Many articles, blogs, and social media posts discuss different ways to save money. However, they often focus on things like sales, where to shop for what, coupons, and so forth. It usually ends up creating more work for shoppers, and when you're already short on time, that can be stressful.

Fortunately, saving money doesn't always mean extra time and effort on your shopping trip. Understanding shelf tags, or the price tags that stores use to label their items, can help you save a lot more than you expect. Although these tags look a little different in every store, they all contain the same general information and savvy shoppers know this is the best way to spend smarter.

What's On a Shelf Tag?

There are several standard elements you will find on store price tags, including:

  • The product SKU (stock keeping unit) or barcode
  • The manufacturer's product ID code
  • The store's unique product/category code
  • Package size or quantity
  • The total retail price of the item
  • The unit price of the item

Let's take a closer look at each element to understand how you can maximize your savings and carefully plan your spending.

SKUs and Product Codes

These are mostly used for identification purposes. They ensure that the item on the shelf matches the item on the price tag and that stores can track inventory and sales and order replenishments as needed.

For the consumer, checking SKUs and product codes can ensure that you:

  • Buy the item listed on the shelf tag
  • Purchase the correct size or type (again by matching tags)

For example, if there's a sale on a certain specific size of paper towels, but not all sizes, you'll want to check the SKU or product code to make sure it matches the sales ad. It never hurts to double-check because products always end up out of place in stores.

Package Size and Quantity

Again, this is helpful information to check to ensure that you are purchasing the right size and type of product. You might be looking at a bottle of shampoo that is 16 ounces but it's sitting with a shelf tag that clearly says "12 oz." - that's a sign that the product is out of place, so it is not selling for the price listed on the shelf tag.

You'll need to find where the product came from originally by matching the size or quantity to the price tags on the shelves. Then, you can check the price and decide whether it's a good buy or not.

Price Tags (Regular Price)

This tells you how much you're paying for the matching item on the shelf. It's also another indicator you can use to verify that you're buying the correct items and getting the best price. This is usually in the upper right-hand corner of the tag, but that may vary.

You'll also want to pay close attention at the cash register to make sure that items ring up at the regular or discounted price on the shelf. If not, you should ask them for a price check. That way, you're getting the deals and discounts you want, even if you are paying full price.

Even if the advertised price is incorrect or a product was misplaced, most stores will give it to you at that cost if you simply speak up. If you notice after the fact, you might get a store credit for an item marked incorrectly on your receipt.

Unit Price Tag Code

We've saved the best for last here. This is the not-so-secret shelf tag element that every shopper needs to know and use. The unit price is hiding in plain sight and can save you big bucks. It tells you what you pay per item in the total package.

The way this is calculated varies based on what you buy, but all like products will have the same unit pricing model.

Here are some examples.

A 12-pack of socks will typically have a total price for the entire package, and then a unit price that tells you what you'd pay for each pair of socks. If that pack is marked at $18, the unit price would be $1.50.

If you are holding a three-pack of socks for $6, your unit price is $2. That means the larger pack is the better of the two deals.

A four-pound bag of sugar will have a total price for the bag (usually $2.50 to $3.50 in the U.S., on average) and a unit price for each pound. If you pick up a bag that costs $3, your unit price would be $0.75.

If you find a 32-ounce (2 lbs.) canister of sugar for $1 in the discount section, it would be cheaper to buy two of those because the unit price is $0.50.

Shop By Unit Price First

Okay, now that you know the secret, it's time to change your shopping game. Start small. On your next trip to the store, focus on one or two items. Look at different sizes and brands of that product and their corresponding shelf tags.

See if you're buying the cheapest possible item or if you could be doing better. Even if you've got brand preferences, different sizes of products could help you save by unit cost. And when things are discounted, you can verify that those are better than full price.

Whether you're shopping at Dick's Sporting Goods or your local Costco, Sam's Club, or even getting some clothes at American Eagle Outfitters, employees will tell you that shelf price tags are worth knowing. They can help you discern regularly priced items and find the best deals on the things you need most.

Shelf Tags May Have Secrets

When you're looking at shelf tags, you might also find clearance items that aren't overtly advertised, along with discontinued items that have been marked down until they are sold. Manager markdowns or seasonal items could be advertised on shelf tags, usually marked by different colors, actual "markouts" where the barcode is marked out, or in other ways. Look for:

  • Yellow tags that point out clearance price items or a price drop.
  • Dates on sales so you know when the sale price ends.
  • Other signs of a clearance item or that a special price might be ending soon.
  • Stock-out codes or marks that many stores use on discontinued items.
  • Prices ending in certain numbers that may indicate discontinued items or stockouts. (Sometimes, if a price ends in a different format, it indicates an item is no longer a regular stock item)

Watch the Checkout

You did the hard work of learning about shelf tags and how to put them to use. Now you have to make sure that the point-of-sale (POS) rings up the items correctly. If something is advertised on sale on a price sign and it rings up at full price, you need to let someone know. Even if the price drops have actually ended, they should honor your purchase.

It Works Online, Too!

If you're an avid Internet user and prefer online purchases, you'll be happy to know that those come with their own "tags" of sorts, too. Every listing should include the unit price along with the full price so that you can get the best buy. This works at major retailers like Target and Walmart, as well as Amazon and others.

And speaking of saving money when you shop online, check out the Comrade browser extension. Just install it on your browser and you can guarantee that you're getting the best deals when you shop online with no need to decipher the price tag code!