone could really track or predict a sales cycle, since different chains -- and even stores within a chain -- can feature different sales at different times.
She also questioned whether people were truly getting the lowest price if they shopped exclusively at one store. One store might appear to have better sales, but the base prices of items may be much higher than at another store.
A program like the Grocery Game may be great for people who already shop at Stop and Shop. "If you're only a Stop and Shop shopper, you can master Stop and Shop, and I think that's great -- you can maximize your Stop and Shop dollars. But you shouldn't delude yourself to believe that in the end you're buying everything at its lowest price. That's simply not true."
Gault acknowledged that some items may in fact be cheaper at other stores at different times. But she said her list saves so much time and money that it's not worth chasing down the few other bargains that may be out there.
Given the shaky economy right now, Barnes questioned whether consumers will want to spend money "on services they don't need or have to have."
But Gault said $10 for an eight-week membership is a small price to pay considering the time and money subscribers save. In fact, she said it would take hours to go through the circulars and go to the store to find every sales item and then figure out which coupons were available -- the information she provides every week.
It's still not going to appeal to people who don't have time to plan their shopping around sales cycles, Moses said. And some people are simply willing to pay more for higher quality or certain brands, regardless of the potential savings.
Shoppers definitely need to be flexible when it comes to using different brands to benefit most from the Grocery Game, said Lippe Taylor, a spokeswoman for the service. "If you're married to a brand, get a divorce. You can save a lot more money."
Roxanne Williams of Rumford said the Grocery Game has helped convince her to try new foods and brands she never would have tried otherwise.
Williams, who has five grown children, two of whom still live at home, said she learned of the Grocery Game through "Cheapskate Monthly," a Web site filled with money-saving tips. "I'm a big couponer, so it piqued my interest."
She's always poring over ads and circulars, looking for the best deals. "Half the time, you don't even see half the things on sale. But when I see it on [Teri's] List, I'm like, 'Wow, I never would seen that.' "
So now Williams just goes to the Web site, looks for what's on sale, checks her cache of coupons, and heads to the store on Fridays to stock up. She delights in hoarding her coupons to use when the prices hit rock bottom and she get products like toothpaste for 25 cents a tube.
"Before Teri's List, [I'd spend] at least $150 a week. I'd have to keep going out to get things that I didn't have stockpiled. And when I go to the market and I want one thing, I usually come out with 10. But with the stockpile, I bought the sugar when it was on sale six weeks ago, or I bought the cake mixes when it was buy-one-get-one-free."
And when she spots a really great deal, she'll use her coupons to buy things her family might not want or need -- such as extra laundry detergent or canned goods -- so she has them on hand to give away to charities.
Sometimes, she admits, "I get carried away, and my husband [says] 'Why do we need all this food? She buys all this food and gives out bags [to charities] as fast as she's bringing it in.' "
But it's all part of the fun of playing the Grocery Game, Williams said.
"It's almost like you're tricking the market, but you're not. . . . If you hold onto your coupons, it's like holding onto the cards [in a poker game]. It's exciting."