Saturday, October 25, 2014 · 8:40 a.m.

Price comparisons: Food staples in Chattanooga grocery stores

Consumers spread shopping between several stores, price isn't everything

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Bananas at Bi-Lo cost 55 cents a pound. They were 57 cents a pound at Walmart, 78 cents a pound at Whole Foods and 69 cents a pound at Enzo's. (Photo: Staff)

Many consumers have several choices on where to do grocery shopping and are utilizing multiple options more than ever.

"Shoppers have spread out their shopping options across a wider variety of outlets," said Mark Hamstra, retail editor at Supermarket News, which is a trade publication that's been around for more than 60 years.

"I think convenience is still one of the biggest factors in deciding where people shop," he said. "The supermarket that is the closest tends to win out, but a lot of people will make that once-a-week trip to Walmart or Costco to stock up on some basics."

There's an app for that

There are apps that allow consumers to compare prices at different stores. 

Below are some options:

Flyerbug 

Price Spotting

—Washington Post article about Price Spotting

—Smart Money article on price comparison apps 

Local shoppers said they might go to Walmart, Costco or Aldi for some items and stop by Whole Foods or Enzo's for other things, especially locally made products.

Other local options for grocery shopping include Bi-Lo, Buehler's Market, Earth Fare, Fresh Market and Sam's Club. And there's currently a Publix in the works for the North Shore. 

In addition to location convenience, prices also impact where area residents choose to buy groceries. 

Wholesale food prices in the United States increased in May for the first time in three months, according to Bloomberg

"The cost of finished consumer foods rose 0.6 percent as the price of fresh eggs jumped by a record 41.6 percent," Bloomberg reported. 

Hamstra said that most grocery stores get products through a large wholesaler. And the more products a store buys from the wholesaler, the cheaper it is. For example, Walmart might get better deals than Enzo's because Walmart managers buy more. 

Smaller stores, such as Enzo's, also benefit from buying through wholesalers, but some products at Enzo's are hyper-local and could cost more, he said. 

But that also depends on several factors. For example, local products likely cost less to transport because they don't come from across the country, Hamstra said. 

But even with bigger chain stores, locally made products are an increasing trend, he also said. 

"Now, most do have some connection with local suppliers," he said. "That's become more important to the consumer. They have always been interested in local products. I think now, more than ever, consumers feel sort of a need and a responsibility to support their local producers." 

Local resident Rachel Smith said via email that she shops at the Walmart in Brainerd.

"I can't even begin to describe how much I hate it," she said. "I do it because it's cheaper and less than 2 miles from our house in East Ridge."

It's convenient, but on a recent trip, she waited in line with about 15 other people. There were only two registers open plus the self-checkout line, she said. 

"Most of my frozen food melted by the time I got home," she said. "Maybe it would be worth it to pay a little more and drive a little farther—the Walmart dilemma."

Local comparison 
Nooga.com compared prices of staple items at Walmart, Bi-Lo, Whole Foods and Enzo's in an effort to provide insight into pricing at different locations. 

We did not take into account loyalty discount programs, such as cost savings for customers who use a Bi-Lo Bonuscard.

Hamstra said that those sorts of programs are becoming increasingly popular, and he is seeing a trend of targeted loyalty programs that provide discounts based on a consumer's shopping habits. 

Another popular trend is offering discounts related to fuel costs, such as Bi-Lo's Fuel Perks Program, he said. 

We only compared shelf prices, and we understand that prices aren't everything.

As Hamstra noted, convenience and access to locally made or organic products are other driving forces in grocery shopping choices. 

The comparisons aren't always exactly apples to apples. For example, Enzo's didn't have generic brands of the items we compared. And Whole Foods didn't have Mayfield brand milk, although all the others did. 

And the value of these comparisons is subjective, based on each individual's needs.

