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Apples to Apples: Grocery Store Price Comparison by SafetyNet™

Grocery Store Comparison Infographic - Aldi wins

Recently, the SafetyNet™ team hit the pavement (or, rather, the parking lots) to investigate where and how grocery shoppers in the Midwest can get the best bang for their buck. Armed with a list of common grocery staples and a handful of reusable shopping bags, we threw a cooler in the back of the car and headed out.

Keep in mind, this was not a rigorous scientific study! After all, stores have weekly specials, the cost of fresh produce changes with the seasons and coupon deals might influence what you buy.  But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t informative. In fact, some of what we discovered was downright surprising.

Here’s how the grocery store price comparison worked:

Where we shopped

Based in Madison, WI, we wheeled our carts through four national or regional grocery chains: Target, Aldi, Hy-Vee and Walmart.

What we bought

We looked for the same 15 items at each store, choosing the least expensive brand each time.

Our grocery list included pantry items, produce and personal care products common to most American households, including facial tissues, pasta, rice, red apples and ground beef. (You can see the full list of items in our grocery price comparison infographic.)

To make the most accurate price comparisons possible, we tried to select the exact size and specifications for each item. For example, we weren’t shopping for just any package of “cheddar cheese,” but rather medium-aged, 8-ounce, orange-colored cheddar cheese. Still, sometimes it can be difficult to literally compare apples to apples. Some stores offered 3-pound bags of Red Delicious apples whereas other sold them only individually from bins. We avoided buying too many fresh produce items for that reason. Any items that varied from the rest are noted on our infographic in the footnotes.
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What we learned

It didn’t take long for us to realize that the store-brand item is almost invariably the least expensive, except if a brand-name item of the exact specifications happened to be on sale that day. Only a few items out of the dozens we bought were name brands. That wasn’t too surprising. After all, even when priced less, stores make a bigger profit off of their own brands, so they’re invested in having you buy them.

Aldi was the cost-savings winner on this particular day; Walmart came in second. Not surprisingly, stores like Hy-Vee (for its customer experience and vast selection) and Target (for the convenience) generally charge a little more for similar items.

The take aways

First, wherever you choose to shop, keep your eye on the store brands. Less expensive doesn’t mean necessarily lesser quality. Consider conducting your own informal house vs. brand name taste test to see where the difference in brands matters to you.

Second, remember that when cooking on a budget, every little bit counts. A difference, say, in $5 between store totals may not look like a significant discrepancy. But multiply that by every time you run to the store and you’re looking at hundreds of dollars per year. Now imagine dropping that $5 into a rainy day fund. The benefits could be priceless.

Blog for a Cause

At the end of our grocery price comparison shopping trip, the SafetyNet team made one last stop to our local food bank and donated almost 300 pounds of groceries to those who need it most. That’s what we call a big impact for your dollars!