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UConn/Courant Poll: The Rising Virtue Of Careful Grocery Shopping

Dan Haar

Dan Haar

12:05 AM EDT, September 28, 2012

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Rick Sharr was visiting the home of a friend — a well-off friend — when he noticed lots of bulk items such as paper goods bought from super-discount stores.

Sharr later asked his friend about it, knowing that the friend buys high-end food.

"He says, 'For the staples, I'm not going to pay supermarket prices. ... My wife goes once a month and just loads up'."

Sharr was not just curious. He's president of Tri-Town Foods, a family-owned chain of supermarkets with locations in Portland, East Lyme and Uncasville. And he's seen a new wave of careful grocery shoppers rise up over the last few years, as hard times have become a permanent part of the landscape and higher food prices have started to kick in.

For shoppers — that's just about all of us — the change toward careful grocery buying is a lifestyle evolution that takes many forms. It can mean more spending in certain aisles, less in others, and it can even mean a higher tab at the checkout counter, if we're eating fewer restaurant meals.

In state and national University of Connecticut/Courant polls of likely 2012 voters this month, about half of all people responding said that over the past three years, they had "made big changes to buying habits at the grocery store due to rising prices."

That's a dramatic number, and unlike, say, the 17 percent of Connecticut likely voters who said they had lost a job, it describes a sweeping lifestyle evolution rather than a single event that defines the downturn I call the "permacession."

Whether they claim to have made dramatic changes or not, whether they spend more money at the supermarket or less, nearly everyone, it seems, declares a heightened sense of frugality, or at least care, if they think about it long enough.

In West Hartford, for example, in the parking lot of Big Y Supermarket, Russ Jones, a retired Kaman Corp. executive, said he takes out his buying wrath on food makers that have shrunken packages. "You pull it down, you see it's skinnier. A pint of Haagen-Dazs ice cream is 14 ounces," Jones said, his voice rising. "In lieu of raising prices, they cut the quantity ... now I buy Ben & Jerry's because a pint is a pint."

It is, in short, a growing part of the culture, this heightened care in grocery shopping. For some, it's a necessary way of life; for others, a form of conscientious non-consumption, the opposite of the sort of conspicuous consumption that helped build the U.S. auto industry into a manufacturing juggernaut.

The UConn/Courant poll in Connecticut shows, for example, that about three-fourths of respondents whose family incomes are $60,000 or less had made big changes in their grocery buying habits, as expected. But even those with incomes over $100,000 are changing the way they shop for food and household provisions in significant numbers.

And unlike other economic questions, such as whether they're better off now than they were four years ago, the question of whether they've changed their grocery habits is not closely tied to party affiliation.

Jennifer Dineen, the poll director, makes the point that $100,000 in income can still leave a family very tight, if the family has a lot of children, a big mortgage, and so forth. So it's possible, she said, that those people who consider themselves well off would not say they had made big changes in their buying habits over the past three years.

But in the big picture, it's not just about frugality, it's about added care. One respondent in the poll, Scott Phillips, a certified public accountant who lives in Cromwell with his wife, Shannon and three young daughters, said he answered 'no' on the question about big changes in grocery buying. Their finances are stable.

But when he thought more about it, he said, "The one change we have made ... is a shift toward more organic and whole-food-type items. We've probably spent a little bit more as a family. I'd say it's a change in mindset, and it's a pretty big change."

One possible sign that grocery shoppers are showing more care is that they are showing up at the store more often. The average number of trips to the supermarket was just over 2 times a week last year, up from 1.7 times a week just a couple of years earlier, said Heather Garlich, spokeswoman for the Food Marketing Institute, which represents 1,200 retailers, large and small, with more than 36,000 supermarket locations.

Total sales in 2011 were $584 billion, the institute said, up from $398 billion in 2001 — which is slightly higher than the overall inflation rate.

There are too many cross-currents to sort out whether grocery shoppers are cutting costs overall, as food inflation varies by product, and as the typical market basket has changed dramatically. Sharr, at Tri-Town foods, points out that there are more competitors, and more varied competitors, on the scene now. Sales of "center store" items, those thousands of commodities that are not perishable or ready-to-eat meals, are stagnant, but with items such as fish and meat, "we can outshine the competition."

Weather and season matter. Now that summer is over, Sharr said, shoppers have much more diligently gone after weekly specials.

There's more chicken, less steak, but more prepared food in that typical basket.

And across the state and nation, retailers such as Stop & Shop report that coupon use and the buying of store-brand items are on the rise. A study done this year for the Food Marketing Institute shows that sales of private-brand items rose dramatically as consumer confidence fell in 2007 and 2008 — but stayed at the high levels after confidence rebounded.

Boiling down this complex picture, we see a culture, driven largely but not entirely by economic need, in which extra-careful grocery shopping has, in the words of the institute's study, brought on a "new normal" in which "value-seeking is a way of life."

More than that, it's now seen as a virtue. One UConn/Courant respondent, a New Britain nurse who gave only her first name, Linda, said she is spending more now that her children are grown and her mortgage is paid off.

So she's less careful about price — but she can't resist that "tired vegetable and fruit" table of old produce at the supermarket. And, she says with emphasis, bordering on pride, "I'm a very extremely overly frugal shopper."

"My parents were very poor. They never got over it," she said, "and I never got over seeing them not get over it."