Chicago Consumers' Checkbook magazine* did a price and quality comparison on all the major supermarkets in the Chicago area. The results may just confirm conventional shoppers' wisdom -- Whole Foods really does take your whole paycheck; Jewel and Dominick's are overpriced for the quality you get; Aldi is really, really cheap but kind of a pain; and Trader Joe's is not as cheap but totally worth it.
But there is a surprise in there too: What store you choose makes a bigger difference than we realized. If you shopped only at Woodman's -- the area's cheapest store, beating even Wal-Mart** -- you would spend $1,638 less every year than you would if you shopped at Jewel and Dominick's. That's the difference between a $70 weekly food budget and $100. If you shopped at Whole Foods only (buying comparable products), you would spend $4,290 more each year than shopping at Jewel and Dominick's! That's the difference between spending $182.50 each week or spending $100.
These comparisons are assuming you bought the same 151 items or something comparable at each store, and of course they're not taking into account the coupons and promotions we bargain hunters use. That's not even taking account the temptation to spend on the really nice stuff you'll find at Whole Foods that isn't carried at other stores, like high-end cheeses.
My practical take-aways from this report:
If you are not hitting sales hard and using coupons, you have no business shopping at Jewel-Osco and Dominick's. The only reason I shop these stores as a Frugalista is to take advantage of loss leaders and other good sales there.
You can save plenty without bothering with coupons and sales if you just pick a cheaper store. If you don't want to worry about coupons, choose Woodman's, Wal-Mart, Food4Less, Aldi or a warehouse store instead.
Warehouse stores do seem to be worth the membership fee -- but shopping there may not beat coupon shopping overall. Sam's Club beat Dominick's prices by 32 percent, and Costco beat Dom's by 21 percent. You probably can't expect to shave 20-30 percent off your entire shopping budget, though, because they just don't have every item you need. For comparison, I routinely save over 30 percent compared to regular prices at Dominick's, and often hit 40-50 percent when all promotions are included. Personally, I'd rather pursue 50 percent savings than settle for a reliable 20-30 percent, but then, I'm the Frugalista. Ordinary folks might like to lock in low overall prices at a warehouse club.
The stores that combine both high consumer satisfaction and low prices are Woodman's, Caputo's Fresh Markets and Walt's Food Center. (I have got to get myself over to Caputo's -- people are always telling me how great it is.) In fact, the report shows Woodman's as being 2 percent cheaper than Costco, with no membership fee, and they take coupons. This is why I shop at Woodman's every time we're in Kenosha!
* I joined Consumers' Checkbook for the online local business ratings, and the magazine comes free with the membership. So far I must admit finding it to be the world's boringest magazine -- and this is to someone who is more interested in saving money than almost anyone. But this package has got me hoping for more good, interesting stuff and will save future copies of the magazine from premature introduction to my recycle bin.
** This is especially good news if you are sensitive to labor issues, since Woodman's is worker-owned and Wal-Mart notoriously anti-union.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times