Friday, May 13, 2011

Are chain grocery stores cheaper than your local co-op?

This post was originally published on last year, before I started writing my weekly food column there.  

I was in the check out line of a name brand grocery store last year, when I overheard the woman
in front of me talking with the clerk about the newly opened PCC (natural foods co-op) in

"Have you been there yet?" asked the clerk.

"I can't shop there," said the woman, "its sooo expensive!"

I wanted to chime in, but thought better of it. If I thought the woman in the check-out line would have appreciated my point of view, I would have told her that PCC is not necessarily more expensive than other grocery stores, if you make a fair comparison.

A couple of years ago, the Seattle PI ran a story comparing the cost of purchasing a particular grocery list, at a number of different stores. PCC topped the list for price, by more than $100! But then I saw how they did their comparison:

"Each team had an identical list of products -- such as a 1-pound bag of carrots or a 26-ounce jar
of spaghetti sauce -- and instructions to note the cheapest price offered."

The Seattle PI authors argue that a carrot is a carrot is a carrot, no matter how, or where, it was
grown. I think it is safe to say that most environmentally and socially conscious shoppers would
disagree with the assertion that any jar of spaghetti sauce, or carrot, is "identical" to any other. In
fact, one of the shoppers in the study called one discount store "the place that food goes to die."

How useful is a price comparison between a wilted carrot at a discount store, with a fresh,
organically grown, carrot from a local farm? I don't think a headline that screamed, "Brown
shoes cost more at Nordstrom than Payless!" would stop the presses. Quality counts.

Reading the Seattle PI article, I began to wonder how a price comparison would look if equal
items were being compared. I wrote out a 17 item shopping list to use for my comparison,
including milk, eggs, meat, produce, and dry goods. My list included items that I commonly buy, with a focus on local and organic foods. Conventional (non-organic) items made it onto the list
too, if they were not included in the "Dirty Dozen."


I try to prioritize how I spend my grocery money, using thia basic principle:

If not homegrown, then locally produced
If not locally produced, then organic
If not organic, then family farm

Last summer, I read Omnivore's Dilemma (oh! the free time of a woman with no baby yet!),
and was motivated to research some of my food spending habits. I learned some very interesting
things, especially about animal products, that have helped me to be sure that my food dollars are
well spent. Here is a link to the blog post that I wrote about it.


To conduct my price comparison, I surveyed prices at four stores: PCC, Trader Joes, QFC,
and Fred Meyer. If an item was on sale, I priced it at the sale price. If an exact item was not
available, the closest item was priced instead (conventional broccoli was not sold at PCC, and
organic was substituted; Trader Joes and QFC did not sell local organic milk, so a national brand
of organic milk was priced).

The total for QFC was $76.70, including "member" sale prices, but no local milk, local free range
eggs, or organic meat was available. Most of the produce lacked origin labeling.

Trader Joes was $71.50, but vegetables had to be purchased pre-packaged, and no local milk or local
organic meat was available. Local items were not readily available.

Fred Meyer offered the best deal at $57.10, but didn't carry organic meats, and most of the produce was not local.

The total for PCC was $78.60...
...or $70.74 if I had used my monthly 10% off member coupon

The most interesting thing that I found in comparing all four stores was the price of meat. Only
PCC offered local organic beef, or specified clearly where the meat was produced. The organic chuck roast sold for $7.59 per pound, and the County Natural beef sold for $4.69, which was only twenty cents more per pound than the conventional beef sold at QFC and Fred Meyer, and cheaper than the beef sold at Trader Joes.

Another important note is regarding locally produced food. For shoppers who prefer locally
grown food, PCC has clear labeling on the origins of their products. Considering that some of
the benefit of organic foods is lost in a plume of exhaust, if it is shipped half way across the
country to get here, clear origin labeling it is important, if you want to know where your food
was grown and raised. Most of QFC's produce lacked any origin labeling at all.

If you don't consider all carrots created equal, and you are willing to compare (organic) apples to
(organic) apples, PCC comes out a winner.

1 comment:

Kate Kurtz said...

Awesome piece! These comparisons are so interesting.