Is Whole Foods Really That Much More Expensive?

Every month, I dump a pretty big chunk of my paycheck into organic groceries at Whole Foods. I know shopping for organic groceries at Whole Foods is expensive, and that it adds up, but it got me thinking: Is buying grocery at Whole Foods really that more expensive than other grocery stores?

In the most unscientific survey of grocery prices ever conducted, I compared the cost of certain delectable items from my local Whole Foods to prices at Safeway, the standard regional grocery chain here in Northern California.

My hypothesis: Whole Foods is going to cost a lot more, and I’m going to have to face the music and rein in my spending if I ever want to retire—which I do!

And here are the results, in chart form. Here’s what I spend on organic produce at Whole Foods instead of regular produce at Safeway.

I think I would pay two more bucks for the organic stuff. Yay! Let’s compare the chicken.

 

 

*Cringe.* The difference is huge. However, this information had an inverse effect on me, because it didn’t make me want cheaper meat. Instead, it just creeps me out, and makes me worry about animals and chemicals and all sorts of awfulness. I’ll pay more for good meat. So, next up are a bunch of identical products:

 

 

Highway robbery, Whole Foods. I’m out! Or, am I?

 

 

Plus, a couple of organic options at Whole Foods is actually cheaper.

 

 

But this was an utter failure:

 

 

Conclusion: While it’s definitely more expensive, I’m happy to find out that the price discrepancy between organic and regular produce isn’t as extreme as I thought it would be, and since it’s important to me, this is a price I’m willing to pay. And a couple things—like wine and certain fresh foods—are even cheaper at Whole Foods! But when it’s time to stock up on tea and ice cream (AKA every day), I’ll be sure to do it at Safeway. Now let’s all go have one tortilla and four gallons of milk.

 

Eve O’Neill lives in California and really, really wants to visit New York. Email plane tickets here. Photo credit: Flickr/ilovemypit

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27 Comments / Post A Comment

Dancercise (#94)

Interesting comparison! I should probably do something similar with Lucky and Trader Joe’s, my two grocery stores of choice. I always feel like Trader Joe’s is cheaper, but I have no proof!

Katzen-party (#219)

One reason I hardly ever buy produce at Safeway is that what they sell is typically of pretty poor quality. It seems like whenever I pop in to check out what’s on sale, I end up annoyed that I took the time because I don’t want to buy the mealy apples, monstrous pithy grapefruits or tiny hard avocados they’re pushing. To me, it’s worth it to spend a bit more to get better quality (though I realize that not everyone has this option).

pizza (#599)

For me Whole Foods is much cheaper than my neighborhood generic chain supermarket (c-town). I mostly buy things from the 365 whole foods store brand. I am, vegan though and I notice the really expensive things listed above from Whole Foods are non-vegan things I do not purchase.

Jellybish (#560)

I think your time is worth something, too. Is it worth saving a few bucks to have to make another trip? I know I pay more for certain items by not going to a different store, but I don’t mind paying for convenience sometimes.

Does that include the discount you get from club cards? I live within a couple blocks of an independent healthy mostly organic grocery store, a small mostly non-organic independent store, and a large discount grocery chain. They all pretty much have the same prices, except the large chain store has club cards which makes things like brand name cereals, etc less expensive at check-out.

I hop around to all three of these stores for various things. I walk to the furthest one first getting box cereals and other name brand types at the large chain, then to the smaller independent store for olive oil and bread, then I hit the organic store for ground round and fruit, then schlep it all home.

eveo (#600)

Hi Deb! No, I did not include any club card discounts from either store. In the end it made the comparison impossible, so I just skipped.

diplostreetmix (#4,472)

@eveo Not including club cards is just absurd. Membership is free and unobtrusive.

organic generic items (bulk cheese, bread, beans, tortillas) are going to be cheaper in a store that sells more of them– hence cheaper generic organics at wholefoods and more expensive organics at safeway. you could always get cheap, non-organic generic stuff at safeway, but organic items at stores that don’t sell a lot of them are going to be priced accordingly.

also, the markup on brand-name non-perishables (pellegrino, tazo chai tea) is going to be the same pretty much anywhere you go, usually a bit higher at whole foods.

one final point– whole foods’ produce prices change pretty dramatically with the seasons, at least in new york, since they do a pretty good job of using local suppliers. hence $6 blueberries in the winter (organic, from chile) and $2 blueberries in the summer (organic, from new jersey). safeway (or bravo, c-town, et al) usually use national distributors, so their stuff is always cheap, almost always from chile or california, and almost always non-organic. (and when they do have organic, it’s way overpriced because the distributor takes a big cut).

whole foods is sometimes the only way for medium-sized organic farms to get their produce to market, since they can’t get in to the huge terminal markets (like Hunts Point, for NYC).

so, i guess what i’m saying is, whole foods is cheap for bulk, generic organic products and sometimes for seasonal produce, but it’s not worth it to buy brand-name non-perishable stuff there you can find for cheaper at c-town….

How do the two compare on workers’ rights and unionization?

Mariam (#606)

I have seen many side-by-side comparison articles of Whole Foods vs. other grocery stores but they don’t take into account the club card/popular coupon prices (including this one), so you’re capturing the raw prices for Safeway and not the prices that people usually pay, which would make a more practical juxtaposition. I buy most of my produce from a dirt cheap local market so I can’t speak to the produce prices here, but the base prices for the other goods are inflated for what I am accustomed to paying (regular milk, cheddar cheese, OJ and eggs at least seem out of whack).

Basically, if you spend even five minutes reading the weekly flyers and taking advantage of specials Whole Foods comes out a lot more expensive than what you’re showing here.

btw, how can you say wine was cheaper at Whole Foods when Safeway didn’t have one you could compare it to?

