Sneaky Price Tricks Your Grocer Doesn’t Want You to Know

While it didn't make this list, always beware of grocers who insist on using price tags written in Japanese.

When I was teenager I worked in a grocery store, initially as a box boy. Within six months of being hired, however, I was promoted to checker.

Over time I eventually got to work almost all of the jobs in the store including working the deli counter, and helping the overnight stock crew fill shelves and reprice products after the store closed.

Anyway, I kept that job for three years, until I left my hometown to attend college up the coast.

To be sure, I learned some valuable lessons while working at the supermarket. Although it’s not true any more, the first thing I learned was that grocery store checkers were paid very very well at the time. Although I had not reached the top pay level by the time I quit, I was still earning the inflation-adjusted equivalent of roughly $26 per hour — and $78 per hour on holidays. Meanwhile, the most senior everyday checkers were pulling down about $30 per hour (and $90 per hour on holidays).

That’s not too shabby for a teenager with few financial obligations.

Even so, working in a grocery store was not a very fun way to make a living. Not only is working as a grocer back-breaking work, but you also have to deal with the public on a daily basis — which in my case meant I even had to endure an armed robbery while working there.

It wasn’t all bad though. Working there did help me earn and save enough money to pay for my college education.

Perhaps even more importantly, I also learned a few tricks that many grocery stores still use today to get a little extra money out of their customers and pad tight profit margins.

Here are some of the sneakiest grocery store tricks to watch out for:

1. End cap “specials” that are anything but. The items you see at the end of each grocery aisle — known as the “end caps” — are NOT typically the areas where you’ll get great deals. In fact, the end caps are often misleadingly used to push items that aren’t on sale. Oh sure, grocers will make the end caps look festive and boldly advertise the price as if it were a good deal, but it’s usually not. In fact, end cap items often provide grocery stores with some of their biggest profits.

2. Bad deals at the checkout line. Just like the items on the end caps, you need to avoid the candy, gum and magazines you’ll find at the checkout line. These items are almost always high profit-margin products that can really run up your bill.

3. Name-brand products placed on shelves at eye level. Why do stores do this? Because the premium you pay for name brand products can be as much as fifty percent and sometimes even more — even though store brands are often of similar quality. If you want to save money you’ll usually need to look down low for those store brands.

4. Sale prices on only selected product varieties. It’s true; many times a store will advertise a sale on a product, but if you don’t read the fine print – or look closely at the price tags — you might not realize that the sale is only on certain varieties. At our store we used to do this with Spaghetti-Os all the time. We’d put the plain Spaghetti-Os on sale, but if you bought the variety with franks or meatballs, you were stuck paying the full price.

5. Sneaky price tags. When you see a price tag that says “5 for $5.00” it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to buy five items to get the deal. In fact, more often than not you can usually get away with buying just one for a buck. As a box boy working the late night shifts I’d occasionally mark down stuff in the bargain bin with ridiculous prices like “7 for $1.89” or “3 for $2.37.” Just for fun. The best part was when a happy customer would bring the marked-down item to the check stand and I got to watch the poor checker try to figure out the unit price in his head. Of course, the checker would look at me and I’d just shrug my shoulders and give a sheepish grin. Actually, looking back it’s a wonder I ever got promoted.

Photo Credit: Boris Anthony


    • 2

      Len Penzo says

      It does seem high, JG, but I was making a little over $12 per hour in 1983 as a grocery store checker in Southern California. After adjusting for inflation, that is roughly $26/hour today. I don’t believe even unionized journeymen checkers in SoCal make anything near that today.

    • 3

      G T Hokama says

      Len’s correct about the adjusted pay rate for checker-level positions. SoCal grocery store (Alpha Beta) was my first post-grad job, and it funded the first two years of my college.

    • 6

      Len Penzo says

      I was very fortunate to get the job, Lance. At the time, getting a job in a grocery store as a box boy was very competitive; I’m not sure if that’s the case anymore with the lower wages.

    • 8

      Len Penzo says

      Good for you, Chase. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do all my shopping at our town’s weekly farmers market — where would I get my potato chips and Ho Ho’s?

  1. 9

    Oscar says

    Gotta give Publix some love (and defense) here: most of the time, the items on the end caps are the items that are BOGO or otherwise discounted. Often times, when I can’t find the item in the aisle I can find a few remaining in the end cap.

    • 11

      Len Penzo says

      You’re right, Oscar … the end caps aren’t always bad deals — they often offer up some very good deals. You just have to be careful.

      As an aside: My folks used to live by a Publix near Daytona Beach, FL. And most of the “box boys” there were senior citizens. Maybe that is commonplace in Florida, but I rarely see that here in California.

  2. 12


    Ugh, don’t even get me started on gum at the checkout line. My wife and I always go down the aisle that has the big packs of gum but never pick any up. However, when we get to the checkout she always throws a single pack on the belt. “It’s a new flavor!”

