The Search For Maximum Grocery-Shop Efficiency

20 Feb

Borrowing from Kevin O’Leary to challenge yourself every year to either cut or significantly reduce an expense I’ve decided to take it to heart and significantly whack our grocery spending. It’s not as if we were a paragon of waste or high expense before but I know we can do better. So my first task was to figure out my best bang for the buck. I’m already a monthly Costco shopper and buy significant amounts there. The same goes with our Wal Mart super center. What would happen if I loaded up on their in-house a Great Value brand? And then there’s Aldi which just opened a store in Williamsburg. My goal for 2017 is to cut grocery spending by 25% which is a tall order and not easily achieved since I’ve always been a conscientious shopper as it is. As I did this price-comparison experiment I soon discovered that it’s extremely difficult and stores don’t make it easy – often selling different sized packages for the same item. What I thought might take a week to figure out took over a month.

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WAL MART

My first order of business was to compare a typical shop at Wal Mart using the name brands I usually buy vs. Wal Mart’s Great Value in-house brand. Bear in mind that at Wal Mart the name brands are already significantly cheaper than what you’d pay in a grocery store and it’s not by a little.

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Things are cheap at Wal Mart but not the cheapest

If you have a Wal Mart Super Center near you and are choosing to shop at a name grocer – even if you’re riding a bicycle to do the shopping – you’re likely just throwing good money down the drain. I’ve seen name brands 50-60% cheaper at Wal Mart.

I had to do some creative slicing and dicing to get to equal packaging amounts so it’s an apples-to-apples comparison. Let’s look at the results for my first trip to Wal Mart of the year (GV = Wal Mart’s Great Value brand):

Potato chips lunch sized multi-bags. GV $5.48. Lays $6.98
Salsa. GV. $2.98. Vs. Lays $3.78
Cheese Dip. GV. $1.98. vs. Lays. $3.78
Water GV. 8.66 cents per bottle X 24=$2.08; Acquifina 15.53 per bottle = $3.72
Greek yogurt. GV $3.62 vs. Oikos $4.93
Yogurt (4pack). GV $1.53 vs. Dannon $2.47
Cream Cheese. GV $1.52 vs $2.74 Philadelphia
Shredded Cheese. GV $3.12 vs. $4.78
Olives. GV. $1.96 cents oz vs &2.90
Spaghetti $1.48 GV vs. $2.68 Bertolli
Baked Beans. $0.50 GV vs $0.86 Van Camps
Chili powder. GV. $1.98 vs. 2.98. McCormick
Bay leaves. GV 2.98. vs. $3.44. McCormick
Oregano. GV. $1.23. vs. $2.44. McCormick

GV list: $32.44
Name Brand list: $48.48
Savings = 33.08%

That looks very very promising. Will I suddenly get 33% savings by simply switching to Great Value? No. Remember that there are more than a few items that have no Great Value option – namely meats and fruits and vegetables. There is also the possibility that we just won’t like the Great Value stuff and will have to revert back to the name brands. To me, the entire point of financial independence is to live well and I’m not going to ruin that with bad tasting food. That said, the initial results of the above are VERY promising!

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COSTCO

What about Costco? Let’s compare Costco to Wal Mart!

1 gal 1% Milk. Costco – $2.56. GV. $3.19
Unsalted butter. Costco $9.99 16 4 oz sticks. Wal Mart $14.32
Eggs. Costco $3.29 2 dozen. Wal Mart $5.66
A1 steak sauce. Costco $9.79 4 10oz bottles. Wal Mart $11.92
Tuna in water. Costco Kirkland $13.49 X 12 cans. Wal Mart $11.28
Jiff Peanut Butter. Costco. $9.29 x2 48oz jars vs. Wal Mart $11.95
Diced tomatoes. Costco. $6.49 X 8 cans. Wal Mart GV – $4.00
Olive Oil. Costco Kirkland $13.99 X 2 liter (67.6 Oz). Wal Mart $27.71
Walnuts. Costco. $10.99 48oz bag $22.02 x3 16oz bags WMT ($17.97 Aldi)
Honey Nut Cheereos. Costco. $7.19 2 1lb 11.5oz. Wal Mart $7.04. GV $4.72

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Nothing fancy at Costco just raw logistical efficiency

Costco List: $87.07
Wal Mart List: $119.09
Savings at Costco = 26.88%

It is extremely difficult for ANY grocer to defeat Costco selling in bulk and as we see above, for the most part that also includes Wal Mart. The trick is to isolate those items which either have a long shelf life or that you will use. There is also a significant qualitative discrepancy. Costco puts an enormous amount of effort in ensuring that their Kirkland brand is first class. Kirkland wines compete favorably with far higher end brands and Costco sells more wine than any store in the U.S. If you’re a wine drinker you’re going to find better quality at a better price at Costco. Kirkland’s olive oil is among the best you can find. The Kirkland toilet paper is right up there with high end name brands. Kirkland’s toothpaste is a close equivalent to anything else. Multi vitamins? Kirkland has those to. Whenever you can find it, I’d highly recommend buying Kirkland brands – a cheap in-house brand that often IMPROVES quality. Costco is also our go-to place for meats. You’re not going to find better cuts at a better value anywhere else. The qualitative difference is the difference between high-end dining and a bad restaurant on the street corner. I’d shop at Costco just for the meats alone but there’s so much more. The goal is to live a high-end life while spending as little as possible and Costco is a huge tool to make that possible.

