Supermarket Shift: 6 Innovations and Changes Affecting How You Buy Food, and How Much You Pay

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Keep your eyes open—and your wallet closed—while checking out these changes affecting the food-shopping experience.
Practical, Easier-to-Use Coupons
Supermarkets and food manufacturers have mostly sat on the sidelines during the recent daily deal craze, in which while restaurants, salons, and other services paired up with Groupon, LivingSocial, and other flash deal sites. Finally, with last week’s introduction of CouponNetwork.com and SavingStar.com, it seems like the hottest innovation in deals may be for groceries and other staples consumers actually need, as opposed to splurges they’re only considering because a one-day-only half-off promo just appeared in your in-box. With these new supermarket coupon services, searching for coupons gets much easier, as shoppers no longer have to flip through newspaper inserts and sift through coupons for dozens of products they’ll never want in the house.

Video-Equipped Shopping Carts
In the grand scheme of things, a video player on a supermarket shopping cart is probably not one of life’s necessities. But the King Soopers chain recently began stocking stores with video-equipped carts, and if they keep kids entertained while a parent can get the shopping done in peace—with ample time to evaluate offers, and without the cries of “needing” sugary snacks—then this is an innovation many moms and dads would welcome.

Higher Prices
The natural consequence of higher gas prices is higher prices on goods that need to be transported. Even the CEO of low-cost giant Walmart predicts higher prices on food, clothing, and other standards, starting wholeheartedly this summer, if not sooner. Overall, however, the numbers show that nowadays food is way cheaper than it was, say, in the 1950s.

Home Delivery
So what is Walmart doing to deal with higher gas prices? It’s delivering food directly to customers. Well, it’s testing out the service anyway. Over the weekend, Walmart To-Go opened up on a test basis to shoppers in the San Jose, Calif., area. While several supermarket chains have been offered grocery deliveries for years, this marks the first time Walmart is giving it a shot. As the NY Times reported, orders can arrive by the next day, sent in temperature-controlled trucks, and delivery charges start at $5.

Low-Cost Grocery Upstarts
Perhaps one of the reasons Walmart is making significant changes—not only adding grocery delivery, but expanding ship-to-store services and pledging a renewed focus on everyday low prices—is the rise of spunky competitors such as Aldi and Save-A-Lot. These stores may not offer huge selections, but the prices are cheap—and that’s a tradeoff many consumers are willing to swallow in today’s economy. Plans are in the works for 160 new Save-A-Lot stores to open by March 2012 in urban and rural locations around the U.S. Aldi, meanwhile, is expanding rapidly (and successfully) in American cities, where many larger retailers have struggled.

Buy What-You-Want Bulk Foods
Everyone knows that (in theory at least) buying goods in large quantities at warehouse stores like Costco can save money. But this isn’t the only kind of bulk buying out there. Many supermarkets—notably, Whole Foods—have bulk food aisles, where shoppers scoop out just as much beans, pasta, and grains that they need, and there’s no need to pay for packaging. There’s also no need to buy 10 boxes of pasta, like at Costco, if all you want at the moment is half a pound of elbows. According to Whole Foods, bulk food purchases are growing by 25% annually. Perhaps at the forefront of a trend, a specialty store called Simply Bulk Market opened last year in Colorado, and none of the goods sold come with packaging. Instead, hundreds of bulk foods are available to scoop out from barrels and bins throughout the store—in whatever quantity the shopper prefers, of course.

MORE:
Is Food Cheap or Expensive? Could It Be Both?
The Power of Free: Why Companies Pay to Give Free Samples to Supermarket Customers

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