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Supermarkets - Key Findings from Our Surveys (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—

The area’s price standouts were Walmart Supercenter and WinCo.

Compared to the Albertsons, QFC, Safeway, and Fred Meyer average (which we refer to here as the big-chain average), prices were substantially lower at Walmart Supercenter (22 percent lower than the big-chain average), WinCo (21 percent), and Walmart Neighborhood Market (17 percent). For a family that spends $150 per week at the supermarket, a 17 to 22 percent price difference could total from $1,326 to $1,716 a year.

Among the area’s four largest chains—Albertsons, Fred Meyer, QFC, and Safeway—Fred Meyer was the clear price winner.

Fred Meyer’s prices for our full market basket were 12 to 16 percent lower than QFC’s prices, nine to 12 percent lower than the prices at Albertsons, and 10 to 11 percent lower than Safeway’s. A 15 percent difference could save a family that would otherwise spend $150 per week at QFC about $1,170 per year by shopping at Fred Meyer.

QFC’s prices were the highest among the area’s four largest chains.

QFC’s prices were about two percent to six percent higher than the average prices at Albertsons and Safeway. Within-chain store-to-store price differences were for the most part small for each of the big chains.

Prices at Target, which offers a basic selection of groceries, were about nine percent lower than the big-chain average.

On the quality side, Albertsons, Safeway, and Walmart rated near the bottom for “quality of fresh produce,” “quality of meats,” and “overall quality.”

Among the big four chains, QFC and Fred Meyer received the highest overall ratings, Albertsons the lowest. On our “overall quality” question, 60 percent of QFC’s customers rated it “superior,” compared to 57 percent for Fred Meyer, 47 percent for Safeway, and 42 percent for Albertsons.

Small operators scored highest for overall quality.

Ballard Market was rated “superior” overall by 96 percent of its surveyed customers, Central Market by 94 percent, Haggen by 93 percent, Metropolitan Market by 92 percent, and PCC by 90 percent.

Unfortunately, prices were among the highest at stores that scored highest for overall quality.

Ballard Market’s prices were 17 percent higher than the big-chain average, Central Market’s 18 percent, Metropolitan Market’s 26 percent, and PCC’s 58 percent.

PCC Natural Markets and Whole Foods Market had the highest prices.

Whole Foods’ prices were 54 percent higher than the big-chain average, and PCC’s were 58 percent higher—for the limited number of comparable items available at each chain. On the other hand, both PCC and Whole Foods consistently receive very high scores on quality of fresh produce and meat, which account for many of the items we could compare between other supermarkets and PCC and Whole Foods.

In our last price survey, when we examined the prices of organic food, we found that PCC’s and Whole Foods’ prices for organic food were about the same as the average prices at other stores in the area. See our article Buying Organic Food for more advice and information.

Trader Joe’s overall ratings were considerably higher than the ratings of any of the big chains, yet its prices aren’t necessarily higher.

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
Albertsons (Federal Way) $100 $92 $90 $96 86%
Albertsons (Lynnwood) $103 $94 $101 $95 86%
Fred Meyer (Auburn) $91 $84 $97 $89 80%
Fred Meyer (Burien) $91 $85 $94 $85 84%
QFC (Renton) $108 $101 $111 $109 82%
QFC (Seattle) $104 $98 $104 $105 82%
Safeway (Kenmore) $102 $95 $102 $116 80%
Safeway (Kirkland) $101 $94 $104 $107 84%
Target $91 $87 $101 $121 61%
Trader Joe's $97 $97 $109 $107 26%
Walmart Neighborhood Market $83 $79 $86 $80 82%
Walmart Supercenter $78 $76 $77 $75 77%
WinCo $79 $76 $84 $69 83%
*Price comparison scores compare stores’ prices to the average prices found at surveyed Albertsons, Fred Meyer, QFC, and Safeway stores.

  • Trader Joe’s prices for our market basket of produce, meat, dairy, and branded products were about three percent lower than the big-chain average if we assumed that the comparison of Trader Joe’s branded products was to comparable national-brand items at the other chains. The Trader Joe’s prices were roughly six percent higher than Fred Meyer’s prices and eight percent lower than QFC’s prices on such a comparison.
  • When we compared Trader Joe’s prices to the big-chain average assuming a shopper would buy at a conventional supermarket the cheapest brand (or generic brand) comparable to each branded item in our market basket, Trader Joe’s price advantage disappeared against Albertson’s and Safeway and almost disappeared against QFC. (Keep in mind that this second comparison doesn’t take into account product quality, and Trader Joe’s received higher overall ratings from its customers than Albertson’s, QFC, or Safeway.)
  • For produce, Trader Joe’s prices for the items it carried were about seven percent higher than the big-chain average.
  • For meat, Trader Joe’s prices were nine percent higher than the big-chain average.

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

The Trader Joe’s store we surveyed had only 26 percent of the items in our market basket in stock; Target had only 61 percent of the items in stock.

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 seven percent, on average, at the big chains.

For the items that could be compared based on unit prices, warehouse stores offered dramatic savings.

Sam’s Club, for example, beat QFC by a whopping 34 percent; and compared to QFC, the savings were about 30 percent at Costco.

Since you can’t typically find everything you need at a warehouse store, we looked at the savings you could gain by shopping at both a warehouse store and at 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 a QFC, you could save about 15 percent compared with shopping at QFC alone.

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