As Inflation Shakes Grocery Prices, Shoppers Say ‘Ouch’

Susan Pollack, a property manager who was shopping one afternoon last week at a Costco in Marina del Rey, Calif., said she was surprised that the price of a packet of toilet paper had risen from $17 to $17. $25.

At his local kosher butcher, prices were rising even higher: over $200 for a package of 5 ribs.

“I told my husband, ‘We will never have short ribs again,’” she said.

Global forces such as supply chain disruptions, severe weather, energy costs and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have all contributed to rising inflation rates that have frightened stock market investors and put President Biden’s administration on the defensive.

But the pressure is felt most directly by shoppers who make their weekly trips to supermarkets, where some items that used to be plentiful have been out of stock for months and where prices for produce, meat and eggs remain stubbornly high.

At a stop and shop in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Hagar Dale, a 35-year-old Instacart shopper, pointed out that a single packet of powdered drink that previously sold for 25 cents shot up to 36 cents in early May. Two days later, it was selling for 56 cents, she said.

“God forbid if you’ve got a big store to do,” Dale said as he walked out of the supermarket with a customer’s order. “You’re pinching a dime.”

These price increases led to etiquette shock, resignation, and a determination to sniff out bargains.

“You’re looking for more business,” said Ray Duffy, a 66-year-old retired banker in a “no excuses American” T-shirt who was walking out of a Lidl grocery store in Garwood, NJ, recently.

“You go shopping,” he said. “It’s something you do.”

There are many supermarkets in South Riding, Virginia, where Susana Yoo lives.

But she drives the 15 kilometers to Centerville to shop at H Mart, a Korean grocery store, where fresh vegetables, like big bunches of chives, cost a little less. From there, she’ll head to Trader Joe’s, which has “very good prices for the meat.”

It then heads to Costco for non-perishable bulk items that can be stored.

To save a little money, “I have to go to three different places,” Yoo said.

Alyssa Sutton, 53, who owns a home theater business, left King’s Food Market in Short Hills, NJ, a supermarket chain where a 13-ounce jar of Bonne Maman preserves was selling for $6.49.

“This inflation thing is a real problem,” she said. “When you’re paying double to fill your gas tank and double for everything, you have to say to yourself, ‘Well, do I really need to buy everything at King’s?’”

Sutton said she buys staples at King’s, then drives to cheaper markets like Trader Joe’s, where she says fruits and vegetables are more affordable.

“It takes time,” she said. “It takes planning.”

Lisa Tucker, 54, of Gainesville, Va., drives a few more miles to Giant because food prices are lower than the stores closest to her home. She buys in bulk when prices are favorable — in a recent run, she bought eight boxes of cereal because they were selling for $1.77 each — and signed up for several loyalty rewards programs.

“It’s strategic,” she said.

Mrs. Tucker is also looking for meat that is almost out of date – and therefore heavily discounted.

On Tuesday, Ms. Tucker has snapped up a half-pound pound that is about to expire. package of beef for $3.74, down from $7.49. To get an alert from meat department officials about these deals, she said she sometimes brings them homemade banana bread.

Mrs. Tucker tells them: If a discount sticker is about to be put on a Hog’s Head bacon, “let me know.”

Angie Goodman, a housekeeper from Culver City, California, usually eats meat once a week. But now that steaks have doubled in price, she said she might need to cut back to once a month.

Goodman, 54, said he earns about $15 an hour, a figure that has remained stagnant as the cost of living soared.

“Basic things are very expensive,” she said. “It’s crazy.”

Isabel Chambergo, 62, a warehouse worker in Elizabeth, NJ, said the meals she planned at home are now mapped out while she’s out shopping, so she can use her phone to scan items for digital coupons. That saves you $10 to $15 per shopping trip, she said.

“This is how I do it,” Chambergo said as he walked out of a Stop and Shop in Elizabeth with her husband, Arturo, 62.

“It helps a little,” she said. “It’s not much, but I’m trying to buy healthy things that also fill us up.”

That is, if she can find the ingredients she needs.

Mrs. Chambergo said she used to buy a quinoa and rice concoction at the Stop and Shop that she used to make hearty soups. But it hasn’t been on the shelves for at least two months.

Duffy, the retired banker, said he had a hard time finding square-shaped spaghetti, his favorite for his favorite lo mein.

“The sauce sticks better to square spaghetti,” he said.

It’s normal for supermarkets to have 7% to 10% of items out of stock, but the events of the last two and a half years – pandemic outbreaks, extreme weather, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – have pushed that number to 3-3. 5. high points, said Katie Denis, spokeswoman for the Consumer Brands Association.

The availability of pasta and grains was especially constrained by the war, with “both Ukraine and Russia effectively going out of business,” she said in an email.

“The weather in Europe last year also reduced durum wheat, which specifically affected pasta,” said Denis.

Buyers are also denying themselves.

At the Giant in Gainesville, Virginia, Kimberly Heneault said she stopped in front of a display of coffee creamers and saw that they were twice the regular price.

“’Oh, you know what? I don’t really need it,” she told herself and moved on.

Pollack, the California property manager, said that while inflation is not straining her budget, prices have made her reconsider purchases that were once impulsive. For example, she almost bought her son an electric shaver, only to find it cost $90.

“I spend a lot of money all the time,” said Pollack, 61, “and it’s like, ‘Wow. I didn’t buy anything fun today.’”

Al Elnaggar, 22, and Hamza Mojadidi, 23, students at the University of California, Los Angeles, also shopped at Costco in Marina del Rey, where they bought various items in bulk, including clementines, water boxes and ramen noodles.

Mojadidi said they stopped buying eggs and cut back on Halal meat, which was already more expensive than other cuts, because the animals are slaughtered according to the Muslim religion.

Mojadidi said they stopped in front of the meat market at Costco, looked at the legs of lamb and walked away.

He said he considers himself luckier than other students at the university. At least, he said, he has a car and can drive to Costco to buy bulk food and save some money.

“I’m just taking out extra loans to pay my expenses,” Mojadidi said. “I’m blowing up my credit cards.”

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