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ALDI

And then there’s Aldi. An Aldi shop matches up best vs. Wal Mart because you’re often buying individual items or low shelf-life items or items that Costco packages in ways that are simply too much quantity for a regular sized family. So let’s compare my first Aldi shop of the year to Wal Mart. To the greatest extent possible I compared Aldi store brand to Wal Mart’s Great Value Brand

Shredded Cheese Sharp Cheddar. $2.69 Aldi vs. $3.12 GV
Beef Broth. $1.39 Aldi vs. $1.43 GV
Spaghetti 32 oz – $1.45 Aldi vs. $1.48 GV
Macaroni Elbows. $1.48 Aldi vs. $1.45. GV
Cut green beans. $0.49 Aldi vs. $0.50 GV
Black Beans. $0.59 vs. $0.63 GV
Baked Beans. $0.49 vs $0.50 GV
Apricot Preserve Jam. $1.79 vs. $1.84 GV
Gallon of 1% Milk. $2.18 Aldi vs. $3.19 GV
Vegetable Beef Soup. $1.19 Aldi vs. Wal Mart $1.68 Campbell’s (No GV substitute)
Ramen $2.16 Aldi vs. Wal Mart $2.27 Maruchan brand (No GV substitute)

Aldi List – $15.90
Wal Mart – $18.09
Savings at Aldi = 12.11%

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Aldi is hard to beat

On that cursory comparison of like-items the Aldi bill would come to $15.90 The Wal Mart bill comes to $18.09. Knowing that the Great Value brand is already dirt cheap and tough to beat I was quite pleasantly surprised to see that Aldi’s prices even beat Great Value. But that’s not all. I noticed that Aldi carries its own brand in some items that Wal Mart does not have a Great Value substitute for which forces me to compare the Aldi in-house brand to the name brand selling at Wal Mart. The Vegetable soup $1.19 Aldi brand compares quite nicely to the $1.68 Campbell’s at WMT
and Aldi’s Ramen 12 pack comes in at $2.16 vs. $2.27 Maruchan at WMT. I’ve been very very impressed with Aldi.

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CONCLUSIONS

So what’s it all mean? It means that if you’re doing your food shopping at a main grocer that you’re likely getting creamed by their prices. Unless you can’t find a substitute item at Wal Mart, or Aldi, or Costco then shopping at a mainline grocer makes little financial sense. This list of these stores to avoid is a long and distinguished one but I avoid Farm Fresh, Kroger, Publix, Food Lion, Safeway, Wegman’s and Whole Foods is in a complete category of its own which I’d title “Insanity.” Ahhhh but if you shop at Wal Mart or Aldi you don’t get the ambiance and the pristine displays and the refined clientele that you find at Safeway! That’s a choice to be made after you’ve become wealthy not before. I’ll also add that nobody beats the annual income of the Costco shoppers (at over $90k average annual income) so if you want to be a snob go there.

As for the big three above I think the evidence shows that the bulk of shopping should be done at Costco and Aldi with select trips to Wal Mart to pick up the items you can’t find at the other two. The high protein healthy foods like walnuts and eggs are an especially great deal at Costco. When I break down my shops for the best value in each store it comes out like this (the below includes some items that I noted that aren’t in the above totals).

Aldi
– Milk
– Soups
– Canned vegetables
– Bread
– Jams, jellies, preserves
– Cereal
– Broth
– Shredded packaged cheese
– Frozen foods
– vegetables

Costco
– Meats
– Wine
– Olive oil
– Butter
– Nuts
– Eggs
– Jif Peanut butter (Kid won’t eat any other brand)

Wal Mart
– Pasta

As time goes by I’ll be able to round out these lists and get REALLY efficient but I’m off to a good start and I now know enough to form some general themes for our grocery shopping. I will add, that as a military veteran I’m also eligible to shop at our local commissaries but generally speaking I can find better value at the above three stores.

2 thoughts on “The Search For Maximum Grocery-Shop Efficiency

  1. Your costco comparison reminds me why I DON’T shop there. Those quantities are CRAZY!! 4 bottles of A-1 sauce? I think I still have the same bottle from 2014 in the fridge. 🙂 Otherwise the prices are generally on par or more expensive than Aldi (with Walnuts being the main exception, but those nuts would go rancid before I could eat 3 pounds of them).

    I need to do a walkthrough of Costco to see if there’s anything I could pick up there routinely to make the ~$50 fee worthwhile. Someone mentioned smoked salmon as being a good deal at $14/lb (vs effectively $18.60/lb at Aldi) but not sure we would consume a whole pound before it went bad (vs 3.5 ounce packages at Aldi).

    I feel like overall the Aldi store brand items are very high quality, sometimes beating their name brand equivalents. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of their generics are manufactured by the name brand companies but as private label goods (I know they are in some cases due to identical packaging and lot codes on the jars/bottles/cans).

    • My wife and I can devour one of those big bags of walnuts in ~3 weeks. Walnuts have become one of our main food staples now – hard to find better food. If you throw them in the freezer one of those bags lasts indefinitely… If you store at room temp then about 6-9 months. Walnuts are now my main snack food and I’ll eat some for lunch along with hard boiled eggs, Dark chocolate, and natural honey… Other days I’ll do smoked salmon on high fiber crackers (both from Costco).. We now have family of 3 after our daughter moved out so these are the typical things I get at Costco – toilet paper, paper towels, wine, lamb, flank steak, boneless/skinless chicken breasts (absolutely a stupendous deal on those), chicken thigh packs, ham, rotisserie chicken ($4.99 for a huge bird – two meals easy), dishwashing and laundry detergents, Kirkland toothpaste, grated Parmesan cheese, garlic, olive oil, bread (2 loaves), Naan bread, eggs, bacon, etc. I do find that there is a significant qualitative upgrade at Costco – especially on meats. I’m new to Aldi and am very impressed but as with Costco they stock fewer items… A typical Wal Mart Super Center stocks ~440,000 items and a Costco about 4,000….simplicity is a good thing!

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