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Clipping, Scrimping, Saving
Despite her efforts, Gindraw-Parrott said, her grocery bills are up about 25 percent recently, from $400 per month to $500 or more. "I used to be one of those people who would stop at the nearest gas station and pick up what I needed," she said. "It was all about convenience."
Other shoppers, like Kathleen Holly, are coping by visiting fewer stores and shopping closer to home. The Congress Heights senior said she hadn't yet made big changes to what she buys. Instead, she's conscious of "making a circle" when she gets in the car. "If I'm driving, I go to the bank, the grocery store, the cleaners all in one trip. That way, I can save money on gas and keep buying the things I'm buying."
In March, Nielsen reported that the annual number of shopping trips per household had dropped 9 percent, from 181 in 2001 to 164 in 2007.
Getting the best price and shopping close to home can be mutually exclusive, however, as large discount stores tend to be far from cities.
Recent data reflect several consumer strategies to cope. For example, Nielsen reported, 70 percent of consumers said they planned to try to combine errands to use less gas, while 27 percent said they planned to go to supercenters, such as Wal-Mart and Target, more often.
Already, such stores are gaining revenue. In March, BJ's same-store food sales jumped 5 percent. Departments with the strongest sales increases over last year included coffee and tea, dairy, eggs, juices, frozen goods, and produce. Wal-Mart does not break out food sales, but a company spokeswoman noted that customers have increasingly used gift cards for groceries in recent months. Sales of peanut butter and pasta, staples for bagged lunches and cheap dinners, also are on the rise, she said.
For large families, price is a main driver. Until recently, Pauline Adutwun, 38, shopped regularly at five stores -- Bloom, Costco, Shoppers Food & Pharmacy, Bottom Dollar and Aldi -- to feed her five children. But since January, the Occoquan resident said, she is spending more time at Aldi, a discount grocer, which has 10 stores in the Washington area and plans to open seven more this year.
Unlike bigger grocery stores, which stock 25,000 to 100,000 items, Aldi carries just 1,300. The limited selection, along with Aldi's policies not to take credit cards and to charge for plastic or paper bags, helps keep costs down. Adutwun can easily rattle off the price differences between local stores: a loaf of white bread at Aldi costs 75 cents vs. $1.09 at Bottom Dollar across the street; conventional 2 percent milk, of which Adutwun buys about five gallons per week, costs $3.38 vs. $3.75. "I used to shop around. I'd go to Costco to buy the big packages of cereal, but now I mostly buy here," Adutwun said. "I can't afford to buy brands anymore."
Consumers also are saving by stocking up on sale items, then trying not to waste. (According to a 2004 study at the University of Arizona, the average American household wastes 14 percent of food purchases; nationwide, that adds up to $43 billion.) NPD Group, a market-research firm, reported that 56 percent of financially challenged adults said they are trying to use leftovers more than they did last year; 54 percent said they are stocking up when items were on sale.
"We're that older generation that feels we need to have food to feed half the block if they happen to get hungry," said Holly, the Congress Heights senior. "I am not stuffing the freezer anymore. I just buy what I need when I need it, or I try to use up what I already have. That's a form of cutting back I haven't done in the past."
Others are taking more direct action: growing their own food. Inspired by the victory gardens of World War II, Eddie Beuerlein, 31, a computer security consultant, planted one of his own this spring. Using old tires he found in the woods near his home in Aldie, Va., he created raised beds where he could plant potatoes, onions and radishes, plus lettuce, zucchini, snow peas, peppers and, soon, watermelons. "With all the increase in the fuel costs and in vegetables, it seemed like it would be a good idea," Beuerlein said. On average, Beuerlein estimated, his household of five spends about $100 per week on fruits and vegetables. The cost of the seeds and soil for the garden was less than $50. "Based on what I've read, I think we'll have more than we can possibly eat."
One thing consumers haven't skimped on are organic products. Over the past 12 months, organic food and beverage sales jumped 25.5 percent, to $4.3 billion, according to Nielsen. Many shoppers who prefer organic are finding other ways to cut back rather than give up products that they think are healthier and better for the environment.
Case in point: Poli Marinova, a Bethesda marketing communications manager, said she has cut her grocery bills by almost 30 percent without switching to conventional foods. Instead, she skips "luxury items" like sushi and prepared sandwiches and soups. "We're buying a lot less overall at Whole Foods. We used to buy juice, biscuits and baby food from there," she said. "Now, we get a lot of that stuff at Costco or the Giant so we can afford to keep buying organic."
That there are myriad ways American consumers are making ends meet doesn't surprise Harry Balzer, vice president of NPD Group. Every generation, he said, spends a smaller percentage of its income on food than the one before. Today, the portion of income Americans spend on food is 58 percent lower than in 1929. "Everyone will find ways to moderate, to keep costs down," Balzer said. "There will not be a recession in eating."
But the long era of cheap food may be over. Global forces -- economic, agricultural, political -- have combined to create a new order that could prevent prices from dropping back, as they have in the past.
That troubles Pat Carroll, a retiree in Congress Heights: "I'm concerned, especially for families with children and for seniors. It's a problem for anyone on limited income. And I don't know anyone with unlimited income."