What You Need To Know Before Buying Groceries At Big Lots

Big Lots used to be known mainly as a clearance and overstock store, where you could buy products that had been moved off the shelves in other stores because they were about to expire or were being replaced by units with updated packaging. That changed in the early and mid-2010s as the company suddenly expanded its grocery offerings in an attempt to create a one-stop shop for both groceries and non-food items. And expand, it did; suddenly, you could buy just about any food there except fresh produce.

But consumer preferences change, and corporate decisions have to keep the company afloat in light of those changes. That means Big Lots' grocery selection is undergoing yet another transformation that affects what you can buy there if you plan to shop for food. While the one-stop shop concept may no longer be the focus at Big Lots, it still offers a lot, and there are benefits to buying food there. Here's what you need to know before buying groceries at Big Lots.

[Featured image by Mike Mozart via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY 2.0]

It might not have an extensive frozen food selection

Big Lots' grocery selection focuses mainly on shelf-stable goods. Many stores have a small section for frozen and refrigerated products, but it's not extensive. In fact, not every Big Lots store will have a freezer section, and over the past few years, the company has actually been reducing many of the freezer sections from an aisle to an endcap. What you find in your local stores will vary; it's entirely possible that one store may have a freezer aisle while another store in your area has almost nothing cold.

Freezer sections at Big Lots aren't new; the company had them, then didn't have them, and then brought them back. So, it's always possible that somewhere down the road, you'll hear that the company is once again expanding its freezer and cooler sections to include more items. For the time being, however, you may want to plan your shopping trip to include another store with larger freezer and refrigerator aisles after you go to Big Lots.

Big Lots has been re-evaluating and shrinking its grocery selection

Frozen food isn't the only category that's shrinking at the store. Big Lots initially expanded its grocery selection to compete with other discount and big-box stores that were doing the same thing. It was only natural that it would want to stay visible as other companies tried to offer more to lure in consumers, especially as revenue fell after the recession in the mid-2010s. The company was clear that the groceries would be good-quality and include basics like milk. But it soon found that customers were apparently focusing on the snack options available on the shelves, rather than making Big Lots their primary grocery store.

In 2019, the company started adjusting its inventory to emphasize snacks and reduce the selection of basic foods like ketchup. You can still find a lot on the shelves, but you may find that you have to head to another store for many items, especially if you want to choose from a large number of brands.

It's a great place for classic and unusual candy

One area in which Big Lots excels is its focus on regional and old-school candy. If you're of a certain age or older, for example, you'll remember candy cigarettes that had powdered sugar that would puff out like smoke when you blew through the paper wrapper. You don't really see those at stores anymore unless you go to Big Lots. The selection a store has at any one time varies, but as these Redditors found, classic (if questionable) candies and gum are regulars at Big Lots stores. One of those Redditors claimed to be an employee and pointed out that their store usually had interesting products.

Big Lots' reputation for selling interesting items has led to some nice deals. The company was chosen to be the first to sell Creme Savers when they were brought back onto the market and also stocked other candies like Astro Pops and Tart N Tinys when those candies were brought back into production. One item that the company has carried for a while — and that made this Redditor swoon — is a large bag of dehydrated Lucky Charms-style marshmallows. It's worth checking out the candy aisle at Big Lots if you like finding surprises.

You could be buying overstock or clearance items

Despite Big Lots' move toward expanding its grocery selection and adding items that were not on the verge of expiring, you may still find clearance items. In other words, you should still check those best-if-used-by and expiration dates. Remember that most of these dates are indicators of quality and not food safety, so something that is near a best-if-used-by date may still be perfectly good to eat. But that food might not be the best choice if you're trying to build up your long-term emergency food supply, for example.

Also remember that because Big Lots purchases a lot of overstock, the amount and types of food you find on the shelves will vary from week to week. As Big Lots concentrates more on snacks now instead of full grocery selections, this variation may become more noticeable. You may want to stock up if you find something you like one week because, once it's sold out, it might not be back for a while.

Big Lots' store brand gets high marks

When Big Lots expanded its grocery offerings, it introduced its store brand: Fresh Finds. Rather than being a pale imitation of name-brand items, the Fresh Finds brand has actually gotten some high marks. Products such as Fresh Finds trail mixes and cheese puffs have been specifically complimented on how tasty they are. 

One Fresh Finds item that really stands out is the hot sauce. Redditors in the r/HotSauce subreddit were happily stunned by the ghost pepper flavor, and the Scorpion hot sauce also received compliments both in terms of heat and taste. Keep in mind that these are some of the hotter peppers available, where your taste buds may feel like they're burning before they can taste anything, so to have a hot sauce that is both astoundingly hot and still noticeably tasty is quite a feat.

