Out of toilet paper? Need to pick up a few things for dinner? Take a number and start bidding.
Many bargain hunters these days are trading supermarket aisles for the auction circuit in search of deep discounts on everything from cereal to spare ribs. Past the sell-by date? Bidders are happy to ignore that detail if they're getting a good deal.
As consumers seek relief from the recession and spiraling food prices, grocery auctions are gaining in popularity as an easy way to cut costs. The sales operate like regular auctions, but with bidders vying for dry goods and frozen foods instead of antiques and collectibles. Some auctioneers even accept food stamps.
When Kirk Williams held his first grocery auction in rural Pennsylvania last month, nearly 300 people showed up. Astonished by the turnout, he's scheduling auctions at locations throughout northeastern Pennsylvania.
"Right now, people don't have a lot of spare pocket change," said Williams, 50, operator of Col. Kirk's Auction Gallery near Bloomsburg, Pa. "They're looking to save money."
Grocery sales make sense for auctioneers too. Sales of baseball cards, estate jewelry and other auction staples have "fallen off a cliff," Williams said. He hopes to average about $12,000 in sales per auction, which would net him a profit of about $1,000.
The popularity of the auctions — which sell leftover or damaged goods from supermarkets, distribution centers and restaurant suppliers — comes at a time when people are stretching their grocery budgets by using more coupons, buying inferior cuts of meat and choosing store brands over national brands.
The economic downturn, paired with the worst food inflation in nearly 20 years (grocery prices spiked in 2008 before easing in January and February), has caused a "seismic shift" in consumer behavior, said Brian Todd, president of the Food Institute, an industry information service.
"Food is one area where they can save," he said.
The increased interest has fueled growth in the auctions, which can be found in at least nine states from Oklahoma to New York.
At Steve Schleeter's grocery auction in St. Mary, Ohio, where attendance has swelled in recent months, some regulars have told him they now do most of their shopping at the auction and only go to the store for milk and lunch meat. He estimates his customers can knock 50 percent off their grocery bills.
Cherish Francik, 42, who works for the Social Security Administration, said she wouldn't have been caught dead at a grocery auction or even a discount food store a few months ago. But the tough economy has turned her into a tightwad.
Now she brags to her co-workers about her frugality.
"Most of my life, I've been a brand-name shopper. It was a quick change for me, a real quick change," said Francik, whose haul from the Williams auction included trail mix, honey-barbecue chicken nuggets and a spiral-cut ham. "I guess it's sort of a thrill now to find something that tastes good and is the right price."
Especially popular inside the auction hall in Dallas, a small town north of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., are pies, bratwursts, chicken breasts, popcorn shrimp, whole hams and french fries.
Displaying an 11-ounce bag of cheese curls that retails for $1.99, the veteran auctioneer Williams chants: "Dollar and a quarter, dollar and a half. Dollar and a quarter, buck and a half. Buck and a half, buck seventy-five."
His colleague, Roger Naugle, stops the bidding at $1.50.
"Who wants the cheese curls?" Williams says. "Down there, No. 17 wants two. No. 7 wants one. No. 33 takes two."
As workers fan out with armloads of bags, Williams tees up the next item. And on it goes, for hours. Customers head to their cars balancing precariously overloaded boxes of food.
Some of the goodies have wound up here because they're out of date. But the auctioneers stress that they're still okay to eat. The Food and Drug Administration does not generally prohibit the sale of food past its sell-by or use-by date — manufacturers' terms that help guide the rotation of shelf stock or indicate the period of best flavor or quality.
"There is not one thing in this sale today that Kirk or myself will sell you, that we would not, do not, will not or have not taken home to our own families." Naugle tells the crowd.
The same kinds of goods sold at grocery auctions also find their way to salvage stores, flea markets, closeout sales and food banks, though Williams said he avoids merchandise that is severely damaged or well past expiration.
Like any auction, grocery auctions aren't automatically a bargain. Savvy bidders should know what things cost at the supermarket to make sure they're truly saving money. The excitement sometimes leads bidders to overpay.
"Every once in a while, a customer bids it, and you're going, 'I'm pretty sure that's cheaper in the store,' " said Schleeter, the Ohio auctioneer.