Is Whole Foods Really More Expensive? And Other Grocery Store Findings…Posted by in Uncategorized
Does this sound familiar?… You make a stop by Whole Foods for something special that only they carry (such as tiny tube of sunscreen for $20) and then you realize that you need something else – black beans, granola bars, eggs or what have you. You think to yourself, “Ugh, I need these things, but I refuse to pay Whole Foods prices for stuff I know I can get cheaper somewhere else.” You have to make a big decision – do you A. only buy your tiny tube of sunscreen and drive to the cheaper store to get your other things while you’re child(ren) whine and beg to go home as you push yet another giant car cart around like you’re driving a unwieldy snowblower or do you B. suck it up, buy what you need at Whole Foods cuz you sure as hell aren’t going to drag the kids to one more store, yet feel guilty and shake your fist the entire way home knowing that Whole Foods “got” you yet again?
I find myself in this debacle quite often and the choice I make usually depends upon my mood, how much time I have before one of us needs to eat and the behavior of my child. Because my family tends to eat more organic, “healthy” stuff (don’t get me wrong, Pop Tarts are in our pantry as well), I find myself driving around like a courier, picking up one thing from one store, then on to the next, all the while having to logistically figure out how to not have all the food melt in the car (winters rule – I can go to three stores without going home in between!). I dream of a mall where there is a Whole Foods and a King Soopers. Okay, I’ll be honest, what I really dream about is having a Trader Joe’s here. But let’s not get off topic…
So, I wondered, “Is Whole Foods really more expensive?” It’s true that I often leave there $50 poorer and carrying only one bag of groceries, but could that be because they’re just more efficient at bagging?! And what about the other stores I go to… how do they measure up? The formulator and efficiency nut in my head woke up from their long winter’s slumber and we set out on a journey to find out if Whole Foods really did take us to the cleaners every time we shopped there and how the other stores compared. My goal was to find out vital information that would essentially make my life easier and help me eat organic and healthily without breaking the bank. Either Whole Foods was the devil and I would have the evidence or if it wasn’t… then what? Would that mean I could actually shop there without having a chip on my shoulder?
With pen and paper in hand, I started my mission and went down aisle after aisle after aisle and scribbled down the prices for items that my family commonly uses. Once I collected my data, I typed it all out in Excel and deliciously starting looking for patterns and who was cheapest and who was gouging and on what. I then tallied up what the exact same cart of groceries would cost at each place. Hitting the auto sum button was like Christmas morning to me. Since, I’m in Denver, Colorado, the stores I studied were Natural Grocers (Vitamin Cottage), Sunflower Market, King Soopers, Safeway (a branch of the CA store, Vons) and of course, Whole Foods (aka Whole Paycheck – a checker at Trader Joe’s told me that once). My findings are just a snapshot based on one day of price-checking. Had I gone another week, things may have turned out a little differently, but I think overall the patterns would’ve been the same.
So, drumroll please!…… Whole Foods is NOT the most expensive of those stores!! Who knew? The way the data broke down was that the cart of groceries was most expensive at Safeway ($172.10), next most expensive at Sunflower Market ($170.54), in the middle at Whole Foods ($166.31), second cheapest at King Soopers ($156.73) and cheapest at Natural Grocers ($153.88).
What I also found was that things weren’t so black and white – even though Natural Grocers and King Soopers came out on top as the cheapest, there are certain items that are actually cheaper at the more expensive stores (even Whole Foods)! Which makes me feel a bit crazy because if I really want the keep my budget in check, I am going to have to keep up my flitting around from store to store and also know what to get and what to avoid and where. If that sounds like insanity for you (and admittedly, it does to me too), then take solace in the fact that the difference between the most expensive groceries and the least expensive groceries is $18.22. If that doesn’t sound like a lot to you, then shop wherever you are called to shop, my friend! But if you want to know how each store breaks down and what to avoid and where, read on…
Natural Grocers (Vitamin Cottage) – I was shocked by this one. I thought for sure they would be in the middle or the most expensive. So much for researchers not having a bias. One of the items that is the cheapest by far at Natural Grocers is meat. They have a very very limited selection of it, but their organic, free range chicken breasts were $5.99 per pound vs. most other stores at $7.99-$8.99 per pound. They also had the best price on almonds, almond butter, and frozen blueberries. The downfall of Natural Grocers is just how limited their selection is. They barely have a produce section, so if you’re trying to put together a dinner and they don’t happen to have the produce you need, you’ll find yourself joining me in Courierville.
King Soopers – it came in a close second and personally, I don’t mind paying the $2.84 difference between it and Natural Grocers to have the selection of King Soopers. And, I can now stop laughing at how hilarious it is for a store to call itself the King (and misspell and misuse the word “super”) because, well, it really is the King and it really is sooper super. What I like about King Soopers is that it offers good prices across the board. So, that’s where I’m going to be doing my basic shopping. I also like that King Soopers seems to stock more organic items and natural brands as well as having some items under their own organic brand (Private Selection). At King Soopers, they have a wide selection of natural stuff and not-so-natural stuff (remember those Pop Tarts?), and their prices are just better – for example: Pelligrino is regularly $1.59 there, which beat out everyone else’s prices, even when on sale at the other places.