This Redditor did have a warning of sorts. The Carolina Reaper hot sauce was so hot that they reported they couldn't taste anything but metal, called the sauce "not fun to consume," claimed they were "miserable" — and then said it was worth it to keep the sauce around.

Its store-brand coffee was the subject of a class-action lawsuit

Fresh Finds may have some winners, but when you have winners, you attract some unwelcome attention. In Big Lots' case, that was a class-action lawsuit filed in 2021 over the claim that Fresh Finds coffee, specifically the 100% Arabica Medium-Dark Roast Columbian, had a misleading number of cups on its serving label. The suit claimed that the canisters promised 210 cups, but independent lab testing showed they actually contained enough coffee for only 150 cups. That meant that consumers were supposedly paying more money for fewer cups than they thought they were buying.

The outcome was good for Big Lots, however; in 2022, the case was thrown out because the court determined the plaintiff's evidence was selective. The court also decided that the claim that the coffee canister contained "up to" 210 cups wasn't a promise that the consumer would actually get 210 cups exactly. Your takeaway should be that if you buy the coffee, the final number of cups you can make with it could vary. But at even 150 cups per container, that's still a pretty good haul.

Big Lots doesn't have an app

As of mid-2023, Big Lots didn't have a grocery app. The company states that clearly on its website in its FAQs, under the topic, "Can I place an order using my phone?" 

We're making a big deal about that because if you go online, you'll sometimes see apps that claim to be for Big Lots sales or store coupons. These aren't official apps, and while it's possible someone may have made an app to help Big Lots shoppers out of the goodness of their heart, you really don't know whether you're looking at one of those apps or at one of the many malicious apps that make their way into the Google Play and Apple App Store each year. Malicious apps can harvest personal information, sign you up for pricey SMS subscriptions, and open you up to phishing scams and hacking, so it's not a good idea to download random apps, even for something as innocuous as coupons.

If you're really keen on doing some Big Lots grocery shopping on your phone, that shouldn't be a problem. According to the company's FAQ, you can easily view its website on your phone using a browser, and there's no need to download anything to browse the inventory and make purchases.

But it does have a rewards program

Companies create their own apps for several reasons, ranging from brand promotion to customer activity tracking. Rewards programs are usually part of the deal, with app-only specials meant to entice customers to stop using the company's website and start using their app. But as Big Lots doesn't have an app, customers don't have to worry about downloading something in order to get a coupon. Registration for the company's rewards program is available through both the website and in-person sign-ups at the register.

If you're a regular at the store or frequently buy through its website, you may want to sign up. The program offers frequent rewards and hefty discounts upwards of 20%. A survey in Newsweek ranked Big Lots' rewards program as the third best in the nation in 2022. But that survey also emphasizes the company's reduced focus on groceries; the category that Big Lots placed in was "Home Furnishing Stores."

It's a great place to shop if you're on the keto diet

When you need cheaper keto foods, head to Big Lots. A common complaint about eating keto is that it is expensive, from high-quality meat products to bottles of MCT oil that feature so prominently in the diet. But Big Lots has made shelf-stable keto foods an unofficial specialty; while the company's grocery section isn't specifically aimed at keto dieters, and you won't find a butcher onsite, you will find some tremendous deals on everything from coconut oil to protein bars. The discounts can range from a couple of bucks to a hefty percentage.

This isn't a new thing, either. Whether by accident or intention, the company has built up its keto selection for years. This Redditor recalled how unwanted Atkins products initially ended up on Big Lots shelves, but now the company has made keto a feature. The website even breaks out keto into its own section for shopping. The one caveat is that if you shop in person, you have to pass all the carb-laden snacks, cookies, and pasta to find the keto foods.

You aren't going to find fresh produce at Big Lots

Big Lots has stocked everything from international foods to basic fridge foods over the years, but the one thing you won't find is a fresh produce section. The company itself hasn't divulged why this is, but when you look at what's needed to stock and maintain a row of fruits and vegetables, the lack of produce isn't a surprise.

Most grocery stores rely on a supply chain that puts produce through sorting, cleaning, sanitization, packaging, waxing, cooling, storage, and eventual transportation that can take the produce hundreds if not thousands of miles from the fields it grew in. Even if the store has an agreement with a farm that provides produce fresh from the field, that produce still has to be sorted and inspected for pests and then cleaned.

The problems don't end there. Once the produce is in the store, it can attract bugs (think of all the times you tried to buy peaches or tomatoes at your local supermarket and found little fruit flies crawling on a couple of overripe pieces). Store workers are generally good about removing infested fruit, but that means the store needs a team devoted to maintaining and sanitizing the produce section, along with extra pest control measures. The cost of labor ends up accounting for the majority of a store's budget, so increasing staffing just for one section can upend attempts to keep prices lower.