The Great Grocery Debate of 2013

Recently, my friend Westleigh made a life-changing discovery – not only does Trader Joes’s have Two Buck Chuck ($2.99 wine) but they also have the MOST DELICIOUS POPCORN THE WORLD WILL EVER KNOW.  It’s called “Trader Joe’s Movie Theater Popcorn”; it’s so good that you will try a handful and all of the sudden the entire bag will be gone.  It has just the right amount of salt and butter flavoring.  Even better it doesn’t get your fingers all sticky with cheese like Smart Food.  It tastes so fresh you will feel like you’re in the movie theather munching your way through the previews. Case in point, it’s really darn good!


I might start keeping a secret stash of the popcorn in my desk at work . . .

While stuffing our face’s with said popcorn, Westleigh and I had a lively discussion about which gorcery store was best to shop at and for what items. Picking at grocery store is not an easy feat, especially for novice shoppers like ourselves. As poor kids in our 20’s, our top priority in a grocery store is low prices.  We eat fairly healthy diets (the popcorn is organic afterall) but we will scarifice “organic, low-fat, gluten-free, and vegan” foods if we hear two other words: “on sale.”  But how do you even know which store has the lowest prices? Should you bother driving around to different places for different items or is that a waste of gas?

The myth is that stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s offer healthier but more expensive grocery items than their generic competitors.  The amazing popcorn, however, is also amazingly cheap.  One bag is $1.99.  A similar popcorn retails at Hannaford for a dollar more. This fact defies what I had previously thought was grocery store logic.  I also generally avoid health food stores because I am a very picky eater.  When I think of Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, I think of tempe, quinoa, and other gross vegetarian food that I refuse to eat.  But what if this whole time they had healthy, cheap food that I like at the health food store? And yet again, I know Trader Joe’s is way smaller than Hannaford or Shaw’s, so they might not have everything on my list?

I needed answers so I set out on a quest to comparison shop.  I would end the “Great Grocery Debate of 2013” by going to 4 different grocery stores, 2 health food specialty stores and 2 average local grocery stores, with a list of 10 things to buy.  Then I would walk around and write down the price of each item so I compare cost store-to-store. Once I knew which store had the lowest prices, I would know where to shop.  Here’s my list:

Item Amount Trader Joe’s Hannaford Whole Foods Shaw’s
Milk 1 gallon 3.59 3.55 3.65 3.65
Bread 1 loaf 2.49 1.99 2.99 1.99
Eggs 1/2 dozen 2.49 2.85 2.69 3.35
Cereal 1 box 1.99 2.89 3.99 2.99
Sliced Turkey 2 pounds 2.99 2.99 3.14 2.99
Pre-popped Popcorn 1 bag 1.99 2.99 3.99 3.54
Chicken Breast 1.5 lbs 7.68 7.49 9.22 8.27
Whole Wheat Pasta 1 box (13.25 oz.) 1.99 1.19 1.39 1.29
Canned Soup 1 can 1.49 0.89 1.49 0.99
Wine 750 mL 3.99 7.99 2.79 6.99
Bananas 6 pieces 1.14 1.11 2.00 1.29

** Very Official Disclaimer: this was by no means an official/academic study of grocery store prices.  These were prices I found on one visit to particular stores in my area.  The list is not meant to be representative of the business I visited or their prices.  It is just here to give reader’s an idea of my own personal shopping experience.

I tried to pick items I thought might be on everyone’s weekly grocery list. I also picked brands/items of similar nutritional value at each store. So for example, the eggs I priced at Trader Joe’s were organic, cage-free, and all-vegetarian fed; when I went to Whole Foods, Hannaford, and Shaw’s I looked for the same thing.  At Hannaford they had a cartoon of 1/2 dozen eggs for $1.09, which was way cheaper than the $2.49 at Trader Joe’s.  The cheap eggs were not all-natural or all-vegetarian fed, however, so they weren’t comparable health-wise.  To get similarly nutrious eggs at Hannaford, you had to pay a little more. So my rule was, if another store had a cheaper version of the item but it didn’t meet the same nutrition standards, I didn’t include that price on my list.

And the winner is . . . if I totaled up the cost of all 10 items on my list, Trader Joe’s is the cheapest place to shop coming in at $31.83. Hannaford is second at $35.93. Whole Foods and Shaw’s actually tie for 3rd at $37.34 each.  If you look across the chart, however, I think it’s important to notice that no store had a monopoly on the lowest prices.  Whole Foods surprisingly had a wine even cheaper than Two Buck Chuck, coming in at $2.79.  But they had by far the most expensive chicken breast.  Hannaford had the cheapest bananas and pasta, but things like cereal were on the pricier side.

In a way, my quest to find the best grocery store was unsuccesful. Every store offered great organic, all-natural, nutrious options.  You can eat healthy meals from stuff you bought at any of the 4 stores.  And, as I said, no single store consistently had the lowest price for every item; prices varied from place to place.  And finally, no one store seemed to offer everything that I needed.  I was surprised that Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods both had yummy stuff that would fit even into my picky diet (both places have chicken nuggets 🙂 ).  But neither store had a wide selection of cheap, bulk items such as cleaning supplies, paper towels, soap, etc. like they offer at Shaw’s and Hannaford.  However, Trader Joe’s has the amazing popcorn which can’t be found at any other store and Whole Foods has an unbelieveable bakery.  In short, I did all of this comparison shopping and I still don’t know where to shop!

But here’s what I did learn from my adventures:

1. You can get healthy food at any grocery store.  It’s all about checking labels, looking at ingredients, and being a smart shopper.

2. Prices are fairly consistent across the board. So if the nearest Trader Joe’s is 25 miles from your house, it’s probably a waste of gas to drive all the way there just for your organic peanut butter.  They most likely sell a similar version at the Shaw’s 2 miles down the road.  But if you live close to a few stores, you could shop around and buy what you like/ what’s cheapest at each store.

3. EXCEPT, definitely buy bulk items at bigger chain store like Hannaford or Target. Toilet paper doesn’t need to be organic.  You can stock up on these items when you’re at the chain, bargain store and then you don’t have to make frequent trips there.

4. Health food stores are not scary. They are also not just for hipsters. This is a big deal for me to admit. Tofu cookies make me want to cry.

5. Contrary to urban legend, Whole Foods does accept Food Stamps.  When writing this blog, I heard over and over that Whole Foods is just for rich people.  I even heard the nickname “Whole Paycheck” because supposedly you could spend your whole salary shopping there.  Whole Foods, however, does welcome shoppers of all economic backgrounds and accepts EBT Cards.

I am quickly becoming a Grocery Guru. Now if I could just learn to cook . . .

Note: I don’t recommend wandering aimlessly around different grocery stores writing down prices. I got some very strange looks mostly because I would stare at items for a long time, write stuff down in a little notebook, and then walk away without taking anything off the shelf. I looked like Nancy Drew trying to solve the Great Grocery Caper! I’m surprised no employees told me to buy something or get out.

More Reading:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s