Bargains and availability: just-in-time grocery shopping

We’ve saved a bit of money on some of our staple grocery items by not buying them in the store.  Services like Amazon’s Subscribe and Save and Walmart’s Home Free™ Shipping let us get a number of items we use regularly at quite a bit of savings.

The problem with bargains

Buying from here works great … except when it doesn’t.  Apparently we’re not the only ones that have found these great deals, and sometimes there isn’t enough deal for everyone who wants one.  The problem with bargains is that they don’t remain secret for long.

Amazon sometimes needs to cancel our Subscribe and Save orders because the item is back-ordered.  If we find out about the short supply quickly enough, then we can get a small amount of what we were going to get to fill the gap, but if not, we might have to — gasp! — do without.  (I know: first-world problems.)

The same thing has happened with the powdered milk that we order from  Sometimes even though it’s available in our nearest store, it’s not available for ordering online.  The price in the store is noticeably higher than it is online as well: somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-40%.  (This makes sense: it costs more to distribute the products than it does to leave them in the warehouse.)

Just-in-time isn’t always-there

You may have heard of “just-in-time inventory” or “just-in-time manufacturing.”  Things are delivered, or made, just in time — no later than needed, no earlier than necessary.  It can mean much-reduced warehousing costs for businesses.

But one offshoot of just-in-time inventory is the opportunity to time and optimize the delivery of products in order to increase profits.  Fairly often I’ll go to Walmart and find that the best deals are gone.  For example, a couple of the items on our shopping list were oyster crackers and frozen broccoli.  The Walmart store brand, Great Value, was the best price for these items.  Occasionally I can find a couple bags of the oyster crackers, but I have to jump and reach to the back of the top shelf to get them.  The Great Value 32-ounce bags of frozen broccoli are a much better price than either the 16-ounce Great Value bag, or the five pound name brand bag.  But the last time I was there, all I could find were the 16-ounce bags.

I’m pretty sure this is by design.  If people had as much of the good deals as they wanted, they wouldn’t ever buy the second-best deals.  So they supply-limit the best deals to move the other products.

Get them while you can

The way to overcome this is to do some of your own just-in-time inventory:

  • Plan for what you need.  A lot of planning and coordination go into Walmart’s and Amazon’s buying strategy.  A little extra planning is needed for a household to hit the sweet spot of cost and storage needs.
  • Don’t buy too much.  Buying too much incurs extra storage costs and could result in wasted items due to spoilage.
  • Don’t buy too far in advance.  Things can spoil.
  • Don’t buy too little, too late, either!  That wastes money and time.
  • Know the best backup suppliers.  If Amazon is out of your favorite item, where else can you get it?  How much should you get before you can buy again from your primary supplier?
  • Monitor your levels.  This is something we personally have to work on, because I haven’t found a good system yet for inventorying our supplies that isn’t a huge time burden.  But getting a clear “buy signal” at the right time for something you need is key to best take advantage of deals while balancing storage costs.

Have any tricks or tips for keeping on top of your supplies?  Share them in the comments!

John Wedding

Husband. Father. Web publisher. Musician. John has blogged at Mighty Bargain Hunter since 2005, helping people to recognize the good deals in life.

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