“Costco is more than a store — it’s a lifestyle,” a friend said the other day. It’s true that a certain stripe of Costco devotees do have their rituals, wending their way through the cavernous space: grab a hot dog, stock up on Kirkland Signature vodka, pick up a rotisserie chicken, graze at the sample stands, acquire a two-pack of Authentic Motor City Pizza Co. Double Pepperoni and a bale of toilet paper. But with prices on groceries going ever upwards, many shoppers are seeking the best deals on budget staples, not looking to save on Parmigiano-Reggiano, much less add a flat-screen TV to the oversized cart.
Even before ballooning inflation, Seattle’s cost of living ranked among the highest in the U.S. Now the cost of grocery-store food in the area has risen 13.5% since June 2021, with jumps up ranging from 8.4% for bread/cereal to 21.3% for dairy products, according to the Consumer Price Index. Two supermarket items topped the list of the highest price increases in Seattle — above gasoline — with margarine going up 46.7% and potatoes 38.6% from the first quarter of 2021 to that of 2022, according to Cost of Living Index data.
So, if you’re just trying to get by, does buying your basics at Costco Wholesale — which is, yes, Costco’s literal last name — make sense?
A recent Seattle grocery-store comparison-shop for six staples — bread, milk, rice, beans, ground beef and peanut butter — suggests that the $60 annual Costco membership fee is much more of a lifestyle choice than an investment in savings. Our findings show that two other local discount-grocery contenders — Grocery Outlet and US Foods CHEF’STORE (formerly the also-strangely-punctuated Cash&Carry) — offer everyday, no-membership-required prices that hover around those of Costco, with multiple locations around the Puget Sound region potentially offering shorter trips for savings on time and gas. (Safeway and Whole Foods, included as regular and high-end controls respectively, yielded unsurprising results — save that Whole Foods’ 365 house-brand peanut butter is an oddly good deal. Who knew?)
If you’ve never been, Grocery Outlet — affectionately known to fans as the Groc Out — is like a regular supermarket that’s gone a bit randomly haywire. At 428 stores — most on the West Coast, all accepting SNAP/EBT — shelves are stocked with overruns, closeouts and packaging change-ups from both name-brand and private-label suppliers at bargain prices. Concurrently, everyday items like those on our list are conventionally sourced for customers’ convenience, with the company seeking to sell them “at or below the lowest price in town,” according to promotional materials.
Per our comparison chart, Grocery Outlet is doing quite well at pricing on the basics at the moment, while the overall shopping experience can feel like a treasure hunt. One lonely type of off-brand saltines might be flanked by numerous kinds of Goldfish crackers, with varieties along the lines of X-Treme Flavor Goldfish: The Goldfishening. Name-brand dish soap appears in experimental scents, never seen before and never to be seen again. Grocery Outlet may practically pay you to take home a case of 300 Biscoff cookies (those of airplane fame) that are perilously close to their expiration date but then actually remain perfectly fine, like many things, for a very long time (this, yes, from personal experience). Meanwhile, oddball end-of-season sundries abound, such as solar-powered garden art, slide-on sandals or statuary of frogs holding welcome signs, here signaling goodbye to summertime. And the Groc Out concept seems to be working, with a representative noting that sales are up 15.7% for the second quarter of 2022, as 25 new stores opened over the last year, with 28 more planned for the next one.
CHEF’STORE is much better known by its recent former name: Cash&Carry. This chain started out in 1955 in Oregon City, Oregon, with a single market full of products on pallets with prices marked in grease pen. Now it’s the wholesale warehouse arm of one of the largest food-service distributors in the country, open to the public with no membership fee; however, SNAP/EBT is not accepted. CHEF’STORE’s atmosphere is that of a more Spartan mini-Costco — towering shelves with plastic-wrapped stacks of more product up above, and pretty much every expense spared in terms of décor. Actual chefs and restaurateurs shop here, wheeling around their selections on big dollies. Some aisles are devoted to the likes of myriad takeout containers, cocktail umbrellas, cups, tape, pots, pans, plastic wrap, plastic gloves, mammoth jugs of cleaning products — for the civilian, an unexpected look into restaurants’ extensive peripheral expenses.
As with both Costco and Grocery Outlet, CHEF’STOREs do not offer much choice in terms of brands. Compared to Costco, however, the checkout lines are generally much less of a melee. One may also choose to buy in even-bigger-than-Costco bulk — e.g., rather than just one, score a full case of 30-ounce cans of Teasdale pinto beans for $27.66. But it pays to do the math: The savings amount to about a penny per ounce, and factoring in storage space at home, well, that’s a lot of beans. And as with Grocery Outlet, CHEF’STORE is also in expansion mode, albeit on a smaller scale. The company doesn’t provide detailed financials, but after four new CHEF’STORE locations are soon added, there will be 87 stores in 13 states — also a lot of beans, paper cocktail parasols, Pine-Sol, etc.