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Supermarkets - How We Rated the Stores (Fall 2013/Winter 2014)
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Our price comparisons and ratings of stores for quality show the results of our market-basket price survey and our most recent surveys of consumers on supermarket quality and service. Here are some key findings—

WinCo, Walmart, Target, and FoodMaxx were the price standouts—where many families could save $1,000 to $2,000 per year.

WinCo prices averaged 25 percent lower than prices at surveyed Lucky and Safeway stores. Prices at both Walmart Supercenter and Walmart Neighborhood Market were more than 20 percent lower than prices at Lucky and Safeway. Target’s and FoodMaxx’s prices were also substantially lower than Lucky’s and Safeway’s. For a family that spends $150 per week at the supermarket, a 15 to 25 percent price difference could total $1,000 to $2,000 a year.

Most Bay Area shoppers have at least one nearby low-cost supermarket option.

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. But most area shoppers live or work near at least one low-cost supermarket option: Walmart operates four stores that sell groceries in the South Bay and two in the East Bay; more than 30 Targets throughout the area offer a basic selection of groceries; and FoodMaxx has more than 20 locations in the East Bay, North Bay, and South Bay.

On average, Safeway’s prices were slightly—only about two percent—lower than Lucky’s.

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,” as did their much-lower-priced competitors FoodMaxx, Walmart, and WinCo. (While we received too few ratings for Target to report scores, it also receives 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.

Prices at Raley’s and Nob Hill were about three percent higher than prices at Lucky and Safeway, but Raley’s and Nob Hill scored much better than the two largest chains on our customer survey.

Trader Joe’s received higher overall quality ratings than Lucky and Safeway, and has considerably lower prices.

Since the market basket used for our price survey largely consists of national brands, and since Trader Joe’s offers mainly its own brands, it is not included in our price comparisons. Instead, we shopped Trader Joe’s using a special survey that included the same fresh produce, meats, and dairy items included in our full standard survey. For the national-brand items on our list, we first compared the prices of Trader Joe’s house brands to the prices charged by the conventional supermarkets for comparable national-brand items. Then, for a second comparison, we compared Trader Joe’s prices for its house-branded products to prices charged by other supermarkets for the least expensive comparable item of any brand (including generic brands) they carried. (When comparing prices, we used per-unit pricing—for example, price per ounce.)

The table below shows the results of these comparisons.

How Do Trader Joe's Prices Compare?*
Price comparison score using our standard market basket of items, including national brands, comparing similar items at Trader Joe's Price comparison score using our standard market basket of items, comparing similar items at all stores, regardless of brand Price comparison score for meat only Price comparison score for produce only Variety--percent of items available, counting similar items at all stores
FoodMaxx$85 $80 $92 $62 75%
Lucky (El Cerrito)$100 $94 $93 $100 83%
Lucky (San Jose)$102 $95 $101 $103 80%
Safeway (Oakland)$99 $94 $105 $95 84%
Safeway (San Francisco)$99 $92 $100 $102 84%
Target$84 $82 $94 $101 59%
Trader Joe's$88 $88 $101 $93 30%
Walmart Neighborhood Market$77 $74 $82 $71 80%
Walmart Supercenter$78 $75 $86 $68 70%
WinCo $75 $71 $83 $59 78%
* Price comparison scores compare stores’ prices to the average prices found at surveyed Lucky and Safeway stores.

  • Trader Joe’s prices were about 12 percent lower than the average for the comparable market basket of produce, meat, dairy, and branded products at Lucky and Safeway, assuming national-brand products were purchased at Lucky and Safeway.
  • When we compared Trader Joe’s prices to the Lucky/Safeway average assuming a shopper would buy at Lucky or Safeway the cheapest brand (or generic brand) comparable to each branded item in our market basket, Trader Joe’s price advantage narrowed, but its prices were still six percent lower than the Lucky/Safeway average. (Keep in mind, however, that this second comparison doesn’t take into account product quality, and Trader Joe’s received higher overall ratings from its customers than Lucky or Safeway.)
  • For produce, Trader Joe’s prices for the items it carried were about seven percent lower than the Lucky/Safeway average.
  • For meat, Trader Joe’s prices were about the same as the Lucky/Safeway average.
  • Shopping at Trader Joe’s costs more than shopping at a low-cost chain. For example, Trader Joe’s prices were about three percent higher than FoodMaxx’s for our full standard market basket even assuming national-brand items would be purchased at FoodMaxx.

Many Target and Trader Joe’s shoppers will also have to visit conventional supermarkets.

The Target we surveyed carried only 59 percent of the items in our market basket in stock, and the Trader Joe’s carried only 30 percent of the items.

Some chains—in particular, Berkeley Bowl, Lunardi’s, 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 11 percent higher than the Lucky/Safeway average, its prices for fresh produce alone were about half the Lucky/Safeway average. And its scores for “quality of fresh produce” from our customer survey were among the highest. Similarly, Lunardi’s and 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.

Whole Foods Market had the highest prices.

Whole Foods’ prices were 30 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.

In our last price survey, when we examined prices of organic food, Whole Foods’ prices for organic items were about nine percent above average. See our article Buying Organic Food 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, the total cost dropped by about five to seven percent at Lucky and Safeway.

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

Sam’s Club, for example, beat Safeway by a whopping 35 percent. Compared to Safeway, the savings were about 28 percent at Costco and about 19 percent at Smart & Final (which charges no membership fee).

Since you can’t typically get everything you need at a warehouse store, we looked at the savings you might gain by shopping at both a warehouse store and at a supermarket, assuming you would purchase the cheapest size available at either place. We found, for example, that by visiting Costco along with Safeway, you could save about 12 percent compared with shopping at Safeway alone.

In addition to having low prices, Costco received higher-than-average ratings for the quality of its meats.

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