The Great Grocery Price Comparison Experiment

The Great Grocery Price Comparison Experiment _

I recently embarked on what is perhaps my most time-intensive personal finance experiment to date. While I have always felt that I am a smart grocery shopper – shopping at the right stores, taking full advantage of sales and carefully checking unit prices – I figured it couldn’t hurt to verify the frugality of my ways. I’ve never had a price book before, but I have heard the value of them extolled on not a few personal finance blogs, so I decided to give it a try and compile a grocery price comparison spreadsheet of my own.

I began this experiment by creating a spreadsheet listing items I commonly buy in three key categories: household items, toiletries and food. This list is certainly not exhaustive, but I tried to include enough items to give me a good sense of which stores offer the best value in each category. For some items I had a specific brand that I was looking for. For others, there were only certain requirements, and in those cases the least expensive option that fulfilled the requirements was selected for comparison. For all items at all stores, I compared full prices only. All stores have sales, but it just seemed impractical to wait for those sales to come around to put into the spreadsheet.

My goal in this experiment was to determine if I’m really shopping at the most cost-effective stores for what I’m buying. Of course, convenience is a big factor, so I looked only at stores within a 10 to 15 minute drive of my house. Also for convenience reasons, I knew that I was looking for one store that offered the best prices for my weekly grocery needs, and possibly one other store that I could go to about once a month to stock up on non-perishable items. I’m not about to shop at 10 different stores just to buy each individual item at the lowest price. The cost of my time would just be too high.

Currently, I shop weekly at Market Basket for the essentials, and monthly at Target for non-perishables. I wondered if I’d be better off at a warehouse store, or even at another local grocery store. The only way to find out for sure was to look at prices at each store, which is exactly what I did. Yes, it was tedious to go to each store, take photographs of the prices of each item I was tracking, and then record that information in my spreadsheet when I got home. And yes, the resulting spreadsheet is in some ways incomplete, in that there was always an item or two I forgot to check at a certain store. But all in all, I’m really happy with the information garnered through this experiment.

To save you all the time and trouble of compiling a price comparison spreadsheet of your own, you can download my full spreadsheet here. Keep in mind that these are prices for stores in and around Cambridge, MA, and are sure to vary depending on what part of the country you’re in. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area with better prices, please don’t tell me, it will just make me sad.

What did I learn from my great experiment?

