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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Some Thoughts on Why Groceries Go on Sale in Fall, are More Expensive in Winter, and What We Can Do to Shop Frugally Now

Following up on yesterday's post of how much I spend on groceries in fall in comparison to winter, I thought I'd explore some of the reasons and conditions that allow me to find more great deals in one season in contrast to another. I would guess that low and high prices are cause/allowed by a complexity of conditions and there is no single answer. Here are my thoughts. In your opinion, what else might be contributors?

Some reasons why prices could be lower in fall on groceries

  • late summer and early fall are peak harvest season for traditional farms, which means there is an abundance of fresh produce to sell. High supply lowers prices.
  • since the harvest season brings in such abundance, late summer through early fall is peak commercial canning and freezing season. Due to shipping and distribution, there is a bit of lag time between harvesting/processing and product reaching store shelves. Retailers want to unload last year's canned and frozen goods to make room for this year's, so they feature canned goods as an advertised sale long enough to deplete the stores of last year's goods while not cutting in too much to this year's.
  • the abundance of fresh, traditional fall farm produce, such as carrots, potatoes, onions, and winter squash overlaps with the income of the fresh citrus crop in November and December. This leads to an even larger supply of fresh produce to sell.
  • in addition, fresh citrus is rarely canned or frozen, with the exception of processing into juices. Growers can usually get a better price for their less-blemished citrus when sold fresh, provided the price does not drop too much. The more-blemished citrus is harder to sell as fresh, so that is what is generally used for juice. This idea is changing, however, as more people are buying "gourmet" bottled juices (which are often simply unusual combinations of produce processed into one juice blend). The "gourmet" juices are able to garner a significantly larger price per unit than the fresh citrus.
  • the produce gluts overlap with some end-of-season dairy gluts in the form of cheese and butter. Even with modern dairy production, there is still a peak production period for animals. Only so much milk can be sold as fresh. The rest of the milk is processed into other dairy products, such as butter, cheese, and yogurt, as well as canned and dried forms of milk. A glut means high supply/ability to lower prices. 
  • grocers know that consumers will buy and eat more food on and around Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Years. This fore-knowledge leads to grocers ordering in greater bulk and perhaps paying a lower wholesale price per unit, then passing on some of this savings to the consumer.
  • With some version of the fall and winter holidays universally celebrated in the US and Canada, at least to some extent, grocers capitalize on this by using loss-leader sales to get the consumer to spend a larger share of their shopping dollars in-store. This applies not only to the foods used for these traditional holidays, but to non-food items as well. The store gets you in to buy a turkey, and you buy not only the trimmings but several non-food gifts as well. The store can afford to offer a lower than cost price on that turkey because they know you will buy other products that have a significant mark-up.

Some reasons why prices could be higher in winter
  • in January, February, and sometimes March, there are only a couple of minor food-related events or occasions that are universally celebrated. The two that I can think of are the Superbowl and Valentine's Day. Neither holiday/event produce much of a spending frenzy on food as we see for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and New Years. Because of that, grocers can't be certain that if they offer many loss-leaders than consumers will buy much else to compensate for the store's loss.
  • this is compounded by the need to tighten a budget that many consumers feel after the winter holidays. Even if the Superbowl or Valentine's Day were significant feasting holidays, many consumers would still likely scale back on their spending, out of need, in comparison to how they spent in the fall and early winter. This provides even less incentive for a retailer to offer a lot of loss-leaders.
  • the glut of produce from the fall has dwindled to a supply that is near or less than demand, which drives prices up. The types of local produce that are available in winter are fewer, so for a store to have variety, more has to be shipped in from distant farms.
  • egg prices are driven up by a reduced supply in mid-winter. Even with modern laying set-ups, which can produce eggs year round, there is still a season to peak production of hens, which is not in winter. This is compounded with the farms that do support more natural conditions for laying, such as free range hens. These hens have a very definite production season. The supply of more naturally-produced eggs is reduced in most regions in winter, which means folks who would have bought "natural" eggs during the peak season may now be buying some or all of their eggs from the more commercial laying operations, adding to the existing demand for the more commercial product.

What can we do now, with fall behind us, to avoid overspending on winter groceries
  • there will still be one or two loss-leaders per sales cycle. Stores need to offer some sort of incentive to get buyers into the store. Keeping an eye out for those especially good deals could net some bargains. Remember, some of these deals may come in a different format, such as you may need to use an online order or in-store pickup to get a deal.
  • when you do find a clearance on holiday food items, consider whether or not it could be useful this winter or spring. An example, I found some frozen holiday cookie dough for 49 cents a package. Yes, they look like holiday cookies, but we can overlook that for a small treat later this month. But I bypassed the significantly-marked down eggnog last week, because I didn't feel my family would enjoy it that much, and regular milk was so much cheaper per gallon. (Eggnog is typically drunk instead of milk in my house, not in addition to milk.) I did buy a small container of fruitcake fruit because I use it in a sweet bread that I bake for Easter. And I bought those pumpkin-spice marshmallows that I mentioned last week, because I can use them in cocoa and to make bar cookies this winter. So, some holiday foods, when marked down, can be useful and provide inexpensive treats while keeping grocery spending low.
  • if fresh produce isn't really necessary for a dish, use canned or frozen. An example, while soup made with fresh veggies in summer is delicious, in winter a very similar soup can be made with canned veggies. And if only half of a can is needed for a recipe, the other half can be frozen to use another time.
  • use this time to use up any surpluses that you may have.
  • start an indoor garden -- grow sprouts! Sprouts are a practically-free fresh vegetable to grow in the off-season.
  • stick to the lower-priced fresh produce. Even when carrots are on the expensive side for their variety, they're still a lot cheaper than fresh green beans or zucchini out of season. 
  • keep a close eye on perishable fresh produce so that it is consumed or processed before it spoils.
  • carefully consider "deals" on produce this time of year. Do you have time to consume or process produce before it goes soft or develops signs of rot? Do you have room in your fridge or other cold storage to store fresh produce? Even long-keepers can spoil eventually. This time of year, I refrigerate produce that I might otherwise store in my pantry, such as potatoes, onions, winter squash, and oranges. I figure the foods were harvested months ago and at this point their remaining life is very limited.
  • St. Patrick's Day brings sales on cabbage, corned beef, and potatoes for about 1 week. These are all long-keeping foods that can be stocked up on. I don't often buy the corned beef, but I do always buy several heads of cabbage and a bag of potatoes.
  • find substitutes as you see you are running low on an item that you don't expect to find on sale for a few weeks. Look for no-egg baking recipes, egg substitutions, recipes that can use oil in place of butter, etc. This may be a period of creative cookery, but its time will come to an end when the Easter and Passover sales start up. I typically find butter, eggs, granulated and confectioner's sugar, canned pineapple, and coconut on sale then. Feature more meatless meals to stretch your limited supply of meat. Hams frequently go on sale for Easter and the price of roasting chickens and chicken parts seem to drop to their seasonal low in mid to late spring. 

