Shopping in grocery outlets is akin to a treasure hunt. The disparate offerings will wreak havoc with a traditional grocery list. Eggs one week. Milk the next. Low-carbohydrate, multi-grain tortillas, here today, gone tomorrow. A windfall of individual yogurt cups. Exotic spices priced so low one can hardly resist giving them a try. Foodstuffs with labels that will test your high-school Spanish.

Pushing a shopping cart full of bargains toward her car, Sandra Morris touted her finds to everyone she passed.

“Less than $50 here, this whole cart,” she crowed, loading bag after bag of groceries into her car’s trunk.

Morris had driven to R Grocery Outlet in Hartville, Ohio, after hearing friends brag about their savings:

A dozen eggs, 50 cents.

Individual yogurt cups, 25 cents.

The same wine crackers, cookies, salad dressings and mustards at a fraction of the price of those found in gourmet aisles of traditional supermarkets.

Organic cereals at a fourth of the price.

Challenged budgets and consumer curiosity are driving the growth of discount grocery stores.

Brothers Roland and David Sommers, 31 and 26, respectively, opened R Grocery Outlet in October 2007 after hearing from friends and family about similar operations across the country.

What will you find there? That is the beauty of it. Shopping in grocery outlets is akin to a treasure hunt.

The disparate offerings will wreak havoc with a traditional grocery list. Eggs one week. Milk the next. Low-carbohydrate, multi-grain tortillas, here today, gone tomorrow. A windfall of individual yogurt cups. Exotic spices priced so low one can hardly resist giving them a try. Foodstuffs with labels that will test your high-school Spanish.

Organic products fly off the shelves.

Some cans are dented. Cereal boxes may have been taped shut. The expiration date may have passed for refrigerated fruit juice.

David Sommers acknowledges it is not for everyone.

“It’s kind of a mental block for some people. They have their safety zone, and nothing is going to change that. Sometimes they come with expectations. Don’t assume it’s what you find at Giant Eagle. It’s not. We just say ‘here’s who we are, and come into the store and look around.’ Most people understand we don’t really choose what we get. We get what we can,” he said.

Young mothers and seniors on fixed incomes are regulars. So are singles living on their own for the first time, trying to stretch dollars.

In Minerva, Ohio, 21-year-old Alice Overholt manages Overholt’s Bargain Grocery & Variety Store. She and her twin are the oldest of David and Wilma Overholt’s seven children.

When David Overholt’s masonry work slowed down along with new construction, he and his wife decided a back-up business was needed.

In August, it will be two years since they opened the 1,600-square-foot store.

“We buy a truckload at a time every five weeks from a broker who deals in salvaged groceries,” Wilma Overholt said. “We get lots of gourmet foods, and once in a while we get gluten-free things. We have lots of sugar-free items, too. It varies from load to load. One from California had a lot of Asian food and gourmet dressings and crackers, which was wonderful.”

The Overholts recognize many regular customers who visit every couple of days because inventory changes so rapidly.

“They love to come in and see what we have,” she explained. “And I always tell them if you see something you like, you’d better buy it all because it may not come around again.”

SAFETY CONCERNS?

Learn more about regulations and the art of buying for less at the following sites:

www.learningandlivingwell.org: This site will connect you with any county extension office in the country as well as state consumer hotlines.

www.foodsafety.gov

www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dbmd/diseaseinfo/ This site explains different kinds of food-borne illnesses and how to look for suspicious foods when shopping.

www.fsis.usda.gov: The official site for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service

www.grocerybook.com: Consumer Lana Dorazio’s guide to saving money on foodstuffs.