Whole Foods – what a pleasant surprise this was. What I found with Whole Foods is that they are steady and in the middle. Aside from their insanely cheap organic quinoa ($2.99 regular price while all other brands were over $4), they do not have many killer deals, but they also aren’t going to rake you across the coals – unless of course, you veer off into buying things that only they carry. I found that they have a pretty solid, comparable price with things that you can get at regular grocery stores (many times the same price as other stores and never more than 75 cents more), but once you go for one of their local, handmade salsas, for example, you’re in for it. Not to say that it’s not worth it – my favorite salsa is local and I get it a Whole Foods – but just know that that’s where Whole Foods goes from being average-priced to shaking you upside down and emptying your pockets. My budget-saving strategy in Whole Foods is to get what I came for and keep my head down – don’t be lured by the chalkboard signs and the way it feels like a bustling European market – head down and keep moving. The other aspect of Whole Foods that can have you hemorrhaging money is their produce. They were more expensive in this area across the board. And, they carry lots of organic produce (which is great for people who choose to eat organic and can afford to), but if you want to save some pennies and pick up an avocado while you’re there, you’re gonna have to shell out $2 – for one avocado (and it wasn’t even an organic one). It can be a dangerous trap to find yourself at Whole Foods quickly coming up with a dinner plan and needing, for example, a tomato, basil and avocado and then you finding yourself paying top dollar for all of those things just because you’re getting them at Whole Foods. On the upside, Whole Foods has a huge selection of organic produce (and other food), so if you are a strict organic eater, you will most-likely find what you need there (whereas you may not at mainstream grocery stores).
Sunflower Market – this one has me stumped. I always thought they were the cheapest, after all, their (weird) motto is “Serious food, silly prices,” but now when I read that again, I see that they are right – their prices are silly (not necessarily low). Sunflower Market is a great place to get produce, especially on Wednesdays when they have double savings (the sales from the last week overlap with sales from the upcoming week). They have a bit of organic produce and the prices are okay, but where Sunflower shines is with its cheap conventional produce and sales. Where Sunflower Market doesn’t shine is basically everywhere else except coffee ($8.99 per pound organic and fair trade!). Sunflower Market had the most sale items, yet in some cases, their sale price was more expensive than another store’s regular price. That is pretty silly! For example: Annie’s Cowgirl Ranch Dressing at Sunflower Market on sale is $3.59 but regular price at Whole Food’s it’s $2.99. And whatever you do, do not buy Horizon String Cheese here because it’s $6.99 and only $4.99 at Whole Foods and King Soopers (that’s the biggest price difference spread out of all of these items). The items that were the cheapest at Sunflower Market were cage free eggs, canned black beans and Luna bars when they caught on sale.
Safeway – this one is actually not a shocker to me. When I moved to Denver, a friend told me that she had noticed that Safeway was always more expensive than King Soopers. Apparently, Safeway is starting to be aware of this because as I was price-checking there, I saw lots of tags that said, “New lower prices!” Problem is, they still aren’t quite low enough to get me to shop there regularly. What did get me to shop there regularly was their own line of organic food – O Organics. There are some items they carry in this brand that are cheaper than Whole Foods and other natural brands but it appears that overall, Safeway is more expensive across the board. I have also found that Safeway has a limited selection of organic and natural foods (which could be because the one near me is smaller). There were a handful of items that every other store carried except for Safeway, such as Udi’s Gluten Free Bread, Seventh Generation Diapers and Lara Bars. The two items that were actually cheapest at Safeway were both sale items: bananas and Rudi’s Organic Bread.
My goal of this self-imposed research project was to make my life easier – to know where I should be going and also avoiding so that I can hopefully have less places to go to or, if I do have to keep driving around to different stores for different items, at least I’ll know it’s worth it and that it’s really stretching my food dollar (Airplane! quote alert!) And even though there is a lot of data here, what I am taking away from this is that when I’m torn between King Soopers and Safeway, I will choose King Soopers. When I am at Whole Foods and realize I need Cheddar Bunnies, I will just buy them and let myself of the hook. When I am at Sunflower Market, getting great deals on produce and coffee, I will think twice about getting other things – even if they’re on sale. I will remember that things are a bit silly there. When I get a hankering for some meat, I will stop by Natural Grocers, grab some chicken breasts and pick up some almonds or almond butter for my vegetarian husband and son. And, I will try to avoid Safeway, even though it’s my closest grocery store (shaking fist).
You may have gleaned something completely different from this, such as, “Wow, Brandy sure is odd – how could someone spend this much energy on grocery pricing?!” and you may be right. But, as my website, writing and work conveys, my passion really is helping supporting other moms (and really, everyone – myself included) so that they/we can breathe a little easier, feel a bit empowered, not have to make just one more stop and to know that they aren’t the only ones hauling their kids to the next store just on the sheer principle that one avocado should not cost two dollars.
* ETA: I just got back from shopping at King Soopers and to my surprise, their avocados were also $2! Two lessons here: one is that once again, Whole Foods and King Soopers have comparable prices and two is that I am no longer in California where avocados are dirt cheap (or close to it).