Why Do Items Go on Sale at the Grocery Store, and Should You Buy Them?

Learn whether you're getting a good deal — or if that's just what the store wants you to think.

hand touching the sale price tag on the shelf at the grocery store
Photo: Getty Images

It's natural to get excited over sales. Why wouldn't you want to save money, buy more of your favorite items, or treat yourself to an item that would normally cost more than you budgeted for? The grocery store is a prime spot for finding major markdowns and budget-friendly buys. You can almost always find sales to take advantage of, in basically every category.

Just because something is on sale, however, doesn't mean it's a good purchase. You could be stocking up on poor quality items for fewer bucks simply because the store wants to toss out the not-so-great goods (and fast). Here are a few common reasons why the grocery store may offer certain sales due to factors like the time of the year, the quality of the product, and demand.

1. A Holiday Is Approaching

Certain items are more likely to go on sale at certain times of year, such as around holidays, football season, and throughout the summer when you want nothing more than to grill up a storm outdoors. And grocery stores tend to highlight these items by moving them near their entrances, where shoppers will inevitably see them.

"Holidays and timely moments are when people are most likely to buy or stock up, so think of chips for game day or canned pumpkin close to Thanksgiving," says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, founder of NutritionStarringYOU. Stores may also set up a section to sell pre-cooked meals and family-style bulk containers of classic holiday dishes as well — with options for mains and sides to make the holiday easier in the kitchen.

"Manufacturers want to highlight their items by placing them in sales circulars and stores are hoping that by advertising at a lower price on needed items, you will go to their store to pick them up, along with a cart full of other groceries," she says.

This is actually a good time to save on festive foods, which are priced lower but should be of good quality. Still, only buy what you need unless the item has a long shelf life. Excess will backfire and lead to food and monetary waste.

2. An Item Isn't Selling

When a store isn't selling much of an item, it's a signal to get rid of it to make way for different (and hopefully better!) inventory instead. So, stores generally sell these items at extra-low prices. "Stores are happier to lower the price to get rid of stock that isn't moving versus letting it take up valuable shelf space, so this is a great chance to pick up the last of an item if it's one of your favorites," Harris-Pincus says.

3. An Item Is Almost Expired

When foods get closer and closer to their expiration date, they're bound to go on sale if there's still a good deal of inventory left. Otherwise, there's zero use for them and the store will lose money.

"It's more desirable to lower the price on items that are about to expire instead of having to throw them away, as some money is better than no money," Harris-Pincus says. Yet, be careful here, as you don't want to buy anything that contains mold or will expire before you can use it. Check all items for signs of decay or damage, including packaged goods (to the extent that you can).

"Take care not to over-buy items that are close to expiring unless you know you will use it quickly or it's an item that freezes well, and even then, only purchase what you can realistically use within a safe timeframe," she says. A deal isn't a deal if the food goes bad before you get the chance to eat it.

4. A Holiday Is Over

"Stores are very quick to discount their holiday and seasonal items after the date passes because they need the space to stock the next round of merchandise," Harris-Pincus says. Think swapping out Halloween candy for Christmas treats and peppermint candy canes once November hits.

5. An Item Is in Season

Produce often goes on sale due to seasonality, when it's fresh and most coveted. You can find the most in-season produce during the warmer months of spring and summer. And if the quality and price looks good, toss plenty of it in your cart!

But, again, resist the urge to buy more than you need. Beyond what you can use for a few days, you can think about items that would freeze well. Label them by including the date of purchase to keep track of time, and you'll have fresh produce to enjoy for months to come.


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