  • Costco actually does offer the best prices overall. I was skeptical of Costco before this experiment, thinking that many people shop there without really looking at the numbers to determine if the yearly fee is worth the savings. I am now convinced that the yearly fee is well worth the savings. In fact, I went so far as to estimate my usage of the items on my price list on a yearly basis, and based on that I would save nearly six times the yearly fee by shopping at Costco as compared to the stores I currently shop at. Not bad!
  • Costco sizes are ginormous. Going into this experiment, I didn’t quite realize just how large the items sold at Costco were. I figured that I could surely find a place in my condo and basement storage unit to store a Costco-sized pack of toilet paper. Having checked Costco out, I think that I probably could find a place for the toilet paper, but not much else. This, for me, is the real downside to Costco. Living in the city, I simply don’t have enough space to accommodate Costco-sized goods. By time I purchased toilet paper, paper towels, tissues, and a few cleaning supplies, my whole storage unit would be full. That is to say nothing of the fridge and freezer space required to accommodate Costco-sized meat, produce, etc. Of course, anything perishable that can’t be frozen was a non-starter at Costco. My favorite item at Costco was the 50 pound bag of flour. I’m pretty sure that would last me and BF until retirement. Of course the fact that I probably couldn’t lift it made it fairly impractical. I do think the savings would still be worth the yearly fee even if you only purchased non-perishables at Costco, as long as you have the space to store them.
  • Given the two points above, I’m actually doing pretty well. Yes, I could be saving some money by joining Costco, but given the spatial constraints mentioned above, joining is just not going to work for me right now. Given that, I was able to see from my spreadsheet that I am in fact shopping pretty smartly right now. Market Basket offers better prices that my other local grocery store. Target offers better prices than Market Basket on household goods and toiletries. Amazon offers good prices on a few items, but shipping to our condo is tricky so that probably isn’t worth the hassle.
  • If you want to join a warehouse store, be aware that they offer different benefits. Costco does generally have better prices than BJ’s, but the sizes are bigger and there is less selection. Typically, Costco only offers one brand of any given item, so if you’re brand sensitive it may not be right for you. For example, I could buy the Dove body wash I like at Costco, but the scent I like was only available in a three-pack with two other scents that I don’t like. BJ’s, on the other hand, often has many brand options for each item. There, I could find a three-pack of only the scent of Dove body wash that I like. I also found that they actually offer lower prices than Costco for toiletries. BJ’s sizes are also somewhat smaller (although still quite large), so may be better for some people. I don’t have a Sam’s Club near me, so unfortunately can’t provide any thoughts on how it compares.
  • Experimentation is costly at a warehouse club. I like to experiment with different brands of various products. For example, I will typically try out a store brand or other less expensive brand of an item, and if I don’t notice a different, I stick with the less expensive option. If you’re shopping at a warehouse club, the cost of this experimentation is potentially very high. For example, if you try out a new laundry detergent and learn (as I once did) that it causes you to break out in hives all over your entire body, you’re going to be stuck with a lot of unusable laundry detergent. Of course the same thing could happen when buying a smaller sized laundry detergent at Target, but the amount of money wasted is likely to be a lot less.
  • Some prices are really hard to compare. I found this to be especially true of toilet paper. Who would have thought toilet paper would be so complicated!? Between the double rolls and the triple rolls, the one-ply vs. two-ply, etc., I found it nearly impossible to get an accurate measure of comparison from store to store. Even within individual stores, some toilet paper had unit pricing per 100 sheets, while others had it by pound. Ultimately I decided to look at price per sheet, but this of course overlooks the fact that more sheets of one brand might be required to get the job done. Alas, I had to accept the imperfect nature of this experiment.

My game plan and next steps

The goal of this experiment was to determine the best places to shop, and after looking through the numbers I feel that a weekly trip to Market Basket with monthly runs to Target is still going to get me the best bang for my buck. Market Basket simply can’t be beat in terms of quality and price, and Target is my best option for pricing on non-perishables (and that is before I pay with my Red Card, taking another 5% off the total bill). Something I didn’t talk about here is shopping experience, which isn’t as great at Market Basket as at some other stores. For me, it is worth the savings to shop at a crowded, simple store, but you may feel differently.

The thing I am most excited about is being able to use this spreadsheet as a resource going forward to help evaluate sale prices. Something I have struggled with in the past is determining if sale-priced toilet paper at Market Basket is more or less expensive than full-priced toilet paper at Target. Now, I know exactly what I pay for full-priced toilet paper at each store, so when I see a sale I can easily evaluate if it’s a good deal or not. Yay! (You know it is bad when sales on toilet paper get you excited.)

This experiment also has me considering trying out BJ’s at some point in the future. Unlike Costco, which never offers a trial membership, BJ’s offers three-month free trial memberships from time to time. Next time an offer becomes available, I might take the opportunity to stock up on a few toiletries, for which BJs offers the best prices.

Finally, there are a few local stores that didn’t make it into this round of experimentation, including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Based on past experience, I feel that these stores are either more expensive or don’t offer everything I need to get on a weekly basis, but I do feel that I owe it to myself to verify this. Let me know in the comments if you’d be interested in an update with Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s (any other stores I’m missing?) added to the spreadsheet.

What do you think? Do you have your own price comparison spreadsheet? Do you think I’m nuts for having done all this work (most of my friends and family do!)?

