Dented, stale? It's worth a bid

DALLAS, Pa. — 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 for 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. Some 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. "They're looking to save money."

Rich Harris, 28, who was recently laid off from his welding job, showed up at Williams' auction in Dallas earlier this month looking for meat for his freezer and snacks for his kids. With his wife pregnant with their third child, "I'm basically trying to expand my dollar right now," he said. "The deals, they seem to be fairly good."

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.

Attempts to save money have fueled growth in the auctions, which are held in at least nine states.

At Steve Schleeter's grocery auction in St. Mary, Ohio, some regulars have told him they now do most of their shopping at the auction and go to the store only for milk and lunch meat. He estimates his customers can knock 50 percent off their grocery bills.

Inside the auction hall in Dallas, a small town north of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Williams uses a singsong, rapid-fire delivery to sell everything from frozen broccoli (six boxes for $2) to pork ribs ($20 for a 14-pound hunk) to candy bars (10 Baby Ruths for $2).

Especially popular are the frozen foods — 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 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. Guys, who else? These are so good.

"Anybody else on the cheese curls? Anybody, anybody, anybody else? All fresh and in date."