Which Grocery Stores Offer the Best Prices and Quality?
Last updated in September 2018
Our ratings of local chains and stores report how each stacks up for price and quality. To compare prices, our researchers used a 153-item market basket of common items—and a lot of energy—to shop area options. To evaluate stores on quality of products and service, we surveyed area consumers. The results are reported in our ratings tables and summarized below.
Whole Foods remains by far the area’s most expensive grocery chain.
When Amazon purchased Whole Foods last year, many consumers were excited by the prospect of paying Amazon-like prices for Whole Foods-quality products. But we’re not there quite yet.
Whole Foods built a loyal following by offering high-quality produce, meat, prepared foods, and generic staples, evidenced by the very high ratings it gets for the produce and meat quality questions in our surveys of grocery store customers. Whole Foods’ customers continue to rate it highly on our surveys for quality of fresh produce and meat—about the same as before the buyout.
But our price surveys always found Whole Foods charges whole-paycheck prices; in 2016, when we last shopped area stores, Whole Foods’ prices were a whopping 78 higher than Mariano’s, another area chain that consistently gets very high quality ratings.
Although Amazon successfully spins up a lot of media attention each time it announces a (usually minor) price cut at Whole Foods, it remains by far the most expensive option among chains and stores we shopped here. This time, we found its overall prices were about 42 percent higher than the all-store average, or 48 percent higher than Mariano’s—hardly a big improvement. And we found the prices it charges for its “365” store brand and independent brands (Whole Foods sells few national-brand products) remain more expensive than the least expensive options offered at the other chains and stores we surveyed in the Chicago area.
In the six other metro areas where we publish Checkbook, Whole Foods has begun to narrow the big price gap between it and many other large grocery chains, largely by lowering its produce prices. But as long as many low-cost grocery options exist in the Chicago area, it will be difficult for Whole Foods to compete on price without making big changes.
One reason Amazon bought Whole Foods was to obtain its grocery distribution network, and Amazon continues to expand its grocery delivery business. Click here for our report on grocery delivery services.
Whole Foods’ Amazon Prime discounts don’t yet add up to much.
Like most grocery stores, Whole Foods uses “loss leaders”—widely advertised discounts on a small number of items—to draw customers into stores (when calculating our price comparison scores, we use these sale prices). But there’s a new twist: Amazon Prime members who provide their phone numbers at checkout automatically receive further discounts (they can also scan coupons available on Amazon’s smartphone app). Prime members get an extra 10 percent off items already on sale at Whole Foods, plus special Prime-only discounts on a handful of other weekly special items.
While these perks sound great, we found that so far they aren’t worth much. Compared to most other grocery stores, Whole Foods runs very few sales (the store we checked the week we wrote this only had 23 items on sale) and offered only five Prime-only specials. Sometimes its Prime-only deals are designed to garner a lot of attention: For Valentine’s Day, it hyped that Prime members could buy two dozen roses for $19.99, instead of $24.99. But because Whole Foods and Amazon offer so few of these discounts, they won’t add up to save most shoppers much money.
Amazon likely isn’t done making changes at Whole Foods. We’ll continue to check in.
The area’s price winners were Walmart and Woodman’s.
Compared to average prices at all surveyed stores, prices were 15 percent lower at Woodman’s and eight to nine percent lower at Walmart. For a family that spends $200 per week at the supermarket, this eight to 15 percent price difference could save $800 to more than $1,500 a year.
Mariano’s and Woodman’s impress with high ratings for quality and low prices.
Mariano’s, which took over several Dominick’s stores when it closed down, now has more than 30 local outlets. It received high ratings from its customers for quality of meat, quality of produce, and overall quality—and offered prices about four percent lower than the all-store average. And Mariano’s produce prices were on average about nine percent lower than the all-store average.
Woodman’s doesn’t receive top scores for the quality of its produce or meat, but does receive very high ratings for our survey question on “overall quality”—and, as we mention above, offers the lowest prices among area chains.
Fresh Thyme Farmers Market also offers high-quality products without charging a big price penalty.
New-grocer-on-the-block Fresh Thyme, a chain founded in 2012 that describes itself as “offering fresh and healthy food at amazing values” has expanded into the area with seven locations. Like Whole Foods, it received very high ratings for the quality of its produce and overall, but without a huge price penalty. In our survey, its overall prices were about seven percent higher than the all-store average, and its produce prices were about the same as average.
Jewel-Osco’s prices were higher than most other traditional supermarkets’.
The chain that operates the most grocery stores in the area charges higher prices than most of its competition. Jewel-Osco’s prices were about five percent higher than Butera’s, 10 percent higher than Food 4 Less’ and Mariano’s, eight percent higher than Meijer’s, three percent higher than Shop & Save’s, seven to eight percent higher than Target’s, 16 percent higher than Walmart’s, and 25 percent higher than Woodman’s.
A crowded supermarket scene results in low prices for area shoppers.
Unlike in most major U.S. metropolitan areas, a lot of companies operate grocery stores in the Chicago area. That competition drives down prices: The price differences between the low-cost chains and high-cost chains in this area are a lot smaller here than in the six other regions where we publish Checkbook. In other words, stores here that offer middle-of-the-road pricing would be price winners in other markets.
Meijer is no longer a big price winner.
When we last compared prices of local grocery stores, Meijer’s prices were nearly as low as Woodman’s. This time, its prices were just two percent lower than the all-store average.
Prices at surveyed Target stores were only one or two percent lower than the all-store average.
The regular Target store we shopped also charged very high prices for produce: 49 percent higher than average, making it one of the area’s most expensive outlets for fruit and veggies. In general, we found that regular Target stores around the U.S.—which lack scales at checkout and therefore price produce per piece or package—offer undersized items relative to their price tags. (At Target and other stores that price produce per piece, we used our own scales to weigh items to convert costs to price per pound.)
There are big quality differences.
Butera Market, Food 4 Less, Garden Fresh Market, Jewel-Osco, Target, and Walmart received low ratings from their surveyed customers for “quality of fresh produce,” “quality of meats,” and “overall quality.” Walmart earned the lowest overall ratings: Only 28 percent of its surveyed customers rated it “superior” overall.
On the other hand, Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, Mariano’s, Sunset Foods, Walt’s Food Center, and Woodman’s each received “superior” overall ratings from more than 80 percent of its surveyed customers.
Among the largest chains, Meijer received fairly high customer ratings.
Although not stellar, Meijer’s quality ratings were considerably higher than Jewel-Osco’s, Target’s, and Walmart’s.
Caputo’s Fresh Markets, Fairplay Foods, and Pete’s Fresh Market got higher-than-average marks from customers for produce quality, while charging lower-than-average prices.
Sunset Foods, with five North Shore stores, received very high ratings for produce, meat, and overall quality, but Sunset’s prices were about 22 percent higher than average.
Its produce prices were the highest among stores we surveyed: 51 percent higher than average.
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 of the full market basket dropped by about five percent.