Introduction: Automate Your Shopping!

About: I am a scientist, professional science writer, and science educator. I'm also author of the Biology Bytes books:

These days, we’re all busy. One chore that we pretty much all have to do on a regular basis is buy groceries and, if we have pets, we have to buy food, treats, and other supplies for them too. I don’t hate getting groceries, but it seems like in the 21st century it’s a chore that we should be able to automate more – who wouldn’t want to have a fresh bag of coffee grounds delivered to their doorstep the day before they even realize that they’re about to run out? We have better things to be thinking about. And with so many online subscription services available now, automated delivery of groceries – having them arrive on your doorstep without even needing to place an order each time – is much closer to a reality.

To automate my grocery and pet shopping, I kept track of what non-perishable items our household regularly bought over a period of about six months. After seeing how frequently we bought different items, I went online to see what automated subscriptions could replace trips to the store for frequently purchased items. (Since we spoil our dogs, this turned out to include a lot of different dog treats!) I also compared prices and found that not only do many automated subscriptions make life easier by saving us valuable time, but they save us money too! So if you want to automate your regular shopping, give yourself more time to do more important things, and even save some money, then this ‘ible is for you!

Note that this ‘ible focuses on non-perishable items since those are easiest to purchase online. If you’re interested in saving money on purchasing perishable items, you might want to check out my other ‘ible Save Money by Throwing Out Less Food. I also talk about some ways to purchase perishable items online in Step 7, below.

Step 1: Keep Track of Your Purchases

I created a spreadsheet to keep track of all of the non-perishable items (including dog food and treats) we purchased over a period of approximately six months. It’s probably easiest to print this spreadsheet out and stick it on your refrigerator (or kitchen somewhere) so it’s relatively easy to fill out when you put food (and other items) away. I tried to fill it in with all non-perishable items that we regularly purchased. Over time, these items ended up fitting into a few main categories for our household:

  • Pasta, rice, & grains
  • Canned/boxed goods
  • Snacks
  • Beverages
  • Cleaning and misc. items
  • Bathroom items
  • Pet treats/supplies

For each non-perishable item, keep track of the date purchased and the quantity in the spreadsheet. For the quantity, I found it most helpful to include as much detail as possible (e.g., how many ounces or grams were in the bag, or how many dog treats were in the box). (I didn’t keep track of prices originally, but went back later when I saw what we purchased most frequently and compared them when looking into subscriptions -- see Step 4, below, for details.)

In this step I’ve included, as an example, a screenshot of some of the data I actually collected. Here I’ve also included a blank spreadsheet (as a PDF and Excel spreadsheet) so you could use it to keep track of your own purchases!

Step 2: Evaluate Your Most Frequent Purchases

After you’ve kept track of your non-perishable purchases for about six months (or longer), eliminate items that you do not buy frequently. For us, this was eliminating items we had purchased fewer than two times in the six month period (so we only bought them once or not at all). This left us with about 16 non-perishable items that we purchased relatively frequently – in this step I’ve included, as an example, a screenshot of this list of items. Next we went online to see if some of these regular in-store purchases could be replaced with an online subscription.

Step 3: Search for Online Subscriptions

Searching Amazon for Subscriptions

There are a lot of places online that offer subscriptions when you purchase an item. Because probably has the widest selection, I first searched Amazon for our frequently-purchased items. To search Amazon, I recommend searching for the exact item you want – you may be surprised how often they have it, and how often there’s a subscription for it! In the list of search results, keep an eye out for ones that say “Subscribe” next to the result’s price.

Searching Other Online Subscription Suppliers – For Pet Supplies!

In addition to, I also searched EntirelyPets. I’ve previously purchased some pet supplies/treats from this website, but never set up a subscription. That said, they do have a very wide range of common pet supplies/treats (especially for dogs and cats), and they do offer subscriptions for many items. Again, try searching for the exact item you want, and then see if they offer a subscription on that product’s page.

Ultimately, I found that out of the 16 frequently-purchased items we had, I was able to easily find online subscriptions for 10 of them, which I thought was pretty good.

