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Your Grocer's Worst Nightmare

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Attention, shoppers! The cat litter in aisle 3 is … free! Those handi wipes? On the house! Diapers, crayons, canned yams? Take ’em!

Just one catch—you have to have the eagle eyes of Alana Lipkin, the Tiger Woods of grocery shopping. A single mother of two from Framingham, Mass., Lipkin, 45, takes advantage of supermarket pricing guarantees—which stores in many states have—that entitle her to keep any mismarked item she finds. She regularly walks away with hundreds of dollars of free groceries (her record for a single trip is nearly $1,300). Lipkin simply hunts for discrepancies between the price on items and the price on shelves and says her shopping savvy helps all consumers by holding stores accountable for sloppy pricing. “The average Joe is getting ripped off,” she says, “and chances are he doesn’t know.”

Stop & Shop and Shaw’s, Massachusetts’s two biggest grocery chains, have banned Lipkin, saying she exploits guarantees designed to prevent blatant overpricing. “She’s manipulating circumstances to take unfair advantage,” says Stop & Shop spokeswoman Faith Weiner, who claims Lipkin creates delays by having cashiers price items she doesn’t intend to buy. Lipkin says that instead of fixing the problem—which would stop her—”they chose the easy way out.”

On a recent shopping trip, Lipkin found a 40-lb. bag of dog food marked $9.69; the shelf price was $9.59. Because the store had posted a guarantee that mispriced items are free, the bag was hers. After three hours Lipkin checked out with 47 items worth nearly $300, plus a dollar for each error, per store policy. Lipkin keeps about a third of her haul, giving away and bartering the rest.

So is she a hero? Or just one of those people you always get behind in line? Lipkin insists she’s helping stores by doing what their employees should be doing—finding mistakes. “They don’t even have to pay me benefits,” she says, “and I’m probably more thorough.”