How much is it worth to be able to walk to the grocery? Is it more valuable to be able to get items in bulk for a lower cost? Or is it more important to support a local grocery or local farmer? How important is it to have an array of brand choices? 

Available items and prices may also vary from day to day. For example, Whole Foods was out of canned green beans the day we went to the store. 

These comparisons also don't take into account sales tax, and some local residents noted that they head to Georgia to save on sales tax costs. It's not a comprehensive look at the situation but is meant as an informational snapshot. 

On Tuesday, we will have an article comparison of non-food items, such as toilet paper and toothpaste. 

Here's what we found about the food prices. 

This chart shows the cost of a gallon of milk, a loaf of white bread and a dozen eggs at Bi-Lo, Enzo's, Walmart and Whole Foods. Not all items compared in this chart are the same brand, but we used the least expensive item for each product. (Graphic: Staff)
We combined the cost of milk, bread and eggs at each store—Bi-Lo, Enzo's, Walmart and Whole Foods—to give an idea of how much those staple items cost if purchased together at each grocery store. Again, not all items compared are the same brand, so we used the least-expensive item for each product. (Graphic: Staff)

Walmart, Bi-Lo and Whole Foods each offered generic brands of plain white bread. Enzo's only had Colonial and Sara Lee brands. 

So we looked to find the cheapest white bread at each store.

Cheapest white bread

Bi-Lo: 99 cents 

Walmart: $1.18

Enzo's: $1.99 

Whole Foods: $3.79

Whole Foods was the only location that didn't have a Sara Lee wheat bread option. 

Sara Lee whole wheat bread

Walmart: $2.28

Enzo's: $2.99 

Bi-Lo: $3.09

Whole Foods: N/A

Enzo's was the only store that didn't have a Jewish rye bread option. But Enzo's has other bread options, such as loaves from Chattanooga's Bluff View Bakery. Walmart and Bi-Lo had comparable brands of Jewish rye. 

Jewish rye bread

Walmart: Arnold's brand, $3.28

Bi-Lo: Arnold's brand, $3.59

Whole Foods: Rudi's brand, organic, $5.49

Enzo's: N/A

Some produce was easier to compare. Bananas at each store range in cost from 55 cents a pound to 78 cents a pound.

Bananas 

Bi-Lo: 55 cents a pound 

Walmart: 57 cents a pound

Enzo's: 69 cents a pound 

Whole Foods: 78 cents a pound 

We randomly chose green beans as the canned goods to compare, but Whole Foods was out on the day we stopped by. They did have frozen green beans, though. Walmart, Bi-Lo and Enzo's all had Allens brand. 

Walmart's generic brand cost 68 cents a can, and Bi-Lo's generic brand was 69 cents a can. 

Allen's canned green beans

Walmart: 98 cents

Bi-Lo: $1.39

Enzo's: $1.39 

Whole Foods: N/A

Every store except Whole Foods had Mayfield milk. 

Mayfield's skim milk

Bi-Lo: $5.35

Enzo's: $5.81

Walmart: $5.98

Whole Foods: N/A

Eggs were more difficult to compare because all the stores had different brands. A sign at Whole Foods noted that all its eggs were "cage-free." All stores had organic options, and Enzo's had local and "free roaming" options. 

Walmart had the least-expensive option, with a dozen costing $1.18. Bi-Lo had a dozen for $1.34. Local eggs cost $4.99 at Whole Foods, and a dozen free-roaming eggs were $3.09 at Enzo's. Whole Foods also had a generic brand option for $2.79.

The broccoli we compared was sold either by the pound or by the bunch. 

Broccoli

Walmart: $2.38 a pound

Bi-Lo: $2.49 a bunch

Whole Foods: $3.49 a pound

Enzo's: $3.99 a bunch

Updated @ 9:26 a.m. on 6/18/13 to add more information about egg prices: Whole Foods carries a generic brand of eggs, and Enzo's offers a free-roaming carton for $3.09, which is the lowest-price egg option at the store.

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