Savvy shoppers on a tight budget are a lot like squirrels. When there is plenty, we work hard to store away as much as we can. Then in the lean months, we live off of our stored supplies. Later, the warm weather in early spring tempts us to peek our heads out of our warm nests and seek out enough deals to tide us over until the abundance returns.


  1. Hey Lili!

    I find at this time of the year in my area that the grocers are catering to those that have a new year's resolution to lose weight. It seems they put those items on sale or to ar least look like they are on sale.
    I bake goodies as a side hustle and Thanksgiving through Christmas is booming and then slowly completely down until Easter. I know that lots of people are trying to recover from the credit card "flu" that occurred during the holidays. These are just my ideas. 😊

    Have a great day!!

  2. We are still doing well with our stockpiled food (apples .... ) and frozen produce. I have been able to purchase 1 dozen eggs for 49 cents for several months now at Meijer. I'm not sure why they have been so inexpensive, but it's a great price and I've upped my egg-containing meals. As you have said, it is so helpful to have knowledge of the general sales cycles for planning purchases. This is also true in non-grocery areas. My daughter was in desperate need of new snowpants (the hand-me-down pair from her brother is getting beyond repair) so I bought a new pair yesterday at a good price.

  3. Lili,

    I still think there must be a market out there for all your knowledge--a market that can pay you good money.

    Kris, our Meijer has super high priced eggs. Aldi also differs from store to store. One store had them for $1.28 and another one near by had them for 79 cents. One is near a Meijer and the other near a Walmart. I think that is the difference.

    I am not going to stock up on any "extras" this year because my eating habits have changed a lot. I no longer bake treats unless I can find sugar free or low carb without having to buy too many extra things. Things like sugar free chocolate chips that probably are too expensive so I'll just skip chocolate. My son (and oldest daughter) is obese and yesterday decided he was going vegan. Thankfully, I don't have any sweet or snacky foods around anymore. I found a very good mug cake that is low carb and sugar free for when I need a chocolate fix. I'm getting used to my new way of eating and I don't miss the old way at all. I kept off my 10 to 11 lb loss during the holidays.


  4. Hi Lilli, there are cakes that take no eggs and use oil checkout Strangers and Pilgrim's on Earth blog ...she has some great recipes over there like Banana Crazy Cake (No Butter, Eggs, Milk or Mess) ~ Inspired by the Depression Era Recipe (aka Wacky Cake) w/ GF Option, or The chocolate wacky cake and let's not forget the delish carrot cake yum ...I have tried all of them and made them into loads instead for gifts...Happy baking and great post very timely ...Love Gaila in the NW

  5. Rats I meant loaves instead lol dang auto correct !

  6. Hi Lona,
    I agree with you. Both health and budget play a role in less spending or changing spending.
    This must be a bit of a nice break from the extra baking/side hustle. Do you do cakes, or something else?

  7. Hi Kris,
    that's wonderful that you've gotten such a good price on eggs. I bought a case of eggs (15 dozen) for about 89 cents/dozen, and will hope I can stretch them to near Easter, when I know I'll see low prices again.
    I'm so glad you found a good pair of snow pants for your daughter at a great price! And she still has lots of time left this season to get use from them. I noticed our local Fred Meyer had a bunch of winter clothing on clearance. Stores have to make room for spring and summer stuff.

  8. Alice, you are doing so great with your change in eating and weight loss!!! You're an inspiration.
    Oh, I agree -- no need to buy the extra treats. Best wishes to your son as he changes some of his own eating habits.

  9. Hi Gaila,
    I've seen some of those depression era cake recipes. They look interesting. I'll have to give them a try. Thanks for the recommendation!
    I make a snack cake often that doesn't have eggs, but uses baking soda and vinegar for leavening. It does use oil, though. I'll check out that blog.

  10. Mostly candies. Crockpot candy, peanut butter chewies, chocolate chip cookies, brownies, graham cracker pralines, and etc. If you are interested in bringing in a little bit of cash, tell the ladies at church and friends what you can bake. I started out wrong by not charging enough, but it allowed customers to try product and get the word out. I now have the product priced right. I don't get as many orders, but I am now making 10.00 per hour instead of .50. It definitely weeded out the frugalistas like ourselves, but it still brings in grocery/gas monies. If you do it, just make sure to price it where you are profiting. 😊

  11. Thank you for all of this information, Lona. This does give me something to think about, Thanks for sharing.


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