Ever seen a “scratch-and-dent” sale at an appliance store? You can save big bucks by buying a fridge with a little cosmetic damage.
The same concept holds true for “salvage” grocery stores, sometimes also referred to as closeout grocers.
With names like Grocery Outlet and Stretch-a-Buck, these retailers offer:
- “Damaged” food that might not be damaged at all (more on that later)
- Seasonal products that have outlived their eras
- “Over-run” items from companies that have too much product and not enough orders
- Products that didn’t go over well in certain areas (e.g., organic tomato-basil soup that didn’t sell as much in Nebraska as it would in Washington, D.C.)
- Discontinued items, or products whose packaging has changed
These shops have always been a boon to lower-income (or simply frugal) shoppers, but lately “the inflation-weary are joining their ranks,” according to The New York Times.
So are an increasing number of folks who want to help reduce food waste. After all, items rejected by traditional supermarkets likely would otherwise end up in landfills.
Numbers are hard to come by, since some of these stores don’t accept credit cards or even use modern supermarket scanners. However, one small North Carolina chain, Dickies, told The New York Times that sales increased by 36% between 2021 and 2022.
Want to make a big dent, as it were, in your grocery bills? Following is what you need to know about salvage grocery stores, including how to find them.
1. The savings are considerable — and sometimes ridiculous
Emily Gowen, a financial counselor in Portland, Oregon, regularly hits up Grocery Outlet Bargain Market, a chain that describes itself as “the nation’s largest extreme value retailer.” There she finds high-quality organic products such as coconut oil, peanut butter, protein bars, coffee and chocolate for her family of four.
Gowen doesn’t track her savings, but says, “If I pay $1 to $2 instead of $12+ per jar of oil or nut butter, it’s significant.”
Riley Adams, a San Francisco Bay area transplant, says he and his wife get about one-third of their family’s food from Grocery Outlet. (The rest comes from Costco.) Being able to get great deals on dairy, hummus, produce and other necessities helps offset the “insane” food prices in the area, says Adams, a certified public account who previously lived in New Orleans.
Sometimes the savings at salvage grocery stores are ridiculous.
Adams has found deals so “stupid” cheap that he took pictures of them. His favorite example: “Pillsbury buttery biscuits, 10 tubes for 97 cents. Not 97 cents each: 10 of them for 97 cents.” Those biscuits became the basis for a lot of weekend breakfasts for his four-person family.
Belinda Richardson, a Tennessee writer who blogs at Frugal Workshop, has found the best prices on canned goods at United Grocery Outlet, a Southeastern chain. But she says her favorite deal of all time was seeing 8-ounce blocks of cheese for 50 cents each: “We bought a year’s worth and put it in the freezer.”
Pro tip: Be adventurous. Always wanted to try a certain flavor? Trying it from a salvage grocer means you won’t be out too much money if the experiment is a bust.
2. You may not find everything you need
Some salvage grocery stores have a fairly limited repertoire, primarily offering dry or canned goods. Others have a wider mix of items, which may include meat, dairy or produce.
Some salvage grocers are even a reliable source for most basic household necessities. For example, you might be able to do most if not all your household shopping at a chain like Grocery Outlet.
However, even that store has an ever-changing menu of items. It all depends on what’s currently available through salvage food brokers.
Even if you can get only some of your household’s needs met at a salvage grocery store, though, it might be worth the trip.
Pro tip: If you try a new product and like it, go back and buy as many as you can afford. It might not be there on your next visit.
3. You’ll see a lot of junk food — but sometimes also organics
Gingerbread house kits. Chocolate Easter bunnies. Giant bags of Halloween candy. Themed breakfast cereal, such as red and green Rice Krispies. Potato chip flavors that didn’t pan out. They’re all typical fare.
However, most salvage stores have more than junk food. Look beyond the snack-y items for food you can actually use.
Gowen buys a lot of organic products at a salvage grocery; her all-time favorite finds are gallon tubs of almond butter and unrefined coconut oil. Sometimes she is able to buy entire boxes of organic produce.
Pro tip: Stick to your list. Don’t buy junk food just because it’s cheap. Gowen went through a spell of buying lots of chips and cereal because they were “a steal.” Now she focuses on healthier stuff: “Otherwise, you aren’t really saving money.”
4. Not all ‘damaged’ foods are actually damaged
“Damaged” food at a salvage grocer might not be damaged at all. This is because a shipment of products that get damaged in transit typically won’t be accepted by traditional supermarkets even if not all of the items in the shipment actually are damaged.
For example, suppose a pallet of canned beans falls off a warehouse forklift. It’s more cost-effective for the shipper to sell the whole case to a salvage grocery broker than it is to open the box, sort out the bad from the good, and repack the undamaged cans.
At the same time, it’s important to watch out for foods with damage that could compromise their safety. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, you should avoid any can that is swollen, leaking, punctured, rusted or dented badly enough “to prevent normal stacking or opening with a manual, wheel-type can opener.”
Pro tip: You have more leeway with food that’s “too old” than items that are too damaged. If a salvage grocer has food passed its sell-by or best-by date, keep in mind that infant formula is the only food on which federal law requires a date. This means that dates on all other types of food aren’t regulated and thus might not mean much at all.
5. How to find salvage grocers near you
Think there aren’t any salvage grocers in your region? You might be surprised. Some dedicated salvage shoppers had no idea these stores operated in their areas until tipped off by friends.
Do a web search for “salvage grocer in (your area),” or visit BuySalvageFood.com, which offers a map of stores in every state.
And if you’re lucky enough to live near more than one salvage grocer? “Shop all of them,” Richardson advises. “They all have different items.”
Pro tip: If your local store has a social media presence, follow it. For example, a North Carolina store called Stretch-a-Buck posts reminders of what’s to come (“Tomorrow we will have bread and poinsettias, don’t miss out”) and also runs photos of hot deals. Recently, the Stretch-a-Buck Facebook page showed pictures of boxed Angus beef patties with the caption, “First come first serve.”
6. More tips from the pros
Those who shop at salvage grocers use a variety of tactics to get the most bang for the buck, including the following.
Know what things cost. That way, if you see an extraordinary price on something you use a lot of, you’ll know to buy as much as you can afford.
Get to know the store. Practices vary from place to place. For example, any price that ends in a seven (e.g., $1.27) at Grocery Outlet Bargain Market means an exceptionally good discount, Adams says. His son watches the signage and alerts and keeps an eye out for these prices. At United Grocery Outlet, special deals can be found in the back part of the store; Richardson makes it a point to always check there.
Mix it up. Even if traditional supermarkets or warehouse clubs supply the bulk of your household’s groceries, salvage grocers could yield some truly startling prices on certain items. Stop in every so often to see what’s available.
Cruise the non-food aisles. Generally speaking, certain household items should never be bought at grocery stores. But salvage grocers sometimes get surprisingly good deals on non-food products; for example, if a company changes its product label it will unload the “old” items to a salvage broker.
Hit the post-season sales. Holiday-themed items often show up at salvage grocers — not always the next day, but eventually. That Halloween candy or those Christmas butter cookies likely will freeze well.