Living Off the Fat of the Aisles

A couple of frisky consumers struck it rich on Albertson's Fresh or Free offer, and now the chain is canning the program

When their carts are full, Diener and Confino meet near the canned tuna for a consultation. They make sure they have one item of its kind per person per shopping trip (a Fresh or Free rule) and that each has picked up a replacement for the expired item. Diener hasn't been able to find a current tube of Caladryl for the one on the shelf dated April 1996, so she'll have to ask the manager for a credit slip, which could be for the price of the tube or for an identical replacement, depending on the customer-service representative's judgment. By now Diener has accumulated about $180 and Confino about $450 in store credits, which are practically the same as cash.

They roll their carts to a checkout lane, where one of the managers, accustomed to the ritual he must perform at least once a week with the couple, tosses each expired item into a separate shopping cart while Confino stuffs its fresh replacement into a plastic bag. After a hearty "See you in a few days" from the manager, Confino and Diener repair to the parking lot and pack everything into the trunk of her Beretta (perishables in a cooler).

Then comes the tactical maneuvering for space in their kitchens and pantries. Diener and Confino, both of whom work in the service industry but don't want the names of their employers mentioned, live in the same Southwest Dade apartment complex. Confino, the more organized of the two, proudly opens the kitchen cabinets to reveal boxes of Life, Cinnamon Life, and Banana Nut Crunch neatly arranged like a set of encyclopedia. Other cabinets are brimming with Dinty Moore canned dinners, Pepperidge Farm cookies, and several varieties of Little Debbie cakes and snacks ("Always Little Debbie products," Confino says with a grin). His refrigerator, like any good deli section, features nine-dollar-per-pound gourmet cheeses, turkeys, and hams. He freezes cartons of milk and orange juice.

Both he and Diener sell a lot of their booty to friends for half price -- 35 percent off on the meat. In exceptional circumstances, they'll sell to strangers, as when they wound up with 22 Thanksgiving turkeys last year. This past Easter the gregarious Confino threw a dozen hams into the bed of his red Chevy pickup, drove out to a busy intersection by a Catholic church, and propped up a big poster-board sign that said "HAM." The meat was gone in half an hour.

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