Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Whose Groceries are Cheapest?

One thing that I’ve had a bit of trouble with during this challenge has been believing I am getting the best value for what I’m buying. Am I shopping at the cheapest store? Is the sale I’m taking advantage of providing a big enough savings to make a difference?  When you’re on a limited budget, a 10-cent difference in price on a handful of items starts to add up very quickly. I decided to settle the issue by surveying four different grocery stores for their prices on just over 40 pantry “staple” items.

I started at Target. I sort of assumed Target would be most expensive given that they don’t focus on grocery and don’t have a bottom-dollar brand. I love Target’s store brand for lots of household items, but I hadn’t had much experience with the quality or value of their “Market Fresh” store brand for food items. While I was browsing shelves for price tags I overheard a group of college students referring to the store as “the poor man’s Wal-Mart.” I couldn’t help but agree with the stereotype, believing when I got to Wal-Mart later on that afternoon I would find prices significantly cheaper than what I was finding on the shelves at Target.

After Target, I headed to Marsh. Those who live outside of Indiana may not be familiar with this particular grocery store. It used to be an Indiana-owned chain, but now has ownership and locations outside of the state. However, they still brand themselves “Indiana’s Hometown Grocer.” At Marsh, I scoured the shelves looking especially for items bearing their house brand’s name, “Food Club,” or their value brand’s label, “Value Time.” I was able to find versions of most items under the store brand umbrella, but not quite all.

Next, I drove across town to research food prices at Wal-Mart. To be perfectly honest, I’ve never gone to the Wal-Mart here for groceries. Part of the reason is that it’s out of the way from where I live. The other, and larger, consideration is a personal preference to support other retailers before Wal-Mart. The first thing I noticed was that the selection was massive and the store had a crowd to match. At Wal-Mart more than any other store, the value was substantially greater when you purchased a larger size. Most know the same company owns both Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart, but I wasn’t aware that the idea of savings through bulk sizes was integrated so thoroughly into Wal-Mart’s inventory as well. I also noticed the prices of their Great Value brand seemed to consistently be at least ten cents lower than prices I had recorded from Marsh or Target. I was quickly becoming convinced that everything I’d heard about Wal-Mart was true: Love or hate them, their price point is compelling, especially when your budget is restrictive.

My last stop after two hours of playing Nancy Drew in aisles of bread and peanut butter was at Kroger. Kroger is the mainstream grocery store I did most of my pre-challenge shopping at, though my shopping is typically split between a few different places (a luxury I have given up the last few weeks to save as much money as possible).  Like Marsh, Kroger has both a standard generic house brand (Kroger brand), and a more economical option on some items – their Value brand. Many staple items I was shopping for were available in a Value brand version.

Once I’d finished my rounds at all four stores, I went back to the list to compare prices across the board. I went in with a list of 42 items, but in the final list I’ll be comparing there are only 29 items. This is to ensure an apples-to-apples comparison across all stores.

And the winners are…

Wal-Mart came in as the cheapest with its cart totaling $53.17. Kroger, however, came in right on their heels with a total of $53.22, only a nickel more than the cost of the Wal-Mart cart. Most surprising to me was third place being awarded to Target with a total cart price of $61.83: notably more expensive than the first two retailers, but surprisingly cheaper than another “grocery” store option. Marsh came in fourth with a cart totaling $65.71, a difference of more than twelve dollars above both Wal-Mart and Kroger. Additionally, the extra $12 spent represents more than a third of my weekly allowance on a food stamp budget.

Take a look at the chart below if you’re interested in the specifics or to see how retailers compare on particular items.

Regardless of where you’re shopping, here are some general tips on making sure your dollar is stretching as far as possible:
  • For staple items, choose a retailer you know to be generally less expensive. Sale prices can be alluring and provide great deals on the right items, but if you have enough general pantry-stocking to do, be sure you’re not being swayed into paying more for the basics by brightly colored sale tags.
  •  Take a look at the various sizes of a particular item on your list and determine the optimum balance of your budget, what you’ll reasonably use and the difference is price per ounce. Sometimes larger sizes garner great savings, other times not so much. If you know you only drink a couple glasses of milk a week, any savings you get by buying a whole gallon may be nullified if the milk sours before you’re able to use it. On the other hand, if you’ll use a whole pound of cheese within a couple of weeks, it may be worth the extra dollars now (if you can spare them) rather than paying more in the long run for two smaller package.
  • Consider whether or not an item will freeze well. If you can freeze it, you don’t have to worry about some going bad before it can be used up. Meat, fish and bread all freeze very well. Some vegetables like corn or green beans also do well, but others, especially those with high water content aren’t as ideal for freezing (think celery or tomatoes). In general, dairy products are better left refrigerated rather than frozen.
  • Make a plan, write it down and consider plan B. I touted the virtues of “the plan” the first week of the challenge and I do believe it’s a great strategy to shop with. When you’re deciding at home what to pick up at the store (use the contents of your cabinet, fridge and weekly ads as resources) think about potential substitutes in case a particular item you’ve placed on your list ends up being unavailable or too expensive.
  • Glance over the weekly ads before heading to the store. The longer I do this challenge, the less I build my grocery lists living and dying by sale prices, but they are worth consideration. Think about a few things to determine whether or not it’s worth it. How much are you saving over regular prices? Do you have to go further or to multiple places to get these savings? Are there acceptable substitutes that are cheaper?

What are your experiences finding the best prices when you shop? Do you think you have a rock-solid strategy or do you feel like you’re on shaky ground every time you have to make a plan? I’d love to hear  your thoughts and experiences!


  1. Have you ever tried Aldi? I often go there for staples like canned beans, dairy, and frozen items (peas, chicken breast, stuff like that). I've found them to be very similar to WalMart prices (if not a little bit cheaper) AND you get the added bonus of NOT SHOPPING AT WALMART. LOL! Thanks for doing the leg-work for this information, though. Definitely important to know.

  2. Yes, Aldi is another great alternative if people have it available where they live. And I completely agree with the added bonus of not being forced to pick Wal-Mart as your low-cost retailer of choice. There is obviously more choice in the marketplace than they would like you to believe.