Mirch (#228)

Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Please compare those two.

@Mirch Whole Foods profits go to their owner, Trader Joe’s profits go back to Germany.

Your Safeway is ripping you off. Surely there must be a better local grocery chain to shop at because they’re charging you too much. I also suspect you were brand shopping, and chains will often jack up prices on “hippy” food, making it easier for Whole Foods to compete.

Another point you neglect to mention: Whole Foods is nonunion, your Safeway is probably unionized. While safe food is important, does it make a difference to you whether your grocery pays its workers a living wage with reasonable benefits? You can get good food from a chain if you know your labels and brands.

But I’m lucky enough to live in the Twin Cities where we have a very well developed co-op scene that gives Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and the other corporate organic places a run for their money.

janicek (#612)

@John Ryan
This post is relevant to my interests! I just quit my job at Whole Foods and know all about their employee benefits and worker’s rights there AND I’m not afraid to talk about it, since I’m DONE!

Anyway, although Whole Foods isn’t unionized, they pay pretty well — as an entry-level employee with a college degree in a specialized position, I made about $45k a year, the entry-level guy stocking the produce shelves makes about $11/hr in my area.

They also promote from within. Nearly every department manager and many of the store managers had been with my store for over 10 years, and had started in entry-level positions.

The healthcare they offer isn’t great – it has a high deductible and doesn’t cover some basics like mental health, but it’s cheap ($10 out of each paycheck), and they give you $1000 in a credit card to buy whatever you want that’s health related – this does NOT come out of your paycheck at all.

Generally, I found that they treated their workers well compared to other retail places I’ve worked for (Home Depot, another grocery store in high school that was unionized). I’d say they treat their part-timers better than other available part-time jobs, including office jobs, they treat their full-timers better than full-time jobs in other retail positions, but worse than a full-time job in an office/non-retail environment.

Hope that helps!

allaswan (#578)

I feel like there’s also a huge difference in the quality of what you’re getting at Whole Foods vs. regular grocery stores. Even their conventional produce is waayy fresher and better looking. And you could compare similar things like cheez-its for 3.00 a box to whole foods brand cheese crackers for 2.50 PLUS they aren’t full of total bullshit ingredients.

Try this in the grocery section with the non-perishables. In New York, I can buy a bar of Tom’s of Maine soap for $2.99 at Fairway or $3.49 at Duane Reade. At Whole Foods, the same bar of soap costs–wait for it–$5.49. Whole Foods has some superior fresh goods but shopping there without comparing prices is a great way to waste money.

Also, for the commenters seeking comparisons, it’s important to compare apples to apples, which is what the author did (and what I did just now). Trader Joe’s is impossible to do this with, as almost all their products are white-labeled; they *should* be almost universally cheaper as a result. Whether TJ’s items are better or worse than the branded products you buy elsewhere is a more subjective decision. (In my house, for example, it’s yes on the frozen dumplings and desserts, no on the Cheerios.)

At Cole’s, an Australian grocery store chain, all the price tags also say the price per kg (or 100 g or 100 mL, or, in the case of items like cotton swabs, the price per swab). A few grocery stores in the US do this, or they do it in certain sections of the store, but at Cole’s they have it on every product! It is SO useful. For some items, like honey or soy sauce, paying extra doesn’t translate to superior quality, so I just go with the cheaper one. For other items, such as produce, I’ll go with the pricier one–for some reason the $5 pears are way tastier than the $4 pears?

Lucille2 (#616)

As a native austinite who has witnessed the massive corporate growth and soaring prices of the foodhole, I call bullshit. I am not even that frugal, but i can always find equally good, less expensive produce (even organic produce) at our local chain HEB. When the purchase of dry-goods and deli products are factored in a trip to the foodhole runs 30%-60% more expensive. Does Safeway have a lock on the market where you live? Some of the prices you quoted seem excessively high for grocery staples.
In addition, I’ve known scores of people who have worked at wholefoods and in general as I have heard it is not a great company to work for. The majority of these people are college degreed and the wages they were paid were more on par with $11/hr than $45000/year.

janicek (#612)

@Lucille2
To be clear: I didn’t make that much because of my college degree, but because of my specialized position (I was the person who drew all the chalkboards and did the store specific graphic design). I also live in an expensive city and came from a non-retail job, so I believe I started at a higher wage than other people in my position usually do. I definitely didn’t mean to imply that all whole foods employees with college degrees are raking in the dough!

Rezpect (#621)

Enlightening!

Bunsie (#3,688)

@Rezpect
No. NO REZPECT.

I always shop around: safeway is good for staple foods, I go elsewhere for ‘specialised’ produce

Bunsie (#3,688)

Hello everyone. I’m Bunsie!

This is a great analysis. Thanks for the comparisons. I’ve found that Whole Foods doesn’t really have much of a food pricing strategy. For example, they charge more for vegetable broth with sodium than for the one without.

I wrote a quick post about that here: http://whatsnickeating.com/2013/05/23/vegetable-broth-worth-its-salt/

@What’s Nick Eating@twitter

And here is another example of the weird pricing at Whole Foods! http://whatsnickeating.com/2013/06/02/more-nutty-pricing-at-whole-foods/

ElysianFields (#3,916)

If there is one near you, you should absolutely be shopping at Aldi for “staple foods.” Like absolutely. This week I bought 37 items for about $80 – just about $2.17 per item. This included two dozen eggs, milk, chicken, ground beef and a steak – as well as two loaves of bread, frozen vegetables and two bags of frozen blueberries. If you don’t eat organic and live near an Aldi and aren’t shopping there, you are nuts!

Whole Foods is more expensive, no doubt, but the quality and presentation is phenomenal.
The freshness of the seafood, meats and produce have me hooked.

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