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Supermarkets - Key Findings from Our Surveys (Fall 2015/Winter 2016)
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Our price comparisons and ratings of stores for quality show the results of our price shopping and our most recent surveys of consumers on supermarket quality and service. Here are the key findings—

Walmart, WinCo, FoodsCo, Foodmaxx, and Target were the price winners—where many families could save $1,250 to $2,500 per year.

Walmart’s and WinCo’s prices each averaged 24 percent lower than prices at surveyed Lucky and Safeway stores. Prices at FoodsCo were about 17 percent lower than prices at Lucky and Safeway. Target’s and FoodMaxx’s prices were each about 12 percent lower than Lucky’s and Safeway’s. For a family that spends $200 per week at the supermarket, a 12 to 24 percent price difference could total $1,250 to $2,500 a year.

The Bay Area has more low-priced supermarket options than ever.

For many years, shoppers in the Bay Area had very few low-priced supermarket options. Although price leader WinCo’s stores are not conveniently located for most Bay Area shoppers (at the time of this writing, its only stores were in Brentwood, Pittsburg, and Vacaville), most area shoppers live or work near at least one low-cost supermarket option: Walmart operates more than 20 area stores that sell groceries; FoodsCo operates six area stores, including two in San Francisco; FoodMaxx has more than 20 area stores; and there are more than 40 Target stores that sell fresh groceries.

On average, Lucky’s and Safeway’s prices were about the same.

Within the Lucky and Safeway chains, we found little store-to-store price variation.

The largest chains and the low-priced options receive relatively low ratings for quality.

On the quality side, Lucky and Safeway rated toward the bottom of the list for “quality of fresh produce,” “quality of meats,” and “overall quality,” but so did their much-lower-priced competitors. (While we received too few ratings for Target to report scores, it also received low scores in the other metro areas where CHECKBOOK is published.)

Prices at the area chains rated highest for “quality of fresh produce,” “quality of meats,” and “overall quality”—including Andronico’s, Berkeley Bowl, Draeger’s, Lunardi’s, and Piazza’s Fine Foods—were substantially higher than prices at Lucky and Safeway.

A few chains deliver higher quality than Lucky and Safeway while offering about the same prices.

Prices at Raley’s and Nob Hill were about the same as those at Lucky and Safeway, but Raley’s and Nob Hill scored much better than the two largest chains on our surveys of customers on quality.

Sprouts Farmers Market offers very low produce prices.

Looking at just produce prices, Sprouts’ prices were 38 percent lower than the Lucky/Safeway average, while earning far higher marks from its surveyed customers than the big chains for produce quality.

Some highly rated chains—in particular, Berkeley Bowl and United Markets—that rated high for fresh produce quality and had relatively high prices for our entire market basket had relatively low fresh produce prices.

While Berkeley Bowl’s overall prices were about 14 percent higher than the Lucky/Safeway average, its prices for fresh produce alone were about 32 percent lower than the Lucky/Safeway average. And its scores for “quality of fresh produce” from our customer survey were among the highest. Similarly, United Markets had relatively low prices for fresh produce and received high ratings for produce quality. So if fresh produce comprises a high portion of your supermarket purchases, and one of these small chain stores is convenient, consider them as a way to do well for both quality and price.

Trader Joe’s received higher overall ratings than Lucky and Safeway, yet charges lower prices.

Since the market basket we used for our price survey is largely made up of national-brand products, and since Trader Joe’s offers mainly its own brands, we couldn’t include it in our full standard price survey. Instead, we shopped Trader Joe’s using a special survey that included the same fresh produce, meats, and dairy items included in our standard survey, comparing the national-brand items on our list with the prices of Trader Joe’s store brands. (When comparing prices, we used per-unit pricing—for example, price per ounce.)

The figure above shows the results of these comparisons:

  • Trader Joe’s prices were about 14 percent lower than the Lucky/Safeway average.
  • For produce, Trader Joe’s prices for the items it carried were about 16 percent lower than the Lucky/Safeway average.
  • For meat, Trader Joe’s prices were about four percent lower than the Lucky/Safeway average.

Unfortunately, many Trader Joe’s shoppers will also have to shop at conventional supermarkets.

Trader Joe’s had only 37 percent of the items in our market basket in stock.

Whole Foods Market had the highest prices.

Whole Foods’ prices were 33 percent higher than the average of prices at Lucky and Safeway—for the limited number of comparable items we could find at each chain. On the other hand, Whole Foods consistently receives high scores on quality of fresh produce and meat, which comprised many of the items we could compare between Whole Foods and the other chains.

When we last examined prices of organic food, Whole Foods’ prices for organic items were about nine percent higher than average. See “Buying Organic Food” at for more advice and information.

You can save by substituting store brands and generic products for national brands.

When we substituted cheaper generic and store brands for about one-sixth of the items in our price-shopping market basket at Lucky and Safeway, the total cost of the full market basket dropped by about five percent.

For the items that could be compared based on unit prices (price per pound, for example), warehouse stores offered king-sized savings.

Costco, for example, beat the Lucky/Safeway average by a whopping 35 percent. At Sam’s Club, the savings were about 33 percent. Smart & Final’s prices were about 21 percent lower than the Lucky/Safeway average. As the figure below indicates, Costco and Sam’s Club offered significant savings compared to even the lowest-priced stores, but these savings perhaps aren’t enough to justify Costco’s and Sam’s Club’s annual membership fees if you don’t use them often. While Smart & Final doesn’t charge an annual fee, its prices were actually higher than those at Walmart and WinCo.

How Much You Can Save at Warehouse Stores

The graphs below show how much less expensive prices at the warehouse stores were compared to the listed supermarkets. For these comparisons, we shopped all stores to calculate the least expensive way to buy each item in our market basket, per unit, regardless of item size.

Since you can’t typically get everything you need at a warehouse store, we looked at the potential savings of shopping at both a warehouse store and a supermarket, assuming you would purchase the lowest-cost size available at either place. We found, for example, that by including Costco on your shopping schedule along with Safeway, you could save about 19 percent compared with shopping at Safeway alone.

In addition to having low prices, Costco received much higher ratings than Lucky or Safeway from surveyed customers for the quality of its fresh meats and produce.

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