Bargain-seeking bidders score big at grocery auctions
September 20th, 2012
11:15 AM ET
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"Somebody give me a six dollar bill to start. A six in the hand."

Auctioneer Doug Allen rapidly runs off numbers into a microphone trying to find the highest bidder in the crowd. Over 100 people have shown up in this volunteer fire department's banquet hall in Severna, Maryland, where there are hundreds of items to be sold off.

Unlike auctions held by Christie's or Sotheby's, Allen is not auctioning off a Picasso or a Monet. The item up for bid is a cardboard box full of Rold Gold pretzel snack bags. Doug Allen and his wife Kathy are holding a grocery auction.

Grocery auctions sell off items that food distributors and grocery stores are trying to unload. The items may be seasonal, discontinued, or in excess. Food items may also be nearing or have passed its "sell-by" date.

These auctions aren't a new occurrence but auctioneers say these types of auctions became more popular and frequent as the recession hit.

"We realized this was probably the largest money maker. Of course you want to stick with it anyway, but it didn't mean it was going to be the one to thrive. But it did because it was the necessity," says Kathy Allen, owner of Wishing Rock Auctions.

Allen, who has been in the auction business for almost 20 years, says she rarely does antique or collectible auctions any more and focuses on grocery auctions.

A big draw for attendees to these auctions - food prices.

According to the U.S. government's Consumer Price Index, food prices in August rose 2% from the same time last year. For consumers that has resulted in higher prices at the grocery store and in turn higher grocery bills. With the severe drought that hit the United States this year, the USDA is predicting even higher than average food prices in 2013.

Eileen Carter has been coming to food auctions for over a year and says she keeps coming back because it’s cheaper than going to the grocery store.

"I can fill up my whole pickup truck for $120 and have to give my neighbors half the food," says Carter.

grocery auctioneer

While most auctions only have one winner, grocery auctions become a team sport. Each product is usually sold individually but there are normally multiples of items. Once the price is set for one of the items, anyone can purchase the additional ones at that price. Regular attendees will work together and try not to overbid for items so that they all can get it at a good price.

While a bidder can score great deals at the auctions, the idea of buying food that may be past its "sell-by" or "best if used by" date can worry some buyers. But food experts say that people get too hung up on the labeled date.

"It’s your perception when you see that date. It’s hard to get over it. It’s even hard for me and I know it. It’s in your mind," says food safety expert Shari Portnoy. "If you didn't see that date you might think totally different."

Portnoy says that many people are misinformed about what those labels mean.

"The 'sell-by' is for the store to know how long the store should display it. 'Best if used by' is for flavor or quality. It is not a purchaser's safety date. It is recommended for peak quality," says Portnoy

Portnoy also adds that the food dating labels are not regulated by the government and are usually at the discretion of the manufacturer. The only exception is for infant formula.

At the grocery auction in Severna, Maryland, the food distributor puts out sample bags of chips and snack bags for attendees to try.

"We have tried some 90% of the food our distributor has sold," says Kathy Allen. "I don't normally have people returning things at all."

Quite the opposite, in fact. Numerous hopeful bidders planned ahead and came with coolers to haul away their delicious winnings.

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Filed under: News • Shopping • Waste


soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Viki Cezil

    Your style is so unique in comparison to other people I have read stuff from. Many thanks for posting when you have the opportunity, Guess I'll just book mark this web site.

    http://www.usapropertyfinders.com

    September 3, 2014 at 2:26 pm |
  2. Ms. Cook

    I've been to about three auctions about 15 years ago. I have not been back because I rode with a relative and do not remember where the food auction was. We got some very good deals back then.

    July 2, 2013 at 9:27 pm |
  3. Georges

    I do the same thing at livestock auctions. Buy a whole cow, its way cheaper than buying steaks...

    September 26, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  4. kathy

    Severn, MD or Severna Park, MD?

    September 24, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • KlintzCNN

      Severna Park, MD - at the Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Department.

      It's a great way to raise funds for the volunteer fire company.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
  5. Blurry

    It's hard to tell from the photos what there is. Looks like chips, soda and something wrapped individually and then boxed, from the closeup. Was ths all taken from a cameraphone?

    I live 15 minutes from where this auction took place, and I never saw any advertising for it. southboca is correct, lazy, lazy, lazy and not just on the part of the journalist. I would imagine these types of auctions would do a lot better if people KNEW ABOUT THEM. It sounds to me like an elitist group that gets together to buy up grocery store cast offs for as low as they can get them to sell for without sharing.

