Comparison-shopping for a bunch of basics at seven Seattle-area stores yielded some pretty surprising results.
You can’t call it Whole Paycheck anymore. Since Amazon bought Whole Foods and lowered some prices, it looks like the old joke no longer holds true, and shopping there may actually make sense now. We’re not talking about the out-there items made fun of (and rightfully so) on the internet: the $5.99 bottled “asparagus water” (three whole stalks in it!), the “limited edition” tomatoes, the $80 jars of honey. Nor are we talking about the “FARM FRESH!” Amazon Echo devices now being advertised in-store. But from a Seattle-area comparison-shop for a number of basics — which is where Amazon slashed prices, sometimes a dollar or more — Whole Foods’ prices are looking pretty damn competitive.
I spent two days going to seven grocery stores to check prices on 13 items, ending up with a notebook-page grid that looks like the work of a madperson but tells a surprising tale. Think Safeway, with its zillion stores, offers savings? If you’re looking at stuff like bananas, milk and butter, not so. Whole Foods is cheaper for both organic and regular bananas since it got Amazoned. It’s $.20 cheaper for organic milk, $.40 more for regular. It’s a dime more for a pound of regular butter, but the same price for organic. Overall, you’ll pay a little more for some staples at Whole Foods than Safeway, less for a few, and exactly the same for many — for both organics and non-.
The stores visited: Safeway, QFC, Trader Joe’s, PCC, Ballard Market, Whole Foods + Amazon, and the supposedly cheaper 365 by Whole Foods offshoot. Whole Foods looks set to cannibalize the latter. A pound of ground beef at 365: $5.49. A pound of ground beef at Whole Foods: $4.99. (Organic at 365: $7.49. At Whole Foods: $6.99.) Eggs are cheaper at regular Whole Foods than 365 now, too. Other prices are identical, or close to it: Organic Gala apples cost a non-whopping 4 cents more at Whole Foods than at the 365 version.
(If you haven’t been to the local 365 by Whole Foods store, on the south end of Bellevue Square, it’s a trip. Whole Foods was said to be targeting millennials with this venture, and it apparently thinks they have the design sense of preschoolers — big bright block letters and simple shapes for you! Also a limited range of brands, to eliminate the stress of having too much choice, maybe? There’s something called a teaBOT, which is, yes, a tea-making robot, and a machine for fresh-squeezing juice at your command, loaded with oranges. The store will mind your groceries while you “WHILE YOU HIT THE MALL,” one sign shouts, while another for a partnership with Spotify offers “FREE AIR GUITARS.” The soundtrack was The Police, which seemed awfully off-brand.)
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And if you’ve been arguing with your friends about whether QFC or Safeway is cheaper — or assuming that PCC is way pricier — you can stop. (And you can stop driving an extra distance to the store you think is cheaper, too.) Not only was Whole Foods comparable, but overall, there’s really not much difference among all the stores, with prices on some basics a little higher, and some a little lower, at each one.
A couple caveats, however. PCC stocks a lot of organics, and for some staples (like bananas, broccoli, ground beef and milk), the Fremont store didn’t have non-organic versions on offer. (And yes, organics still cost more, dairy especially, due to an organic milk-production shortage. And meat — it costs considerably more to raise animals well.) And Ballard Market’s prices were consistently at the high end. (It’s part of the local six-store Town & Country/Central Market company — with locations in Shoreline, on Bainbridge, and elsewhere — which has not yet returned a call about whether pricing is the same at all of them).
So shop wherever you like best. It appears that market forces are working! Until Amazon takes over the entire world, at least.