Quillen's customers now don't think about much the dates, but when she first opened the shop five years ago, it was a different scenario. "People thought we were going to kill them," she said, adding with a laugh, "so we told them we only depend on new customers because we killed off our old ones." But she soon educated them. "At first they would buy $10 worth and if they lived through that, they would come back and buy $25," she says. Now some of her customers spend hundreds of dollars at a time.
While other businesses may be suffering during these lean economic times, Quillen says that her sales have increased nearly 40 percent over the past year. And she's confident that this isn't a fad. "We don't expect to lose any customers as the economy gets better, she says, "because when they hit the regular stores, they won't be able to handle those prices any more."
While Gayle Bryant, 37, from Longview, Washington, may not spend big money at salvage stores -- she tries to keep to a weekly grocery budget of $60 to feed her family of six -- she shops at them several times a month. And she often brings home outdated foods. "I did my own research because a lot of people are scared of eating expired foods," says the housewife.
Bryant won't touch outdated dairy products, but she'll happily throw expired canned foods, cereal, and granola bars into her shopping cart. With savings of more than half what she would spend in a regular store for the same amount of food, she knows its worth glossing over a past best-before date or two, especially since she's never had any problems with the quality of her purchases.
Ryan Blankenship, 34, owner of the California Discount Grocery, got into the salvage business less than two years ago when he realized how lucrative an industry it was. Recently he noticed that the amount of expired foods he receives fluctuates with the seasons. " At the beginning of the year we got a lot of outdated holiday foods," he explains, attributing the abundance of stock to the recession's effect on holiday spending. "But now only about 20-25 percent of what we have is expired."
Nonetheless, Blackenship has a store policy of not putting anything on his shelves that is more than three months old -- but that's mostly because the older the food the less likely it will sell. Still, it's easier to shift certain types of outdated items than others. "Canned foods will sell much more easier than, say, cookies or chips if they are past their best-before date. We don't offer old bread like day-old bakeries, or anything like that, just because it would be difficult to sell," he says
FROM SUPERMARKET AISLES TO FEEDING AMERICA'S HUNGRY
According to a 2005 FMI Supermarkets and Food Bank study, more than half of the 8,360 supermarkets surveyed donated 100,000 pounds of product that they could not sell to food banks annually. Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank, which serves over 1,200 soup kitchens, homeless shelters, food pantries, and other charity agencies, is one recipient. According to Executive Director John Arnold, up to 40 percent of the food that they receive is close to expiring or already expired.