Sunday, April 11, 2010

Grocery Wars

How did you pick the grocery store you shop at? I'm curious because I am currently rich in grocery stores. As of Wednesday a third supermarket opened up within 2 miles of my home here in the picturesque seaside suburb. We now have the standard big box store, a local market with fresh meat and seafood counters, and a grocery opened as a direct competitor to the Whole Paycheck eight or so miles away in the tony outdoor shopping mall.

I was raised by a fierce woman who did whatever it took to make her meager income work for her and her five kids. This meant clipping coupons and strategically planning the Saturday shopping to ensure she got the best deals for her dollars. If ground beef was $0.03/pound less expensive at Price Chopper than it was at Wegmans my mom would make the special trip to Price Chopper to get the cheaper meat. Marketing was tedious with my mom, often taking hours as we went from one store to the next snapping up the best deals, regardless of cost to one's time or psyche. Once a month or so one or more of us kids were given the task of going through mom's voluminous coupon files and weeding out the expired ones, and putting those that were just about to expire in a special file to be used right away. My mom's pantry, to this day, is filled with canned goods bought on sale because she had a coupon or the sale was too good to pass up.

Growing up relatively poor I've developed a cautious attitude towards money. However, I tend to believe coupons are a waste of time because store brands are almost always cheaper. I don't have the energy to clip, store, and sort coupons. I don't have the space to store mounds of "good deals." I zealously believe that if something is on sale once, it is likely to be on sale again when I need or want it. The net effect is that I tend to favor expedience in my grocery shopping over bargain hunting. That means I'd rather spend $1/pound more for pate' because I like the pate' at Store X and I'd rather not spend 30 minutes driving to the store with the cheaper pate' looking for parking and wasting time and gas.

Now with three grocery stores in such close proximity I find myself reconsidering my shopping attitudes. I'll always go to the big box market - deli-sliced American cheese, yogurt, bread, canned vegetables, cat food, toilet paper, and ice cream will always be cheaper at the big box store.

But what about the two boutique markets? Both are beautiful on the inside - think open market style fruit displays, aromas of fresh roasted coffee, enticing bulk food bins, and beautifully displayed prepared foods. And how do their prices compare? Well, today I went to both and compared prices for the ingredients for cheese fondue. Here is now it stacked up:

Local market - $24.13
1/2 pound of emmenthaler cheese - $8.98
1/2 pound of gruyere cheese - $6.48
1 bottle of white cooking wine - $4.49
1 loaf of French bread - $2.19
1 head of cauliflower - $1.99

Fancy new market - $26.43
1/2 pound of emmenthaler cheese - $8.98
1/2 pound of gruyere cheese - $7.48
1 bottle of white cooking wine - $3.49
1 loaf of French bread - $2.49
1 head of cauliflower - $3.99

By price alone, the local market is the winner. However, if cauliflower hadn't been on sale at the local market ($2 under both the new boutique market and the big box store), the grocery bill for the cheese fondue would have been roughly even.

So how do I decide? The new store has more varieties and sizes of bread than the local market. The new market has bourbon praline pecans in bulk, beautiful flowers, and a more robust wine, craft beer, and organic and international foods section. The new market doesn't require, like the local one does, that I pay for meat and seafood separately (and cash only please). In the local market's favor they have the best snacking prosciutto sliced to order, terrific Italian foods, are a reseller of locally produced candies, cookies and other delicacies. They also have the best salad bar on either side of the Mississippi.

(Have I mentioned that I love going to beautiful grocery stores? It is one of the things I do to relax. A trip to NYC without going to Zabars or Citarellas is beyond me. Whenever I travel grocery stores always make their way to my tourist itinerary. I routinely stop at Wegmans when visiting my family in Central New York - even before I see my mother.)

If I'm to stay true to my "keeping it simple" grocery shopping philosophy how do I pick which store to patron? Even thinking about bopping between three grocery stores to do my weekly-ish shopping gives me hives for its high maintenance implications. Do I abandon the locally owned business in favor of the new, slightly more convenient but globally owned market? Do I plan to price veggies each week online and pick whichever store has the lowest prices, and just trust that the other things I need will come out in the wash?

The values I'm balancing include value, quality, business loyalty, beauty, convenience, and adventure. Which of these do you value most highly in your marketing? In your life?

The new store has been open five days. I think I'm going to wait to decide until the low prices intended to hook consumers go up as I'm told they will. In the meantime, you can find me shuffling between three suburban grocery stores, stalking the aisles for bargains and interesting foods.


Meg said...

Perhaps my opinion is moot, seeing as I was once the mayor of three different Whole Foods locations in three different cities (and two countries!)

I'm willing to spend money on exactly what I want, if money is what I have. Maybe I should save more of it for something else, but as someone without many vices or hobbies, I've decided that cooking things I enjoy and that are good for me with ingredients I can stand behind is what matters.

That said, my mother does NOT feel the same way. Although my parents like a good wander through Whole Foods, my mom tends to buy her groceries in a combination of US stores (they live a half hour from the border, and US groceries are cheaper) and Canadian stores, both local and national. She goes where she knows she'll get a good deal, whether it be the green grocer down the street, or the Costco in Bellingham, 1/2 hour away.

And in reality, I buy in a variety of places -- I actually prefer to buy produce at mom and pop places, and staples at big box grocery stores that have them in giant stacks up the walls. I'll spend more money on organic meats and interesting spices, and on good microbrews or local wines (I don't drink cheap alcohol -- since I don't drink to get drunk, I don't drink things that taste like crap, no way, no how.)

We didn't have much money when I was growing up, and my mom still managed to make fantastic meals, so I definitely know how to do more with less. I lived for a lean eight months of freelancing about five years ago on onions, potatoes, and whatever was on sale.

It's a good skill to have.

But for now, I buy groceries according to a combination of taste, priorities, practicality, and indulgence. :)

Clownface said...

I've decided that I'm going to choose Fresh Market over Whole Foods. I'll still get my pretty grocery store with interesting and exotic foods, without having to pollute the air by driving to and from the other side of town to get it. Ethical dilemma solved