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 154-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 appears to have lowered its prices since the Amazon buyout, but it remains one of the area’s most expensive grocery chains.
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 quite there, yet.
Whole Foods built a loyal following by offering high-quality produce, meat, prepared foods, and off-brand 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 it charges whole-paycheck prices; in 2016, when we last shopped area stores, Whole Foods’ prices were 57 percent higher than Fred Meyer’s and 44 percent higher than Safeway, and 21 to 23 higher than Ballard Market, Central Market, and Metropolitan Market, three other area grocery options that consistently get 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, the chain remains among the most expensive options among local chains and stores we shopped. But there has been some price movement: This time we found its overall prices were about 32 percent higher than Fred Meyer’s, 14 percent higher than Safeway’s, and roughly the same as or just a bit higher than at Ballard, Central, and Metropolitan.
Looking at just produce, Whole Foods’ prices were actually much lower than Ballard’s, Central’s, and Metropolitan’s, and were only three percent higher than QFC’s, which gets lower quality ratings than Whole Foods for that department.
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 save most shoppers much money.
Amazon likely isn’t done making changes at Whole Foods. We’ll continue to check in.
Grocery Outlet, Walmart, and WinCo were the price winners—where many families could save more than $2,000 per year.
WinCo’s prices were about 27 percent lower than the average prices we found at all surveyed stores. Grocery Outlet, which offers a somewhat odd assortment of steeply discounted surplus national-brand products, offered prices that were about 26 percent lower than the average. Walmart was the other big saver, with prices 20 percent lower than average.
For a family that spends $200 per week at the supermarket, a 20 to 27 percent price difference could total savings of $2,080 to more than $2,800 a year.
Shoppers using Grocery Outlet will have to shop at more than one place.
Although Grocery Outlet wins for price, it offers few options compared to other grocery stores: The location we shopped carried less than one-fourth of the items in our market basket.
Fred Meyer was the next-best bet for low grocery prices in the Puget Sound area.
Its prices were about 10 percent lower than average.
Three of the area’s largest chains—Albertsons, QFC, and Safeway—offered higher-than-average prices.
Albertsons’ and Safeway’s prices averaged four percent higher than the other chains and stores we surveyed, and QFC’s prices were about six percent higher than the all-store average.
Target stores charge high prices for produce.
Overall, prices at the Target store we shopped were about four percent lower than average. But its produce prices were nine percent higher than average. In general, we found that Target stores around the U.S. that 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.)
On the quality side, Albertsons, Grocery Outlet, Safeway, Walmart, and WinCo rated low for “quality of fresh produce,” “quality of meats,” and “overall quality.” Walmart ranked last.
Among the largest grocery chains, QFC and Fred Meyer received the highest overall ratings on our surveys of local consumers and Albertsons and Safeway the lowest. On our “overall quality” question, QFC and Fred Meyer were each rated “superior” by 64 percent of their surveyed customers, compared to only 27 percent for Walmart, 43 percent for Safeway, 46 percent for Albertsons, 48 percent for Grocery Outlet, and 55 percent for WinCo.
The highest-rated outlets are all small operators.
Central Market, Metropolitan Market, and PCC Natural Markets were all rated “superior” for produce quality and for overall quality by more than 80 percent of their surveyed customers.
Unfortunately, the stores that rate highest for quality charge high prices.
The three businesses rated highest overall each had prices that were at least 15 percent higher than the all-store average.
Within the largest chains, there is relatively little store-to-store price variation.
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.