Food Savings: 5 Things To Consider Before Shopping At Salvage Grocery Stores

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As grocery prices skyrocket, some consumers are turning to options beyond supermarkets to feed their families on a budget. One of the more attractive bargain options for shoppers are salvage grocery stores.

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Also known as outlet or discount food stores, salvage grocery stores take in “unsellable” inventory from a grocery reclamation center, a place that has a supply of consumables that may not be as attractive as the items on traditional grocery store shelves. This includes goods coming upon or past a posted expiration date, dented cans or ripped packaging, overstock items and any seasonal products that might seem “out of date.”

Because of this, shopping at salvage food stores can mean big savings. The other benefit of shopping at salvage grocery stores is that it’s environmentally conscious. Rather than those “unsellable” food items ending up in a landfill, customers can purchase the items and save a buck, too.

And it can be up to half of what you’d pay at a grocery store, according to The Spruce Eats. With the category of “at home food” increasing 13.1% from this time last year (per the latest Consumer Price Index), those savings really matter to families’ bottom lines. As such, many have since hopped on this trend.

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According to The New York Times, which analyzed data from 405,000-plus receipts submitted on the consumer rewards app Fetch, it appears that shopping at salvage grocery stores is up 8% more than a year ago. One store owner they profiled in North Carolina noted sales were up 36%.

It’s not just refrigerator and pantry staples customers can tap into, either (though 98 cents for a bag of granola, as The New York Times cited as an example, is a bargain). Those on specialty diets can find goods, too. Vegan butter was $1.99, or about $5 less than the sticker price at Whole Foods.

The bargains are so good that salvage food hauls are starting to become a TikTok trend, as much as Costco and Trader Joe’s, with The New York Times noting one viral video which actually shut down an Oklahoma store, as their shelves were left emptied from an influx of customers. Because many of the items can be recognizable name brands, shopping at salvage food stores can be more familiar to shoppers sometimes turned off by generic products at dollar stores.

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Though it’s not always clear where salvage food stores are located — with their bargain prices, that doesn’t leave a budget for advertising — consumers have taken matters into their own hands. One fan started the website Buy Salvage Food with a nationwide directory of options in each of the 50 states. Extreme Bargains is another option to find salvage food stores in a particular region.

After finding a local store, there are certain things to keep in mind before shopping:

1. Flexibility Is Key

Unlike regular supermarkets that stock items daily or weekly, salvage food stores have variable stock dependent upon what is available to reclaim and sell. You may not always be able to find everything on your list, but it is still a good starting point. It’s also important to note that the stores don’t always operate during the same hours as a grocery store, and may have limited availability.

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2. The Food Is Safe To Eat

There’s no way the FDA would allow salvage food stores to exist if they weren’t following guidelines. Though buying items at or past an expiration date might seem questionable, there is a large difference between a “sell by” or “best buy” date and something that’s truly spoiled, The Spruce Eats noted. If it’s a nonperishable, there’s a lot of wiggle room. For instance, if It’s a frozen perishable, it’s okay as long as the food has been kept frozen the whole time. However, it’s best to plan to buy only what you need in the short-term, as salvage food goods are not the best to stock up on since they’re close to their shelf life.

3. There Are Some Signs To Look Out For

When it comes to dented cans, that’s usually just a small cosmetic flaw. But if there are very large dents, especially near the top or seams, or if the can is leaking, take a pass on it. Most salvage food stores will spot this before putting the item out for sale, but it’s good to double check. As well, it’s best to make sure any food wrapped in plastic is not compromised — however, a tear in a box or outer packaging is typically fine and just another example of a cosmetic flaw.

4. Most Only Take Cash, and Sometimes Debit Cards

Credit cards and checks are not generally accepted at the register at salvage grocery stores. Some do take manufacturer coupons, though, so plan ahead just in case.

5. It’s Not Just Groceries

You might also be able to find household goods, cleaning items, beauty products and home office supplies.

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About the Author

Selena Fragassi joined in 2022, adding to her 15 years in journalism with bylines in Spin, Paste, Nylon, Popmatters, The A.V. Club, Loudwire, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine and others. She currently resides in Chicago with her rescue pets and is working on a debut historical fiction novel about WWII. She holds a degree in fiction writing from Columbia College Chicago.
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