Grocery Specials: Are They Really Worth It?

grocery special sign for canned goods

New reader Renee Wohl posted this on a local email list about saving money. A local chain was advertising 1+1 sales where you get two identical items for the price of one.

Although there ARE sometimes good deals that can save you money at these 1 +1 and other sales, I’d like to remind all you savvy consumers that these ‘specials’ need to be examined very carefully. In many cases, the savings are minimal or non-existent.

  1. Chain Z is expert at making special packaging for these sales.
    Thus, the full priced product might be sold at X amount and the sale product at X-2, but if you check how much you get in the package (something like 500 g for the non-sale item), and you check the contents on the ‘special’ package (400-450g) you’ll often see that there is no savings involved.
  2. Sometimes, buying 2 packages of half the amount at the regular price, is cheaper than one double package of the ‘sale’ item. This happened to me recently when I found that 2 packages of 50 tea candles cost less than the large package of 100 tea candles.
  3. You need to know the pre- ‘special’ price of your product in order to see whether the 2 +1 free or 1 +1 free item is a good deal or not. Often the price for the 2 or the 1 has been hiked, which might
    still give you a savings, but not as much as you think – especially on those 2 +1 free items.
  4. Do you actually need 3 of the items? Chain Z certainly needs your
    cash which is working for them instead of working for you, while you use up the 3 items.

So caveat emptor (buyer beware)! When I’m in doubt, I use my cell phone
calculator to figure out how much I’m paying per unit (this info is supposed to be on the shelf labels, but is seldom consistently or clearly displayed). Also, I never buy the 2 + 1 specials unless it’s a product whose regular price I know and which I use up quickly. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where I simply don’t believe all the hype they send you and throw the ‘specials’ bulletins right into the trash with the coupons. After all, who
is paying for all the advertising campaigns and those slick fliers
(including mail & distribution costs, labor involved in changing price tags,


Thank you, Renee. Jonathan Bloom spoke about point number four as it relates to waste in his book American Wasteland. In England, the government encourages stores to offer “Buy One, Get One Later” along with a coupon. It would save the store money as a significant percentage wouldn’t bother.

It’s also important to keep in mind that some specials can be helpful. “Loss Leaders” are good deals meant to lure you into the store for your weekly shopping trip. Often, a chain with consistently better prices is the better deal. Or rotate among stores to stock up on bargains.

Photo credit: rutlo

You may also enjoy:

Coupon Coup or Frugal Folly?

Ten Questions to Ask Before Going to the Store

Pantry List: Stock Up to Save Time, Money and Hassle


  1. Great tips!

    So funny, as I was *just* at the Dollar Store yesterday (which I rarely am), and I noticed they have aluminum foil, which I’m low on. I thought, “Hey! Foil for a dollar! Great!” Then I noticed that it was only the smallest amount (25 yards, or feet, whatever), and that it certainly would not have been worth my money.

  2. Cynthia Lassiter says

    This is true, also the items on the bottom of the shelf are usually cheaper. Those at eye level are more expensive. Figuring out the price per ounce is essential to savings. The items on the end of the aisles are supposedly on sale, but be careful. I didn’t realize the British government is into the business of dictating coupon orwellian.

    • I don’t see how encouraging policies that discourage food waste is a violation of human rights. It saves money improves quality of life for everyone.

  3. Cynthia Lassiter says

    I believe people are smart enough to figure these things out for themselves with out government interference. It seems the things they are charged to do they don’t very efficiently because they are so occupied with the minutia of the populace’s lives. It just struck me as being some what intrusive. You would think that ensuring the food supply is safe would be a big enough job to keep the bureaucrats occupied.

  4. Cynthia, the intent wasn’t to protect consumers–maybe it was confusing for me to bring it up in this context. Food that ends up in landfills is a serious public problem. As far as I know this was a government agency working with retailers to help them become more aware of the issue. Most food-waste prevention measures will save retailers money too.

  5. Cynthia Lassiter says

    Bringing the topic up in this context didn’t confuse me, I simply feel that this is not the government’s business but the consumer’s and the retailer’s business. Adding a layer of government bureaucracy to “oversee” everything adds unneeded expense to the cost of doing business and products. Thank you, I enjoy your postings.

  6. the problem with unit pricing are things like toilet rolls where the supermarket says, 100 sheets at 35cents per seet. but when you actually look at the different toilet rolls some are 2 ply, some are 3 ply, some are 10cm by 11cm, and some are 9cm by 10cm. You really have to be a canny shopper!

  7. Good grocery stores put the non-sale price on the sign. Sometime you are only saving $0.02. In America, if you see 10 for $10, you can still buy 1 for $1. In Israel, you have to buy however many specified. If you don’t buy enough to get the sale, the check-out girl may remind you of the sale, but sometimes they don’t know how much to charge you if you only want one.

    Something that always surprised me is how the smaller cans of tuna are usually less money per ounce. I had to keep reminding my husband of this.

  8. Sue, that’s very true.
    Yosefa, too bad about the tuna. It really makes no sense.

  9. they also do this in australia. “In Israel, you have to buy however many specified. If you don’t buy enough to get the sale, “. The checkout girl does not remind you of the sale.

  10. whats ‘getting to me at the moment, is that all company’s for eg do this, the have can of tuna, it say tuna. 95 gm. and yet it is not 100% tuna, it might be 80% tuna or 70% tuna and the rest is water. or how about peeled tomates. check the ingredients and it says 67% tomatoes, tomato juice, salt, sugar and water. Pathetic really

  11. I always write down how much money I spend for products and in what quantity at which store. Then if there is a special discount, I can just look at my notebook and compare the price.