Why I Shop the Perimeter

A couple weeks ago, a friend – whom I had only spoken to online before – surprised me by figuring out which coffee shop I was working from and showing up. We spent a good couple of hours chatting away, which a few times lead to comments about my blog. One comment he made had to do with the video I shot with the Globe and Mail back in January. He joked about how I bought the cheapest can of beans on the shelf, to which I replied that a) that’s just common sense (duh) and b) I was actually disappointed the Globe chose to show that over a number of other things we shot.

One of the messages I wanted to portray in that video was how grocery shopping, for me, involves only shopping the perimeter of the store. I might pop up an aisle to grab some pasta or rice (or a can of beans) but, for the most part, my shopping route looks like this: produce, bakery, bulk, walk past the meat (I’m a vegetarian) and head for the dairy. I walk out with fruit, veggies, sometimes bread/pasta/rice, and then some nuts/seeds, eggs, yogurt, cheese and almond milk. If that sounds boring to you, let me explain why it actually makes sense.

The inside aisles of any grocery store are filled with prepackaged products. And, other than Kraft Dinner (which is surprisingly expensive these days), most of them cost a lot more to buy than if you were to make the same meals yourself. Don’t believe me? Think about products like frozen pizzas, microwavable Thai food, and even tomato sauce. Unless you find them on one of those magical sales that only come around twice/year, I guarantee you can make them yourself for less by using fresh ingredients. We pay a premium for convenience; this statement is true for a number of things that we use in our daily lives, but is especially true about food, whether it be fast food or from the grocery store.

Google “shop the perimeter” right now and you’ll see that this concept is anything but new. While some people (like us personal finance bloggers) choose to do it to save money on our grocery budgets, others do it to limit their intake on processed foods, sodium, etc. For those people, shopping the perimeter can go one step further – for any aisle they do go up, most health-conscious shoppers will look above and below eye-level. Why? Because marketers know that they need to place the best (a.k.a. the newest and/or most expensive) products at eye-level. Those are the products you usually buy on a whim, often based on the need to fulfill a craving – and they know you’ll be happy to pay an extra dollar, to do so.

Now, personally, it’s probably easy for me to shop like this because I enjoy cooking. Unless I feel like I’m starving, I have no problem mixing something up and waiting for it to be ready. I do get lazy sometimes with things like chili, where I’ll buy cans of beans versus soaking and cooking bulk ones. But, other than that, I do my best to write a grocery list that only includes things I can find along the perimeter of the store.

What are some of your tactics for saving at the grocery store?

Flickr: mliu92

  • I price match every week … sales on produce, meat, and other essentials from all the stores in one stop! Usually every week you can find strawberries, cucumber, broccoli, and apples on sale at one of the 6-8 stores around me. Yesterday I price matched boneless chicken breasts and the package of 6 tagged for $19 and change only cost me $8!

    With regards to the Globe & Mail article, I was surprised it was done at Metro, considering how expensive that store is, then I figured it must have been close for you and that’s why you shop there.

    Have a great Monday :)

    • Yea, Metro was unfortunately the only grocery store in my neighbourhood. But it was cheaper than Sobeys, so which store are you comparing it to?

      • I guess Walmart, No Frills,Freshco, and probably even RCSS/Loblaws. Loblaws is still a little expensive but they have a big selection of PC products which I like, and also, they price match so you can get much better produce for the same cheap price when it’s on sale.

        • This might be a silly question but how would you get a store to price match? Would you bring in the flyer from another store?

          • Yep, you just bring in the other stores flyer and show the cashier, who will adjust the price :)

  • I buy in bulk when on sale and freeze. Especially stuff like cheese and yogurt (the yogurt goes into smoothies so I can’t tell you if it changes texture.)

      • Yeah, it’s a little-known fact. My mum always froze cheese etc when it was on sale. As long as it’s hard cheese, you’re good to go but I wouldn’t try it with brie!

        • Hard cheeses are ok, but I found if I froze cheddar or mozzarella, the texture changes and it’s only good for cooking (and we eat a fair bit of it without cooking it so this was problematic).

  • I buy the dried beans, cook them in my slow cooker, divide them up into small freezer bags, and freeze them. Then when I need a “can” of beans, I just put the frozen ones in a colander, run some hot water over them, and I’m done.

  • I do a combination of things: Cooking from home whenever possible (homemade Pad Thai is my fave), buying many of an item when it’s on sale, price matching, and COUPONS. Coupons are a miracle for me. There’s also an amazing app called Checkout 51 that will give you money back (reverse coupons, basically) if you buy items on their deal list that week.

    Finally, in Toronto (or Vancouver), there’s no reason to buy produce at a big box grocery store if you can avoid it. I try to buy from my local fruit market whenever possible. It’s family run, locally grown (usually), and I can walk away with a cornucopia of fruit for 1/3 of the price. Plus, they have better selection and the produce is much more fresh.

    • Ohhh yea, homemade Pad Thai is so good! I downloaded Checkout 51 but, for the month that I had it, nothing I normally buy came up. Finally, where in Toronto did you have a local fruit market!? Clearly, I was living in the wrong area.