    Here's a better idea – donate it to a food bank or homeless shelter.

    September 23, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • KlintzCNN

      The box of individually-wrapped items are steaks.

      This particular auction was held at the Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Department in Severna Park, MD. The "elitist" beneficiaries of this auction was the fire department. People don't want to pay taxes, yet expect full coverage when disaster strikes. There's at least two volunteer fire departments around here that hold carnivals to raise money to pay salaries of full-time employees, maintain or buy new equipment, or otherwise.

      Have you supported your local volunteer (or even full-time) fire department?

      September 30, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
  6. southboca

    Lazy, lazy, lazy. Those are the three words I'd use to describe a journalist/editor who puts together this kind of story and offers no ideas to readers on how to find a grocery auction near them. Here's my disclaimer: I've never been to a grocery auction. I probably never will. I did have an extra 20 minutes to kill, so here's info that might help. The National Auctioneers List is a bust for grocery auctions. It has no grocery category and produced no valid results for the next month in a nationwide search. Auctionzip turns up around 15 results per day throughout the US if you search for Grocery across all categories. But not all of them are good matches - results incude auctions for grocery display cases (no food), directions that tell you to turn left by the local grocery, etc. - so read carefully). Ehow suggests that you call local auctioneers to ask if they hold grocery auctions, check the classifieds in the newspaper and run periodic searches on craigslist. (A quick google search shows four recent craiglist grocery auction results nationwide.) I could be wrong, but it seems that grocery auctions are the exception rather than the rule; finding one near you may prove difficult. But if you follow the info in this post, at least it won't be time consuming. Happy hunting.

    September 23, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • Paul

      GROCERY & FROZEN FOOD Auction
      WISHING ROCK AUCTIONS, LLC SEVERNA PARK, MD Fri Oct 12 – 06:30PM
      GROCERY & FROZEN FOOD AUCTION AT 6:30 PM PLEASE NOTE: WE DO NOT ACCEPT CREDIT CARDS LOCATION: EARLEIGH HEIGHTS FIRE HALL Plenty Of Seats & FREE Parking! Friday 10/12 @ 6:30 pm NO Preview For This Auction. CA$H & CARRY ITEMS FOR $ALE BEFORE AND AFTER AUCTION!!! Now Featuring... FRESH PRODUCE Snyder's and Utz

      WISHING ROCK AUCTIONS, LLC SEVERNA PARK, MD Fri Nov 9 – 06:30PM
      GROCERY & FROZEN FOOD AUCTION AT 6:30 PM PLEASE NOTE: WE DO NOT ACCEPT CREDIT CARDS LOCATION: EARLEIGH HEIGHTS FIRE HALL Plenty Of Seats & FREE Parking! Friday 11/9 @ 6:30 pm NO Preview For This Auction. CA$H & CARRY ITEMS FOR $ALE BEFORE AND AFTER AUCTION!!! Doors Open At 5pm WISHING ROCK AUCTIONS

      http://www.auctionzip.com/MD-Auctioneers/11367.html

      Took 5 seconds to find these...linked from the article itself.

      September 24, 2012 at 1:06 am |
  7. Skank sale

    It didn't sell at the grocery for a reason. Think about it.

    September 23, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • KlintzCNN

      A customer drops a can of peas. Rather than buy the dented can, the customer puts it back on the shelf–if they're even conscientious enough to do that and not leave it on the floor.

      As the store's closing, the stocker takes the can to the back knowing no one will buy a dented can sitting on the shelf.

      Those items wind up at these auctions. Perfectly fine food–just "cosmetically challenged."

      September 30, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
      • Brian

        Wow – you should really educate yourself on what happens when you drop a can of food and it gets dented. Seriously. Before you or someone you know gets really ill. It's called botulism, and you should never, ever, ever consume food where the can has become dented in any way.

        October 1, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
        • Ann

          Um, Brian, I agree with you if you're planning on storing the dented can for 6 months in your pantry. But if you, personally, dent the can, and take it home, open it and eat it – it's fine! That's why it's wrong to just put it back on the shelf!

          October 1, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  8. AnnieM

    From the picture it looks like mostly junk food. Not interested...

    September 22, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
    • KlintzCNN

      The box of steaks is "junk food"?

      They auction frozen goods too.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
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