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—especially its produce prices—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 there quite 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 49 percent higher than Cub’s and 55 percent higher than Hy-Vee’s, 24 percent higher than Lunds & Byerlys, and 20 percent higher than Kowalski’s, three chains that also 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 11 percent higher than Cub’s and Hy-Vee’s, six percent lower than Lunds & Byerlys, and eight percent lower than Kowalski’s.
According to our research, it appears that the slight narrowing of the big price gap between Whole Foods’ and it competitors is due to lower prices in its produce department. Its produce prices are now about the same as the average prices we found at all the area stores we shopped. And we found Whole Foods now offers lower produce prices than Cub, Festival Foods, Hy-Vee, Jerry’s Foods, Kowalski’s, Lunds & Byerlys, Rainbow, and regular Target stores. Unlike Whole Foods, Cub, Rainbow, and Target get dreadful ratings for their produce quality.
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.
New-grocers-on-the-block Hy-Vee and Fresh Thyme are big hits.
Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, 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 offers few national-brand products, but its prices are decidedly different: In our survey of area stores, Fresh Thyme’s prices were lower than all others—about 22 percent lower than the average prices we found at all surveyed stores, with produce prices a stunning 42 percent lower than average. And it’s the only area chain where you can have it all: Along with its low prices, in our surveys of area consumers it was rated favorably for the quality of its produce, the quality of its meat, and overall.
Hy-Vee has also become a fan favorite. The Iowa-based chain, which a few years ago opened three stores in the Twin Cities area, so far has impressed all of its customers we’ve surveyed: 100 percent rated it “superior” overall, and it also gets favorable ratings for produce quality. We found its prices, while far from the lowest among area chains, are nonetheless about the same as Cub’s, which gets low ratings from its customers.
The area’s price prizewinners were Fresh Thyme, Walmart, and SuperTarget.
Fresh Thyme’s prices averaged about 22 percent lower than the average for all surveyed area stores. Walmart’s prices were 18 percent lower. And SuperTarget’s were 14 percent lower. For a family that spends $200 per week at the supermarket, a 14 to 22 percent price difference could total $1,450 to $2,300 a year.
Regular Target stores charge high prices for produce.
Produce prices at the SuperTarget store we shopped were 24 percent lower than average, but produce prices at the regular Target we surveyed were 22 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.)
Cub, Target, and Walmart received low ratings for quality.
On the quality side, Walmart was rated “superior” for “overall quality” by only 28 percent of its surveyed customers and Cub and Target each by only 41 percent.
Lunds & Byerlys, Kowalski’s, and a few small markets received very high ratings from their customers for “quality of fresh produce,” “quality of meats,” and “overall quality.”
Lunds & Byerlys and Kowalski’s Markets were rated “superior” on all three of these key survey questions by more than 80 percent of their surveyed customers.
Unfortunately, Lunds & Byerlys’ prices were about 14 percent higher than average and Kowalski’s prices were about 16 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 four percent.