      • I just moved to the Riverdale neighbourhood in Toronto this winter and I’m super psyched for the farmer’s market that happens at Riverdale Farms in the summer. Also being so close to East Chinatown means cheap (albeit not local) fruit and veg.

        Also re: Checkout 51, (full disclosure: I work at Checkout 51) the list of grocery items changes every week. We’re a start-up and we’re always working on expanding our list of brand partners and products, so our members have more to choose from.

        We know members can’t always find offers they’re interested in. We try to keep the selection diverse and we take suggestions from members about what brands they’d like us to reach out to. The product list keeps growing and I hope one day soon you’ll find something you want to try!

  • We try to shop the perimeter too. We do use chicken broth in cartons and canned beans & tomatoes, but other than that we pretty much stick to the edges. Oh and occasionally we have to hit the baking aisle, when we get a craving for homemade treats!

    We have a super tiny freezer/fridge combo (it’s European sized) so unfortunately we can’t do a lot of bulk buying or freezing. We have to go to the store at least once a week and have gotten very good at stacking things in our fridge. It’s like a food-centric Tetris game :]

    • It is very rare that ANYTHING is in my freezer. Sometimes you can find a bag of frozen fruit but that’s about it. So I’d switch you freezers any day. ;)

  • That’s a unique perspective on grocery shopping! I have just recently gotten a handle on how to do this cost effectively (largely due to pinterest and my new-found desire to learn to cook!) and it totally makes sense! All of the good stuff like fruits and veggies and bakery items are all on the edge of the store. Thanks for the post :)

  • I had never heard of ‘shop the perimeter’ until now, but I like it a lot! I just texted my wife, it’s really clear that the fruits and vegetables, milk and eggs, meats and fish, etc. are all on the outside. Definitely going to be more conscious about this in the future!

  • Have you ever done a comparison on grocery shopping at the store or at a farmers market? I’ve never shopped there, but I do love the idea of really fresh fruit and veggies and I also love the idea of buying directly from a farmer, then some huge corporation. So I’m just wondering if there’s much to be said about saving money there, too.

    • In Victoria, I used to buy all of my produce at the Root Cellar and then I’d only go to a grocery store for bread, pasta, rice, etc. It was the cheapest way to shop, for sure. I’ll have to find something similar in Vancouver!

  • I’m a perimeter shopper as well, only I tend to bypass the bakery and hit the meat section instead. That happens with gluten intolerant omnivores ;)

    Another big one? Don’t shop hungry. I demolish my budget every time I do it. I can spend $50 on extra food for the week without blinking. I actually stopped at Dairy Queen today and had an ice cream sundae before I went shopping. That cheap little sugar rush allowed me to get in and out of the grocery store only having spent $11 on produce. It’s not a frequent habit of mine, but given the state I was in today I can assure you I saved money by doing it!

  • I think first and foremost I just buy what I like and what is healthiest. I think about cost secondary. If I’m going to put money towards anything, it’s staying healthy. :)

  • Amen! This is a great tactic for staying away from unhealthy foods. I actually kind of do the opposite: I buy all of my meat and vegetables at the farmer’s market, so when I go into the grocery store, I’m generally only buying dairy, grains, almond milk, legumes and canned goods – lots of things that aren’t on the perimeter.

    • I used to get all my produce at the farmer’s market in Victoria, then just pickup a few odd things at the grocery store. Unfortunately, I never found a way to do the same in Toronto (that didn’t involve trekking long distances). We’ll see what happens in Vancouver. :)

  • So funny I was working on a post about this same thing! I do the same thing if we go to a traditional grocery store but lately we’ve been stopping at a local butcher shop who carries amazing produce too. Such a simple thing!

  • In Vancouver, I find you really have to shop around. Prices vary a LOT from store to store, but if you buy the same basic things regularly, you can get an idea as to which store has a good price for which items. I have about 4-5 different stores in a radius around my house (ranging from big box to local mom & pop type places) I go to for different things. Once you figure out which neighbourhood you’re going to be in, you can start scouting around.

    Also, I would really recommend avoiding the canned beans all the time (cans can leach BPA & also canned beans would have lots of salt added) I’m vegetarian too & we eat a LOT of beans! I buy dry ones, soak & cook a large quantity at once, and then freeze the cooked beans in ziplock bags… then they are ready when I need them! and the defrost very quickly in the chili/soup or on the counter in a few hours.

  • Didn’t know that shopping the perimeter was a concept. But anyway, freezer section to buy frozen veggies, they’re cheap, healthy and convenient. Stick to unprepped vegetables in the produce section. In New York, those salad bags are $4 a bag where as the head of romaine lettuce is only $2. If I do want anything from the packaged goods section, such as cookies or crackers, I’ll check out the 99 cent store near my office. I’m not loyal to any brand so I’ll just go by what they have that week.

    • I didn’t know frozen veggies were healthy, until I interviewed a dietician last year! Great tips, Lindsey.

      • Yup! And fresh veggies are freezable too. Sometimes if I get a good deal on something, or if I’m not able to use something in time, I throw it in the freezer!

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