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Looking to find a bargain on groceries? After 15 years of shopping at surplus grocery stores and Amish bent and dent stores, I’m sharing my best tips!
How to Shop at a Surplus or Discount Grocery Store
We shop in a variety of ways. One of my favorite ways to “bargain hunt” is to shop at discount grocery or surplus stores. We’ve kind of made it our “thing”. Every time I go on vacation I first look up all the discount grocery stores that will be in the area we are going to so we can visit them!
After having been to discount grocery stores in multiple states over the past 15 years, I know a thing or two about shopping at them and how to find the best deals!
What Is a Surplus Grocery Store?
If you’ve never been in a surplus store before, going in for the first time can be a little overwhelming. It’s usually not all pretty and neat like a regular grocery store, on the shelves sit dented cans and broken boxes. Maybe to you, it hardly looks like a place to shop! Take your time. Look around at everything, and even when you think you’ve seen everything in the store if you go around again, it will be different.
Google defines a surplus store as: A surplus store sells items that are used, or purchased but unused, and no longer needed.
I find this statement to be the exact opposite! The items in a surplus store are new, and they are needed; you need them!
Where Do the Surplus Groceries Come From?
Most of the groceries come from stores or from warehouses. Maybe the warehouse dropped a pallet while stacking it.
Perhaps the cans inside got dirty, and they couldn’t be sold in a regular store, so those pallets get sold to a surplus store. Sometimes there are seasonal items that couldn’t be sold before the season ended.
There is typically nothing wrong with the items; they just simply got rejected by the regular store for some reason or another.
Concerns with Surplus Groceries
Recalled Products? They will never be recalled products as those get destroyed at the original store not sent to another store.
Dented Cans? Aren’t those dangerous? Most of the time the answer is no. Look at the cans before you put them in your cart. Did the dent in the can go all the way through the metal? Does the top or bottom of the can pop when you push on it? If the can appears to be leaking in any way or is severely dented, don’t buy it. A small dent (or even a large one) is usually fine as long as it hasn’t “cracked” the can.
Out-Of Date Items? Well, let me ask you this…when was the last time you went through your entire pantry or medicine cabinet and checked out the dates of each thing before you used it? If you’re like me, probably never. We eat outdated things all the time and never give it a second thought. Most items last for long after the date on the box or can has passed.
Canned items last for years. Crackers and chips are good for months. Check the date before you buy it, and if it seems a reasonable amount of time, go ahead and get it. Usually, outdated items are even cheaper than regular surplus store prices, so the cost is next to nothing.
What Can You Find at a Surplus Store?
The fun thing with discount grocery stores is that you never know what you are going to find! You might come out with nothing or maybe with an entire cart full!
Once, on a trip not too far from home, I scored a case full of Applegate Farms Organic Beef Hot Dogs for only $1.99 a package. We put them in the freezer and are still eating them up!
Some surplus stores have discount groceries only. Some have freezer and fridge sections filled with discount groceries along with shelf stable groceries. Some have bulk re-packaged foods. And some even have household goods as well. From what I’ve discovered, they are all very different!
How to Find a Surplus Store and When to Shop
If you aren’t sure if you have a surplus store nearby, do a Google search for your area for “discount groceries” or “bent and dent stores.”
Locally, we used to have 1 store that’s fairly near to us, and I liked to stop in about every 2 months or so. There were new products every time!
If you aren’t sure how often you should go to your local store, ask an employee how often they get trucks in to know how often the selection might change. My very favorite surplus store, Esh’s in Loveland, CO, gets in trucks daily!
Tips for Shopping at a Surplus or Discount Grocery Store
1. Know your prices before you shop.
Unless you actually know what’s a regular price and a sale price for something before you shop at a discount store, you might end up paying way more than you should, or you might pass up a bargain without even knowing it.
In the picture above I found unbleached flour for $1.25 for a 5lb bag or $0.25 per pound. I normally pay $0.50 per pound for unbleached flour so this is a great deal!
2. Again. Know your prices!
This tube of toothpaste was marked $2.12. Not a good deal!
3. Don’t be afraid of a dented box or can.
Some people are extremely picky when it comes to a dented can or box. First, check to make sure no seals are broken. Make sure there is nothing leaking from the can or any funny colors around the dent or seal.
Cans with minor dents aren’t a big deal, but you do want to stay away from cans with major dents. If somehow a seal has been broken, bacteria could get into the can and make you very sick. Also, make sure the can is not bulging in any funny way.
4. Don’t think you can only get processed products.
Most surplus stores that I’ve found have a nice selection of organic canned products, crackers, snacks, and more. Plus, most surplus stores have quite a few products that are not even food. Many have everything from over-the-counter meds to paper towels!
5. Try not to get overwhelmed.
Surplus stores aren’t always large, but the ones I’ve been in have always been packed with items. Make sure before you go that you will have plenty of time to look around. go down one aisle at a time. Don’t stress too much about being able to see everything. Even if you come back in the next day, the selection will have changed!
6. Don’t feel like just because you stopped to shop that you have to buy.
On my latest trip, we only found these boxes of 15 Power Bars for $3.50 for a family member. (Used in Mini Emergency Kits) I was tempted to pick up one or 2 more things on my way to the checkout because they were a great deal, but I wasn’t sure if we’d actually use them, so I skipped them.
7. Know when to stock up big time. this refers back to tip #1.
As long as you know your prices and what a “Buy price” is for you, you will know when you can stock up on an item. Just like in my story above. I knew that Applegate Farms Hot Dogs cost at least $5.50 per package, so not only was $1.99 a buy price, it was a stock-up price!
Tips for Shopping at an Amish Grocery Store
There are a few extra tips I’d like to add if you are planning on shopping at an Amish-owned surplus store. These can be a little intimidating if you aren’t familiar with the Amish so here’s how you can get more prepared.
- Dress modestly. This isn’t a requirement, but it’s very much appreciated. Whenever I’m shopping at an Amish store, I prefer to wear a skirt and a modest top.
- Many stores are at a home, be respectful. Many Amish have their stores in their home or in their yard. Be respectful of their space, but also don’t feel too intimidated that you can’t go in.
- Most, if not all, Amish stores are not run by electricity and do not have running water. Go to the bathroom before you go; they may not offer an outhouse. And unless it’s a sunny day or they have good gas or battery-powered lights in the store, the shelves may be hard to see.
- Don’t feel offended if the shop keeper doesn’t talk to you. This isn’t Target, and they are not required to have a conversation with you. Some Amish aren’t sure what to say; they simply don’t want to talk or don’t want to disturb you while you are shopping. This is all ok! I have found in my experience that if you dress modestly and act respectfully, most are willing to chat! I like to bring up a topic of discussion that we have in common (we use a well-known chiropractor that the Amish also use) and ease into chit-chat if they seem like they want to. Otherwise, I focus on my shopping. 🙂
I encourage you in the next week to scout out and visit your local surplus stores. They may be right around the corner, and you didn’t even know it.
Take your time; scan the shelves.
Visit them often; their inventory will change all the time, so if there is something there that you might use in the future, get it.
I can’t make it to all the surplus stores in my area all the time, so when I do get to them, I stock up on things I know I will use soon. I also buy things for my family members, who have even less time to shop there than I do. (And besides, it’s so much fun to have someone to show your finds to.)
So that’s pretty much it! Take your time, know your prices, and you will be ready to shop. With surplus stores, you never know what kind of treasures you might find!
Have any tips you’ve learned from surplus store shopping? Post them in the comments!
This blog post about Shopping at a Discount Grocery Store was originally posted on Little House Living in July 2017. It has been updated as of December 2023.