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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—

The area’s price winners were Walmart and WinCo.

Compared to average prices found at Albertsons, QFC, Safeway, and Fred Meyer (which we refer to here as the “big-chain average”), prices were substantially lower at Walmart (17 to 19 percent lower than the big-chain average) and WinCo (16 percent lower). For a family that spends $200 per week at the supermarket, a 16 to 19 percent price difference could total from $1,660 to $1,975 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 six percent lower than QFC’s average prices and nine percent lower than Albertsons’ and Safeway’s. A nine percent difference could save a family that would otherwise spend $200 per week at Albertsons or Safeway more than $900 per year by shopping at Fred Meyer.

Haggen, Target, and Thriftway also offer low prices.

Target’s and Haggen’s prices were both about six percent lower than the big-chain average. The store we surveyed for the Thriftway brand offered prices that were about seven percent lower than the big-chain average. At the time of this writing, Haggen’s future was in question: It had recently filed for bankruptcy and planned to close 100 locations in Arizona, California, and Nevada.

Albertsons’ and Safeway’s prices were the highest among the area’s four largest chains.

Prices at surveyed Albertsons and Safeway stores, which in the Puget Sound area are now owned by the same company, were about three percent higher than those at QFC. This is a reversal from all of our previous price surveys, when QFC offered the highest prices of the big chains.

Within the largest chains, there is relatively little store-to-store price variation.

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

Among the big four chains, QFC received the highest overall ratings and Albertsons and Safeway the lowest. On our “overall quality” question, 63 percent of QFC’s customers rated it “superior,” compared to 60 percent for Fred Meyer and 47 percent for both Albertsons and Safeway. WinCo was rated “superior” overall by 57 percent of its surveyed customers.

Walmart ranks last for overall quality.

Only 31 percent of Walmart’s surveyed customers rated it “superior” overall.

The highest-rated outlets are all small operators.

Ballard Market, Central Market, Metropolitan Market, and PCC Natural Markets were all rated “superior” for produce quality and for overall quality by more than 85 percent of their surveyed customers.

Unfortunately, the stores that rate highest for quality charge high prices.

The four businesses rated highest overall each had prices that were at least 20 percent higher than the big-chain average.

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

Whole Foods’ prices were 48 percent higher than the big-chain average, and PCC’s were 66 percent higher—for the limited number of comparable items available at each chain. On the other hand, both PCC and Whole Foods consistently receive 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.

When we last 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 “Buying Organic Food” at for more advice and information.

Trader Joe’s received higher overall ratings than any of the big chains, yet its prices were about the same as the big-chain average.

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.)

How Do Trader Joe’s Prices Compare?

The graph below shows how much more expensive or less expensive Trader Joe’s prices were compared to average prices of comparable items at Albertsons, Fred Meyer, QFC, and Safeway.

The figure above shows the results of these comparisons:

  • Trader Joe’s prices were about seven percent higher than Fred Meyer’s, about the same as QFC’s prices, and about two percent lower than Albertsons’ and Safeway’s.
  • For produce, Trader Joe’s prices for the items it carried were about 11 percent lower than the big-chain average.
  • For meat, Trader Joe’s prices were about nine percent higher than the big-chain average.

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

Trader Joe’s had only 43 percent of the items in our market basket 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 at the big chains, 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), membership warehouse stores offered king-sized savings.

Costco, for example, beat QFC’s prices by a whopping 31 percent. At Sam’s Club, the savings were about 29 percent. As the figure below indicates, the warehouse clubs offered significant savings compared to even the lowest-priced stores, but these savings perhaps aren’t enough to justify paying the clubs’ annual membership fees if you don’t use them often.

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 Albertsons or Safeway, you could save about 15 percent compared with shopping at an Albertsons or Safeway alone.

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