Let’s talk for a moment about your purchasing decisions. Maybe you shop with the environment in mind, or you pinch pennies or you’re an emotional shopper. Maybe you’ve gone on a shopping fast. We’re launching a new series we’re calling How We Shop. Because what we buy — and how we buy it — often says something about who we are and what matters to us. Use the form at the bottom to send us your shopping stories, and one of the team might contact you for a future show.
I met up with MaryAnn McCarra-Fitzpatrick at C-Town Supermarket in Peekskill, New York.
She gave me a tour to show me how she shops. And there was a moment that stuck out to me.
We were standing in the aisle with the dish soap, and there were dozens of options — Palmolive, Dawn, Ajax — all in various sizes and scents.
People were pushing past us with their shopping carts. There was a guy stocking shelves, blocking half the aisle with his step ladder.
But MaryAnn was laser-focused. She knew exactly what she wanted.
“I don’t really care about the scent, or how kind it’s going to be to my hands, or even the name brand,” she said. “I want to get the product that’s going to get the job done for the least amount of money.”
MaryAnn lives in Peekskill, about an hour north of Manhattan, with her husband Mark and their three sons. She’s a stay-at-home-mom. He works in information technology.
And shopping is serious business for her. She has some rules. Don’t go to the grocery store when you’re hungry. Leave the kids (and their endless demands) at home. And always, always, check the unit price — the cost per ounce or pound. In New York State, it’s usually printed on the shelf, but she brings a blue plastic calculator just in case.
In the aisle, she pointed out a bottle of dish soap.
“This one, the Dawn, is $3.40 per pint,” she said. “The unit cost for a larger size is doubtless much less.”
She was right. It was $2.85 a pint.
“And all those pennies add up,” she said.
We walked by a display of Entenmann’s desserts. She zeroed in on the donuts and the cheese puffs. Both cost $3.99 but the donuts weighed one ounce more. She picked them up.
“I would go with this, because there’s more product here,” she said. “I think of it in terms of mouthfuls on the plate, sustenance.”
MaryAnn’s family is not particularly fond of the way she shops. She’s had to relinquish ice cream buying duties to her husband. He and the kids like ice cream, and she’s likely to come home with the store brand vanilla.
MaryAnn’s approach to shopping isn’t just about saving money. She’s trying to beat the system — or at least, not let it beat her.
“As a consumer, I think one has to be aware that marketers want your dollar to go from your pocket into theirs,” she said. “And they will do darn near anything to get that accomplished. ”
She learned that lesson from her parents, Nellie and Michael. They grew up in Ireland during World War II, when basics like sugar and flour were rationed.
“There was a great cognizance of perhaps, you know, scarcity, and the need to not waste money,” she said.
When MaryAnn was growing up in Yonkers, she’d be watching TV with her mother and it would suddenly turn into a teachable moment.
“My mother would tell me, you know, ‘you see that in the toy commercial, but that’s not really what that toy is like,’” she said. “And it’s true. Even with like, say Hot Wheels cars, you know, you see it doing something magnificent in the commercial. And then you get it home and it’s not quite the same.”
Frugality has become a way of life for MaryAnn, and it’s something she tries to teach to her sons. She buys clothes at the Salvation Army. She gets her hair cut at the local beauty school for $11. And if her sweater rips, she’s going to fix it.
“What’s that old saying?” she said. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”
Her tastes are not extravagant. For her birthday this year, she simply asked her husband for a recording of a poetry reading in Manhattan.
MaryAnn is not always frugal. On Halloween, she buys the name brand candy bars for trick-or-treaters — Milky Ways, M&Ms, Twix.
And she will allow herself the occasional indulgence. She loves Barry’s, an Irish brand of tea, even though it costs 11 cents a bag, compared to three cents for Lipton.
“But for us, that 11 cents is well worth it, because you’re getting a quality product and you know you’re starting your morning off right when you’re drinking Barry’s,” she said.
Even MaryAnn can get all dreamy about a brand. I guess no one is completely immune to marketing.