I learned most of what I know about grocer markups during my five years waiting tables. Everything from lettuce to wine gets inflated at least twice—once from distributor to restaurant, and again from restaurant to customer. So now I think of grocery stores like restaurants where you have to do your own cooking. I know things are marked up so the grocery store can make a profit. But you'll never guess just how high some of those markups can get—especially right around the mega-profitable holidays!
5 Grocer markups you should absolutely avoid
Thanksgiving is widely considered one of the heartiest—and most expensive—holidays of the year. Here are five insanely high grocery store markups to be sure to avoid so you can keep costs reasonable.
1. Premade baked goods
- Markup: 100%
The cost of grocery store baked goods (pies, cakes, pastries, bread, etc.) is pure labor. They have to pay someone to make the pie, and that someone makes $10 an hour (or thereabouts). Even if you only bake once per year, opt for a box mix (where you only have to add eggs, milk, etc.) over pre-made pies, cakes, or other baked goods.
- Markup: 40%
Box mix stuffing may seem like a good choice for the uninitiated, but its palatability diminishes when you know you can make it yourself for one-third the cost.
3. Pre-prepped produce
- Markup: 40%
When you purchase prepped produce (sliced apples, de-threaded celery, etc.) you are really hiring a store employee to chop, dice, slice and core for you. Wouldn't you rather hire yourself—and save?
4. Wine, coffee and bottled water
Oh, yes. During my waitressing days, I saw many, many $5 bottles of wine with $25 menu prices. Coffee is another common culprit, with markups rivaling wine. Bottled water is by far the worst offender—especially those brands that are simply glorified tap water. Here, Costco and Specs may be able to help you out—if you plan ahead.
5. Brand names vs. generic
- Brand name markup: 100-500%
If the item is "the" course, then go ahead—splurge on a brand name if you feel more comfortable. But for add-ins like seasoning, spices, salt and pepper, etc., opt for generic wherever possible.
6. Fresh or frozen turkey
- Markup: 20-25%
Whether you choose fresh or frozen (keeping in mind the frozen turkey may be fresher because of flash-freezing right after butchering), most grocers use turkeys as what is called a "loss leader" to get customers into the stores to buy all of their other pricier Thanksgiving day staples. So the key to saving here is to buy only as much turkey as you can serve.
- A good rule of thumb: 1 lb of turkey per adult diner.
4 Other easy ways to save
When you know which grocery store markups to avoid, you’re halfway to saving the most on your Thanksgiving day meal. These four tips will get you the rest of the way there.
1. Skip appetizers entirely
Thanksgiving is one of the heartiest meals most folks will enjoy all year—hands down. There’s no need to serve appetizers when guests will soon be, well, stuffed to the gills on the main course.
2. Minimize side dishes
The turkey and stuffing is the main course, and so often it feels like dinner side dishes are more like dessert anyway (candied yams, fruity jello, sweet potatoes with marshmallows and pecans, etc.). So stick to turkey, stuffing and a few veggies for dinner and leave the sweets for later.
3. Use "found" fall decorations
No need to spend on decorations when, in most parts of the country, natural fall splendor is decoration aplenty. Colorful fall leaves, fallen acorns and pine cones, mini squashes and pumpkins—all of these make for beautiful, natural table decorations.
4. Simplify, simplify, simplify
Some Thanksgiving day recipes are quite…exotic. On this oh-so-comfort-food of days, adding in truffles, cashews and other unusual extras will definitely increase your meal's price tag, but chances are it won't affect guests' satisfaction one little bit.