Step 4: Compare Prices

When you find the item, you’ll want to compare the subscription price to the price you normally pay for that item in the store. To make this price comparison easy, I took pictures of the items (with prices) when I was in the store (shown in this step). I then created a spreadsheet showing the price (and quantity) for each item purchased in-store versus the price (and quantity) for each item’s subscription (pictures for the subscriptions are in step 6). Some things to keep in mind when doing the price comparison:

  • Quantities can vary a lot for the same item – be sure you’re comparing the same sizes (e.g., cost per ounce or gram).

  • If the item in the store was on sale, was the sale price representative of what it usually is? You want to do a fair price comparison.

  • It can be hard to beat the cost of items you buy from a place that requires a membership. For example, we have a Costco membership, and I found (not surprisingly) that many prices online were not nearly as low as what was at Costco. But keep in mind that Costco has a membership fee.

  • Don’t forget to include shipping costs. For example, I have free Prime shipping through Amazon, but other online subscription suppliers charge shipping. (For example, EntirelyPets charged $5.95 for ground shipping, and I included this in my price comparisons.)

Step 5: Decide If It’s Worth It and Saving Money!

Ultimately, I found that when I did the subscription searching and price comparisons my results for an item fell into one of three categories, which determined whether I actually went ahead with creating a subscription or not:

  1. The online subscription is less expensive than the in-store purchase – it’s probably worth it to subscribe! Woohoo – saving money and time!
  2. The online subscription is comparable (or slightly more expensive) than the in-store purchase – worth evaluating whether it’s worth subscribing.
  3. Either there is no online subscription, or the online subscription is much more expensive than the in-store purchase. Probably not worth it to subscribe.

As an example, in this step I’ve included a screenshot of my price comparison results and notes about whether I thought it was worth subscribing or not. Ultimately, I found 7 (out of 17) items that had an online subscription available that seemed “worth it.”

Another thing to keep in mind is the quantity you’d be receiving at one time with a subscription. For example, I could subscribe to receiving 10 boxes of cereal at a time. It’d take us a couple months to eat that much cereal, but we have places to store it and it won’t go bad. So it was fine for us. But you’ll want to evaluate whether this would work for you too (i.e., do you have some good storage space).

Step 6: Set Up Automated Subscriptions

Figuring Out the Delivery Frequency

After you’ve decided whether an online subscription is worth replacing a trip to the store for a particular item, go back to your spreadsheet and figure out just how frequently you buy that item (and in what quantity). As an example, I’ve included a screenshot of my spreadsheet in this step. I not only looked at the average purchase frequency for each of the 7 items I found good subscriptions for, but I also looked at whether I’d recently changed that frequency (in other words, if I’ve started buying it more or less frequently).

Setting Up the Subscription

Once you have a good idea of how often you’re buying these items, check out the subscription options. Typically they offer deliveries every 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 months. But you’ll also want to pay close attention to the quantities – often times the subscription sends several packs at a time. See my spreadsheet in this step, and Amazon screenshots, for examples.

Once you’re happy with the frequency of your subscriptions, set them up and wait for your items to be delivered to your doorstep without any additional time or thought on your part! (And if at any time you want to change your subscription, I’ve found it’s easy to edit them on Amazon.)

Note: Not only do subscriptions often save you money (an automatic 5% off through Amazon, and 10% through EntirelyPets), but if you set up more subscriptions, you might save more money. For example, if on Amazon you set up five subscriptions that all ship in the same month, you save 15% off each item shipped that month! I’ve attached a screenshot of their “Subscribe & Save” policy at the end of this step.

Step 7: Solutions for Perishable Items

Depending on where you live, you may be able to order perishable items online that can be delivered to your doorstep. However, I have yet to find a service that does this automatically – as far as I’ve found, you still need to manually enter the order online each time. (Please let me know if you know of a common automatic service that does this!) For example, King Soopers has a HomeShop program where you can order groceries online to be delivered to your home.

Step 8: Have More Money and Time!

Once you’ve set up your subscriptions, enjoy feeling like you're finally living in the 21st century (as far as your regular shopping chores are concerned), and having more time and money to do more fun things with than going out and buying groceries and pet supplies! Like maybe writing up an Instructable about your latest exciting home project :)

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