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 produce prices since the Amazon buyout, but it’s still 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. But our price surveys always found it charges whole-paycheck prices; in 2016, when we last shopped area stores, Whole Foods’ prices were 46 percent higher than Wegmans, another area chain that consistently gets very high quality ratings.
Although Amazon spins up a lot of media attention each time it announces a (usually minor) price cut at Whole Foods, the chain remains the most expensive option among local chains and stores we shopped. But there has been some price movement: This time we found Whole Foods’ overall prices were about 18 percent higher than the all-store average, or 24 percent higher than Wegmans’.
According to our research, it appears that the slight narrowing of the big price gap between Whole Foods and its competitors comes from lower prices in its produce department. It still offers higher-than-average produce prices (about seven percent higher than the average prices at all the area stores we shopped), but so does Wegmans (produce prices five percent higher than average). And we found Whole Foods now offers lower produce prices than Safeway and Shoppers, which unlike Whole Foods get dreadful ratings for quality.
On the other hand, Whole Foods’ meat prices remain very expensive (50 percent higher than the all-store average). And we found the prices it charges for its “365” store brand and independent brands (Whole Foods sells few national-brand products) remain 31 percent more expensive than the least expensive options available at the other area stores we surveyed.
On the quality side, Whole Foods’ customers continue to rate it highly on our surveys—about the same as before the buyout.
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 just 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.
Wegmans continues to wow customers with high-quality products and service—without imposing a big price penalty.
Ever since it opened stores in the Washington area, in 2004, Wegmans has consistently earned very high ratings from its customers for quality while offering low prices. It continues to rank #1 for quality with our raters (an astonishing 94 percent rated it “superior” overall, and 92 percent rated its produce “superior”) and charges prices about seven percent lower than Giant’s, 14 percent lower than Safeway’s, and 19 percent lower than Whole Foods’. The Rochester, N.Y.-based chain has 10 Washington area stores and plans to add six more in the coming years using its slow-but-steady growth strategy.
The area’s price standouts were PriceRite, Walmart, SuperTarget, and Target, where many families could save $1,000 to $1,500 per year.
Compared to average prices at the stores Checkbook surveyed, prices were substantially lower at PriceRite (19 percent lower), Walmart (15 percent), SuperTarget (10 percent), and Target (nine percent). For a family that spends $200 per week at the supermarket, a 10 percent price difference totals $1,000 per year; a 15 percent price difference totals $1,500 per year.
We also found lower-than-average prices at Wegmans (five percent lower) and Food Lion (four percent lower).
Shoppers using PriceRite might have to shop at more than one store.
Although PriceRite wins for price, it offers fewer options than most other grocery stores: The location we shopped carried only 54 percent of the items in our market basket.
Safeway’s prices were considerably higher than the area’s other traditional supermarket chains’.
None of the conventional supermarkets ranked among the area’s lowest-cost chains. But Safeway’s prices averaged seven to eight percent higher than those at Giant, Harris Teeter, Shoppers, and Weis. Those four chains offered very similar pricing overall.
Giant, Safeway, Shoppers, Target, Walmart, and Weis receive low marks from their customers.
Walmart was rated “superior” overall by only 22 percent of its surveyed customers, Target by only 29 percent, Safeway by 30 percent, Giant by 39 percent, Weis by 41 percent, and Shoppers by 42 percent.
Harris Teeter, on the other hand, continues to receive above-average ratings for quality.
Harris Teeter’s prices were about the same as those at Giant, Shoppers, and Weis, but it fared much better on our customer surveys on quality. Harris Teeter received “superior” ratings for “overall quality” from 73 percent of its surveyed customers. It also received considerably higher scores than Giant, Safeway, and Shoppers for “quality of fresh produce,” “quality of meats,” “staff helpfulness/pleasantness,” and all other survey questions.
Low-cost grocery options continue to expand in the Washington area.
At the time of this writing, PriceRite operated three stores in the area, Walmart operated 16 locations with full grocery departments, Target about 30 locations that sell fresh groceries, and Wegmans operated 10 area stores.
Prices at the Walmart location in the District we surveyed were higher than at its suburban counterpart.
Prices at the Walmart we surveyed in the District were about six percent higher than at the suburban store we shopped.
Prices at surveyed Target and Safeway stores varied very little from location to location, and Target’s D.C. store offered prices that were about five percent higher than its surveyed suburban store—meaning you’ll pay about the same prices at a high-priced Target location as you would at a Giant store.
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 an average of about five percent.