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The Coupon Lady: When food shopping at a flea market, it's buyer beware

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With this economy, it is easy to be tempted by a bargain. With all the uncertainty in the air, many people are turning to alternative methods of shopping. Yard sales, online yard sales, flea markets, consignment stores and bargain stores have all seen growth over the past few years. I often use these places as the first shopping place for something I want.

Even though I pride myself on hunting for bargains, there are a few things I won’t do when shopping.

One of the lines that I won’t cross is that I won’t buy groceries at flea markets. I’m not talking about fresh veggies that come from a farmer’s stall. I will buy vendor-stand foods and farm-grown produce, but only after learning about the farmer’s growing practices or seeing a health inspection certification of the vendor.

What I’m talking about are the bagged and boxed goods you would buy at the store, like cans of vegetables, bags of chips, bread, soda and so on. It is perfectly legal to sell “salvage foods” in a flea market setting as long as you’ve gotten the proper licenses. Sellers have the advantage of little overhead, since a space fee is generally low and the only equipment needed is a truck big enough to move the goods. The business also takes very little start-up money. For many people, this is simply a way to make money for their families or to begin gathering capital for a permanent building space. I don’t have anything against the people wanting to make a living.

However, a major disadvantage for flea market grocery sellers is that they have no way of moderating the temperatures of their goods. When a product’s shelf life is calculated, it assumes a steady temperature of around 60 to 72 degrees. During the hot Georgia summers, temperatures soar well past that, even in shaded areas.

The constant temperature variations will play havoc with the shelf life of canned and boxed items. The higher temperatures seriously reduce shelf life.

In fact, most salvage grocery sites recommend only taking dry goods and non-food items to a flea market setting. Most salvage grocers have items such as dented cans, so high temperatures put those items at further risk for developing bacteria.

Another unpleasant thought is what happens to all the unsold goods between the weekends? Do the products go into an air-conditioned storage shed or in a person’s garage or storage facility? Is the storage location insect free? We simply don’t know.

Another problem I have with shopping for grocery items in a flea market setting is because often I see my extreme couponing brothers and sisters reselling their deals. These couponers go to the store with hundreds of coupons at a time and mimic what you see on television. Do you really think that they need 100 bottles of mustard at once? No way! These people are the ones taking their extreme savings and reselling the items at the flea markets for a profit. For example, the couponer will get a $1.59 bottle of mustard on sale for49 cents and then resell to bargain hunters for $1. Coupons are meant for individual consumption, not for supplying discounts for resellers.

This practice is frowned on by store managers because it makes it harder for regular customers to find sale items because they are quickly sold out. The couponers clearing the shelves generally aren’t buying just what their family needs.

If you do decide to shop for groceries at a flea market, then buyer beware: inspect packages and expiration dates and look for signs of sweating or improper storage.

Be safe and happy shopping!

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