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10 Things Your Grocer Doesn't Want You to Know

What is your grocer not telling you?
What is your grocer not telling you?
Noel Hendrickson/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Every single day, about 32 million Americans go grocery shopping. We spend an average of about 40 minutes at the store, and we buy everything from toilet paper to T-bone steaks.

The grocery store is chock full of information. What's on sale this week? How about a two-for-one deal? Double-coupons? Everywhere you look, you see a sign advertising something. We read labels, we scan prices, we compare brands, we clip coupons, we read the store circular to find out the best deals.

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Yep, our grocers have a lot of information to offer. But are they really telling us the whole story? If you want to be a smart shopper, take our list along with you the next time you visit the store. You may be surprised how it alters your shopping experience.

Grab that cart (not the one with the wonky wheel), and let's get started.

No telling what germs are on that grocery cart handle.
No telling what germs are on that grocery cart handle.
JupiterImages/Photos.com/Thinkstock

Sorry, but it's true. You'll actually encounter fewer germs using a public bathroom than you will using a typical grocery store shopping cart. Nasty.

A recent study showed that shopping carts harbor more saliva, bacteria and even fecal matter than public telephones and public toilets.

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Think about how many babies you see gnawing away on a shopping cart handle while Mom is busy picking out eggs. Gah! And think about that baby's diapered bottom nestled in the spot where you'll later place your apples and tomatoes.

Many supermarkets now offer sanitary wipes at the entrance of the store. We emphatically suggest you use them. And if you're a parent and worried about your child encountering yucky bacteria, buy baby shopping seat covers to keep Junior germ free.

One of our favorite things about grocery shopping is going into the baked goods section. The wonderful smells, the decadent-looking doughnuts, the fancy frosted cakes -- there's nothing like the aroma of freshly baked breads and treats.

Unfortunately, it's likely those baked goods arrived at the supermarket in a truck, frozen. Of course there are exceptions, but you should ask how fresh those "freshly baked goods" actually are.

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You might even see store employees in aprons and chef hats -- busy, busy, busy -- as they set up the croissants and chocolate chip cookies. Just seeing that uniform gives you the illusion that the products were baked fresh in the back. However, "the back" is likely just a big ole freezer.

That salad bar is pretty tempting, especially when you're doing some quick grocery shopping during your lunch hour. But before you lean over the sneeze guard to make yourself a salad, you should know a few things.

First of all, many supermarkets make their prepared meals from food that's expired and needs to be eaten immediately. We're talking pasta salads, fruit salads, even rotisserie chickens.

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Many of the warm prepared foods at your deli counter or salad bar may be kept at unsafe temperatures because the store doesn't want anything to dry out. At the salad bar, cold food should be at a temperature of 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius). Hot food should be kept at more than 135 degrees Fahrenheit (57.2 degrees Celsius). Unsafe temperatures allow dangerous bacteria to grow, like E. coli or salmonella.

Look for a thermometer in the food case or, if in doubt, ask.

Five for $10! Buy three, get two free! What a deal, right? Not always.

Studies show that when shoppers see numbers in a sign, they're likely to buy 30 to 105 percent more of that product. That's because if we think we're getting a deal, we tend to purchase more. Signs that say things like "limit 10 per shopper" are like catnip to us, too. We'll buy 10, even if we don't need 10. And that's not really a bargain, is it?

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Research also tells us that when we shop, we usually buy one or two of the same product at a time. That's our limit. But when an in-store promotion throws numbers at us and suggests we buy more -- "so you don't run out!" -- we'll actually readjust our usual limit and buy more.

The psychology of shopping -- pretty interesting.

Who among us hasn't squatted in front of a milk case and reached into the back, trying to find the carton with the best "sell-by" date? It's common knowledge that the freshest milk is always in the back.

But guess what -- that "fresh in the back" rule stands true for just about every single thing in the store. It's not too tough to figure out that the supermarket wants to move the oldest stuff first, so they'll always place that soon-to-expire product in the front.

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When buying produce, pick from the back or from the top of the pile. Ditto for baked goods. Same goes for the dairy case -- milk, eggs, butter. Dig toward the back, because that's where they load the case with new product.

Make no mistake, your supermarket is designed with the psychology of the shopper in mind. Every single thing in that store is placed for a reason, from the end caps of sale products to the location of the milk and bread.

Those displays at the end of every aisle are there to distract you from your shopping list. Food companies pay the store a lot of money to highlight their products and inspire impulse buys.

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Also, because milk and bread are staples and among the most common items purchased at the supermarket, the store places them as far back in the store as possible. This forces you to traverse the entire supermarket in order to get your milk, and you'll likely make even more impulse buys.

And let's not forget shelf placement. Kid-friendly items are found at a child's eye level, where a kid can simply reach out and grab them. Companies also pay more money to put their products at our eye level, so we're more likely to pick those items off the shelf.

A savvy shopper should understand the difference between the "sell-by" date and the "use-by" date. Sell-by is for the supermarket's use, to let them know how long to keep a product on the shelf. Use-by is for us, the shoppers, to know when it's best to consume the product.

These dates are both pretty conservative, and most experts agree that you can add about a week to those dates without any negative consequences. Of course, use your senses. If the food looks or smells bad, toss it, whether or not it's past its expiration date.

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Also, did you know that the only item federally required to have an expiration date is baby formula?

Supermarkets and food companies like to tempt our senses with brightly colored packaging and impulse purchase junk food. All of these end up right in our line of vision, assaulting us as we work our way through the store.

But what if we're looking for healthier alternatives? Whole-wheat tortillas, low-fat pretzels, organic tomato sauce? We need to look harder. Try scanning the very top or bottom shelves for the healthier choices.

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On a related note, studies have shown that the poorer the neighborhood, the less healthy the food in the supermarket. Research proves that healthier foods are more readily available at shops in wealthier neighborhoods -- even if it's the same grocery chain. Consumers need to demand their stores carry what they want.

The fresh produce isn't always fresh.
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If you're a fan of exotic fruits or vegetables, keep in mind that they may not be as fresh as the other, more pedestrian produce. It makes sense -- something like star fruit, for example, doesn't sell as much as apples, so it will end up sitting in the bin longer.

Here's some more food for thought: It might be tempting to just grab an apple or pear from the bin and munch on it during your drive home from the market. Before you do that, though, remember how many hands have touched that piece of fruit before it found its way to yours. Besides all the store workers who loaded it into a truck, unloaded it, stacked and placed it, countless customers picked it up and put it back down, too.

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We advise washing any fruits and veggies before eating. Also, if you can, buy your produce from a local farmer's market. It will be fresher and will have traveled through fewer hands to get to you.

The days of grocery store cashiers ringing up each item by hand are over. Now they just have to scan a barcode and the product price automatically enters the system. You can even do a self-checkout in many supermarkets.

The scanner not only adds speed to the checkout process, but also accuracy. However, don't assume that the computer is always right. Pricing errors occur more often than you might think -- and it could work out in your favor.

Your cashier might charge you for green peppers when you bought red. Or perhaps something that was supposed to be on sale rang up at regular price. The really interesting thing here is store policy on scanner errors.

For example, in Michigan, if a consumer is overcharged, he or she is entitled to a discount on that item worth 10 times the discrepancy. Sometimes they'll just give you the item for free. So read those receipts, people!

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Sources

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