Spend as little time as possible in the grocery store—but still get everything you need—with these tried-and-true tips for faster, smarter, and better grocery shopping.

By Kimberly Holland
February 05, 2019
Paul Burns/Getty Images

Grocery shopping is a chore. Sure, it can be fun—sample Saturdays are a blast. Sometimes, it can even be a form of therapy—who among us hasn’t spent an hour or two just wandering every aisle, letting events waft into consciousness and out, as we decide between the butternut squash soup or the corn chowder?

But for the everyday grocery shopper, there’s no time to dawdle, no extra minutes to stop and gaze at the newest selections on the shelves. Grocery shopping is a duty, an errand, and here’s how you can do it faster.

WATCH: How to Make 10 Costco Chicken Dinners

Shop the sales before you get to the store.

Most grocery stores, save a few mom-and-pop places, will have their weekly sales on their website or even an app. Use those lists to help you “shop” before you even walk in the door. Narrow down what sales interest you and which don’t.

Then, when you’re in the store, you don’t have to stop, look, and decide if the sale you’ve just spotted is actually a good deal. Not only will you save time, you’ll be less likely to make an impulse buy because the sale sticker makes it seem more appealing.

Organize your list by your route.

If you’ve shopped at the store previously, you know what comes first: produce, then protein, dairy, then frozen foods. Write your list, grouping together everything from the same category, aisle, or section. This way, you can know exactly what you need from each area before moving on to the next part of the store, and you won’t be left criss-crossing the many square feet to complete your list.

The best way to make the organized list? You can write your list as you go through the week, organizing it just before you go into the store. Better yet, you can let an app do it for you. Apps like List Ease (Android, Apple) let you sort categories as you add, making notes about brands, amounts, and price. You can even scan barcodes to make sure you purchase the same things again. The Notes app in your phone works well, too, though it has no fancy bells and whistles.

Write down quantities.

For that new recipe you’re making, you can’t remember if by “cream” you meant a quart or a pint. Now you have to stand off to the side, pull up the recipe on your phone (which doesn’t have great service in the store, by the way), and decipher your vague list.

Save yourself that time by writing exact quantities beside every line item on your list so you know precisely how much you need. You need limes for your tacos? No, you need “three limes.” Your list says sweet potatoes, but what you really meant was “two large sweet potatoes, about two pounds.”

Make one large run once a month.

This strategy may take up more time on the one day you decide to do it, but you can ultimately save time during your week. Stock up on the non-perishable items and home goods you know you need, like paper towels, laundry detergent, and aluminum foil, once a month. During the rest of the month, you can limit shopping to picking up the perishable foods you need for meals and snacks.

Take advantage of call-ahead services.

Not all stores will offer an amenity like this, but for those that do, don’t let it go to waste. Short of shopping for you (which many will do now, by the way), you can call ahead to stores and place orders for things like deli meat and cheese, prepared foods, and even specialty cuts of meat. When you walk in the store, they can hand you the bag or have it waiting for you when you get to the checkout.

If your store doesn’t take call-ahead orders, ask if they’ll process any orders while you shop. If the answer is affirmative, walk over to the deli or meat department as soon as you get to the store, order what you need, and continue with your shopping. Round back to the counters when you’re finished, and head for the checkouts. This way, you’re not standing idly while they work.

Leave the cart.

Cavernous carts invite you to add more items than you really need. Plus, on busy days, you’re left to play a game of bumper cars while trying to navigate crowded aisles.

Skip these hassles entirely by leaving the dart at the door and getting a basket instead. Not only will you be more agile, you’ll be limited to what you can fit in the basket. A heavy basket is an indication your time is almost up, too, and you’ll find yourself rushing to the checkout.

Be a solo shopper.

Grocery shopping can teach you a lot about a person; it’s even a great place for a date. But a tagalong can be a real drain on your time. This is especially the case if that plus one happens to be a screaming toddler or bored kid who just won’t stay by your side.

What’s more, a store sidekick is another person asking for and picking food off the shelves. Kids stop at every brightly-colored box to implore you for this new snack. Adults distract you with questions about recipes or stories about the time they tried something and regretted it. You, meanwhile, just really want to get out of here.

Listen to some beats.

Grocery stores are purposeful in everything they do, from the items they place on end caps to the music they stream overhead. The jazz rendition of ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me” gives you a good laugh, but it’s purposefully designed to slow you down and make you linger a little longer in the store’s aisles.

Pop in earbuds as soon as you walk in the store, and crank up some tunes. A little upbeat series will give you a pep in your step and help you move quickly through the aisles.

Shop at random times.

It might be hard to rearrange your schedule to avoid the busiest times at the grocery store—after work on Mondays, we’re talking about you. But if you can manage to find a down period to get to the store, you’ll reap the time-savings reward.

Consider sneaking out for an early or late lunch and swing by the store. Go as soon as the store opens after you’ve left the gym. Consider community schedules—ball games, events, and school activities—and go when you know a majority of your neighbors are likely to be distracted.

Play favorites.

Sure, you might be able to save a few dollars by store surfing, or going from one to the other to get what’s on sale. However, picking a favorite grocery store and sticking with it allows you to become more comfortable with the layout, which means you can write better lists and zoom around from point to point. It also means you may quickly pick up on sale cycles so you can anticipate when toilet paper or orange juice will be discounted next.

The best store is one that’s on your way to or from work, home, or anywhere you go regularly. Make sure your soon-to-be-bestie store meets all of your needs. You don’t want to find yourself needing to go to another store even after your trip to the primary store. 

Make friends.

Like any good neighborhood bar, it’s a great idea to have friends in places you visit regularly. This includes the grocery store.

When they know your name and face, they know what you’re looking for and can help you get in and out faster. They may even be willing to help you collect your weekly purchases (milk, eggs, or bread, for example) before you step foot in the store.

Choose your checkout wisely.

The checkout lane with the overflowing cart may not be the slowest option if you take stock of the situation: Lanes that have big orders are typically staffed by both a cashier and a bagger. Express lanes, where orders are smaller, may only be staffed by a cashier who has to stop once they’ve rung up every item and processed your payment to then pack your items. Consider that the tag-team effect of the cashier and bagger may get you in and out of the line faster.

Pro tip: Consider heading over to the customer service counter if the grocery store is even moderately busy. These staff members are often happy to check you out if they aren’t processing returns or filling out paperwork for money orders. If you have just a few items, you can be in and out in a flash.

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