    • 13

      Len Penzo says

      She doesn’t chew “5” gum with those ridiculous flavor names like “Cobalt,” “Flare,” “Elixir,” and “Solstice” — or does she? 😉

  3. 14

    Lola says

    Yep, they got me with the “select varieties” at the grocery store yesterday! Sale price was $1.79 and I bought 4 of them in different varieties. When I got home and looked at my receipt, I realized only 2 out of the 4 rang up at $1.79 – the other 2 were $3.99 each. Ouch.

  4. 16

    mc says

    $12/hr for a starting checker (cashier, right?) at a supermarket…in 1983!? Huh? At that time, the minimum wage was $3.35, and wouldn’t even break $4 in your state until 1991, some eight years later.

    Why the $*@^#%! were they paying you almost 4x minimum wage?

    I started as a “checker” in NJ in summer 1987 (four years after you) at $5.15/hr and it was seen by my friends as really “generous” since many local jobs that teens took paid right at minimum wage.

    $12/hr is actually not even bad NOW, almost thirty years later! (And that’s ignoring the crucial inflation adjustment).

    • 17

      Len Penzo says

      It is amazing, isn’t it, mc? My starting wage as an apprentice box boy was $4.64/hr (and triple that amount on holidays). When I became a checker my pay jumped to somewhere in the neighborhood of $7.50 or $8 per hour. When I quit, I had advanced a few pay levels to $12/hr (although I still hadn’t worked enough hours to earn the highest journeyman wages). In 1982, thanks to me working almost every holiday that year, I earned over $14,000 working part time (keep in mind I was still in high school back then). That’s almost $32,000 in today’s dollars!

      • 20

        Libby says

        I love Target because they DO put their clearance items on end caps and clearly mark it as such. Granted they aren’t a grocery store but I do find grocery items there. It isn’t marked down much to begin with but if you’re willing to wait for the price to come down, you can sometimes get things for 75% off.

  5. 21


    I think supermarket pricing almost originates the term let the buyer beware! Unit pricing is very important and should be used to figure out what you are buying.

    • 22

      Len Penzo says

      Yep; and nowadays we really have no excuse since I believe in most states they put the unit prices right on the price tags.

    • 26

      Len Penzo says

      I have no idea what the store’s manager was making back then, Steve. I’m sure it was more than the journeyman checkers were making. My store was unionized; I belonged to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. The manager, of course, did not belong to the union.

  6. 27


    Hey Len, My first job besides working for family was as a bag boy. We got 1$/hr, I was probably 14 at the time. Tipping was rare at that time. We had a faith healer in town who had a big business and he ran a restaurant it his establishment.
    We fought to take out their groceries as they were big tippers-though they bought 3-4 cartloads at the time…

    I heard the store got nailed for paying under minimum wage sometime later. Nobody sent me a check though. I’m sure I was off the books, though didn’t know about “off the books” at the time.

    • 28

      Len Penzo says

      A buck an hour, Dr. Dean? That’s really low … unless you were a box boy in 1945. (And I know you weren’t!) ha ha

      We weren’t allowed to accept tips, although a few nice ladies tried to give them to us occasionally — usually when we had to walk them all the way out to the very farthest part of the parking lot in the middle of a heavy rain.

    • 30

      Len Penzo says

      I know, huh? But seriously, for a lot of folks I knew at the time, it seemed like a fair question. In fact, one of my good friends and I started out as box boys at the same store within a couple months of each other. After all these years, he is still working for the same store as a produce manager.

      In my case, I figured sitting in an office working as an engineer was going to be a lot easier than busting my hump as a grocer. (And I was right.) 😉

  7. 31

    vinny says

    here is the real scam…. 1/2 gallon ice cream – no longer 64 oz….. 1LB coffee – now around 10 oz…. 1LB pasta now around 12 oz……. chipping away at the standard size and raising prices is a HUGE double WHAMMY! We are all getting hosed! soon a dozen eggs is going to be a “10-pack”…. 12 oz soda can 9.5 oz……crazy!

  8. 33

    JayKay says

    Great article! It amazes me how many people aren’t aware of these tricks and others. A few years back a local chain started running a lot of “10 for …” specials and A LOT of people were snookered into buying all ten. Apparently someone took action because the ads now have a quasi-disclaimer: “Buy 1, buy 2, buy 5, buy 10 – Get the Same Great Price”.

    Other tricks I’ve seen include

    > Prominently displaying larger-size packages at their regular prices while downplaying a manufacturer’s promotion that results in a lower unit price on smaller packages of the same item

    > Expressing prices on the same item using different and difficult-to-compare units; e.g. one size pack of berries will be priced per pound while a different size is priced by dry pints. [As a scientist who much prefers metric measures, I’m surprised that the food industry hasn’t embraced SI units. Given how difficult most people seem to find counting by tens, you’d think vendors would be salivating at the chance to add further confusion :) ]


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