It’s been awhile since I’ve done an update to the explanation of how the grocery ratings system works, and it’s high time I explained the system to both new and old readers alike.
During the middle of 2009, I became frustrated with “just” doing coupon matchups for the local grocery stores. Sure, I could tell you which coupons to use, but sometimes it was a great deal, and sometimes it wasn’t. So, in September 2009, I began using a scale of 1 to 5 to “rate” every item we feature from the weekly grocery ads, where 1 is not a good deal and 5 is as low as it’s going to get.
Here’s an explanation of what the numbers mean:
1 – Not a sale price at all; this is likely the shelf price.
2 – Just barely marked down from the shelf price.
3 – A decent sale, but one we see fairly often (every few weeks at one store or another). Buy it if you need it, but wait for a better sale to stock up. If you consider Walmart to be the “gold standard” as far as low prices, buying items rated a 3 will usually beat or meet Walmart’s prices.
4 – A great price; probably not as low as it will go, but worth buying an amount that your family will use for the next 2-3 months.
5 – A “rock-bottom” price; as low as it will go. Buy a reasonable amount to supply your family for the next 6-9 months.
Sometimes, I’ll rate items as 2-3 or 4-5. This just means that the price is between the two ratings, and rather than trying to be specific and rating something 3.64234, I just go between the two.
What if you don’t use coupons?
The rating is always for the price after coupon (the “net cost at checkout”), if there is a coupon available. And, if there is a deal where you earn a catalina for savings on your next order, the rating is for the final price after catalina (the “net cost after catalina”).
If you don’t use coupons at all, then you can still use the ratings, but you may want to take them down half a notch. Sometimes, an item will be at rock-bottom price because of a really hot coupon, so the sale price itself might not be that great. Other times, the sale price might be a great deal even without a coupon. If it’s a really great deal even without a coupon, I try to indicate that in a note.
What about seasonal items?
There are some items that are difficult to rate because they are seasonal, like turkeys and Hatch chiles. Turkeys really only go on sale in November, and Hatch chiles are only in stores for about 6-8 weeks, so often I choose to skip rating those kinds of items, or encourage you to simply compare prices across stores for that week.
There are other items that aren’t super-seasonal, but definitely are in-season part of the year and out-of-season the rest of the year. Ratings for strawberries will be different in summer versus winter, and likewise with things like sweet potatoes and squash. So, there are a few months of the year that I’m always deciding if a $2.00 pound of strawberries should be a 3 (as it would be in summer) or a 5 (as it would be in winter). You may notice some discrepancies in spring and fall due to this.
Adjusting the ratings
Prices have gone up a lot since I first started rating items in 2009! The most noticeable changes started in 2011, and now it’s a constant guessing game of “is this the new rock-bottom price for this item, even though it’s 50% more than the rock-bottom price used to be?” A crystal ball would be useful in this instance, but since such a thing doesn’t exist, I have to base ratings on trends that I’m seeing in pricing, coupons, and even some agricultural predictions (though I try not to panic and tell you to buy fifty jars of peanut butter because there’s going to be a shortage).
There isn’t a scientific method, either – though I do keep track of the ratings (nearing 1,000 items) in a spreadsheet, it’s not necessarily a percentage discount that determines the rating. I could hire a programmer to create something like that for me, but just tracking discount percentages is not really an accurate representation of the whole picture.
Same item, different brands
Generally, the ratings system doesn’t differentiate among brands, with the exception of personal care products. I’m not terribly brand-loyal myself, and it’s hard to know how many of you are, and if you are, which brand you would consider to be “premium”. Do you prefer Duncan Hines over Pillsbury? Wish Bone over Kraft?
Since there’s not a perfect way to do this, I try to put a note if I’ve rated something higher because it’s a particular brand. And if you are brand-loyal to an item, definitely bump up the rating in your head if you need to! :)
Differences between stores
Generally, I use the same ratings for all stores. If you only ever shop at one store, then you may want to bump up the ratings on certain items for that particular store. For example, King Soopers never has boneless, skinless chicken breasts for less than $1.99/lb (though they run the $1.99/lb sale about once a month), so even though it’s rated a 3, because it will go lower at other stores, if you only shop at King Soopers, you may consider that a 4 price for you.
Certain stores tend to “specialize” in certain types of sales: Sprouts has cheap produce and Albertsons tends to do good meat deals. Since most people shop around at least a little to get the best deal, the prices at one store generally net the same rating as they would if it were another store.
Items that never hit a 1 or a 5
There are some items – produce, mostly – that don’t ever hit a 1 or a 5 rating. I have hugely streamlined the system since I started using it, but there are still a few items that I’m constantly evaluating how I should rate them because they always end up being rated a 3.
For example, green onions/scallions are $0.50 each, regular price, at both Sprouts and King Sooeprs. I’ve seen them as low as $0.33 each before, and never lower, but I like to hold out hope thinking that they might hit $0.25 someday. :)
So, $0.25 would be rated a 5, $0.33 would be rated a 4, and $0.50 would be rated a 3. Or should it be a 1, since that is the regular retail price? Generally, I’ve chosen to rate that price as a 3, so that you don’t think that it’s an absolute awful price and refuse to purchase it. The truth is, the price doesn’t go much lower and even though it’s the shelf price, it’s about as good of a deal as you’re going to get.
Your personal stock-up price
Your own personal “rock-bottom price” will depend on what your family eats, your lifestyle, your cooking habits, and your budget. I sometimes choose to buy a bunch of chicken thighs at $0.99/lb (even though that’s not much off the shelf price) because I have set aside some time to prep them and put them in the freezer. I might not have time to do that when they are on sale for $0.69/lb (though I’ll certainly try to make time!).
If you eat a lot of granola bars, you may consider $1.00 a box your stock-up price, because when the rock-bottom price of $0.50 a box comes around, you don’t have enough coupons to buy a 6-9 months supply.
There is definitely nothing that says you can’t mentally adjust the ratings for your family, and I would strongly encourage you to do so. What’s a 3 on the ratings scale may be a 5 for you, and what’s a 5 might be a 3.
What about boneless, skinless chicken breasts?
The most common question I get about the ratings is why I (almost never) rate boneless, skinless chicken breasts a 5. The answer is simple: just about every store has chicken breasts for $1.99/lb at least once a month. If a 5 means to buy a reasonable supply to last the next 6-9 months, I don’t want to tell you to stock up at a price we see every single month. There’s nothing wrong with stocking up at $1.99/lb, of course, if that is your personal stock-up price.
Chicken breasts do go lower – from $1.66-1.88/lb – from time to time, so those prices would be rated a 4 and a 5. However, even if they didn’t go lower, if $1.99/lb was as low as they go, it would probably still be rated a 3 if we still saw that sale once a month.
Grocery price ratings: a Colorado Bargains original since 2009!
Well, that’s about it on the ratings system. I hope I’ve helped you understand a little bit more about how it works so that it can work for you! The ratings are there for you, so if you have questions about how it works, please feel free to leave a comment and ask.