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46 thoughts on “The Great Grocery Price Comparison Experiment

  1. I’m glad to see you’ve concluded Costco is worth it. Our prices fluctuate so much in Alaska, I’ve just decided Costco is probably always my best bet! (With five of us, we use it all!) also… I’ve seen some pretty creative furniture on pinterest made out of things like Costco paper towel rolls! 🙂


      • I’ve discovered that Costco is cheap when my local stores don’t have sales or coupons (and I’m willing to buy a gallon of ketchup at a time). If you’re short on space or know it’s not something you literally use a ton of each year, might be worth it to buy it for a little more so it’s not taking up so much space.


      • Haha true – you do need to be willing to buy a lifetime supply of some things to shop at Costco! I think that for me, right now, it is worth it to pay a little more to not have to use my entire house as a storage unit!


  2. You are awesome!! I am a total price-comparison shopper. But unfortunately it’s all in my head, which can be overwhelming to remember. I make SO many stops for the best prices. It would be interesting to calculate my time and gas to see if it really makes a difference in the end. Great post!


  3. My company provides me with a Costco card each year, but we do not shop there regularly. With my little family of three {actually only 2 when it comes to food because Mason is too picky to eat what we eat} it just sometimes isn’t practical. We’ve had a lot of waste. But, there are some things we like to buy there. Plus, it’s just fun to walk around and look.

    Great post!


    • I also worry about food waste with shopping at Costco, as my household is currently just two people. I still think it can be worth the savings even if you only buy non-perishable items.


  4. We used to be BJs members long ago, but decided it was barely worth the annual fee. The store being in the most traffic-heavy congested spot in the area didn’t help. Going there was not an enjoyable experience. I’ve flirted with doing price comparison charts, but usually I find the differences are so small that going to different stores isn’t worth it. On the whole, my favorite store Hannaford is among the cheapest, and I like the ease of going there once a week and being done.

    That said, I did take up that BJ’s free month offer a year ago. I stocked up on so much stuff, I haven’t bought any shampoo, conditioner, toilet paper or paper towels in a year! That would be my ideal: A free once-a-year or two years BJs trip.


    • I also like to shop at only one store on a weekly basis for convenience. For me, the price sheet was helpful in making me feel like i’m shopping at the store where I’ll get the most for my money.


  5. What an interesting experiment! I have several issues with warehouse stores, which you mention here, and for those reasons I am not a fan. However, I do admit they offer lower prices on certain items.
    I’m thinking I should carry out this same experiment in my area. I mostly shop at only one store because it very conveniently located for me, but I wonder if I am overspending or if the time-savings is really worth it. Thanks for the idea!


    • I think its a great idea to take a look at the prices of your local stores. I always feel better knowing that I’ve looked at hard numbers and am not relying on my gut, which can be wrong!


  6. I couldn’t look at your spreadsheet for the same reason you told us not to share — because I knew it would make me sad! We pay the “mountain premium” for groceries, and it is a stone cold bummer. 🙂 We’ve only belonged to CostCo for brief stints here and there, because of those huge quantities. Plus, you compared CostCo to full price, and we almost never buy things when they are full price. We only buy when they’re on sale, at least for packaged grocery items, and we find that with that strategy, we can almost always beat CostCo prices. But, in truth, most of our food spending is on fresh produce, and we do our best to buy local organic, in-season produce, which also keeps those costs down.


    • That is great that you’re able to buy mostly local, fresh produce. If that’s what you’re buying, then I can see how Costco wouldn’t be the best option. I’m also with you on trying to buy on sale. I keep an eye out for good prices on non-perishables and stock up when I can!


    • I think living at the beach is a pretty good trade off for not having a Costco 🙂 I don’t have a Walmart nearby but I’ve heard that they’re prices are good.


  7. I absolutely adore Costco so I’m glad that they’ve passed your experiment. That’s funny about the toilet paper though. I’ve never considered costing my toilet paper per the sheet!


    • Its kind of a silly metric, but I swear that no two toilet paper brands have the same number of sheets per role, so it felt like the most reasonable comparison.


  8. This is so cool!! I’m trying to do the same experiment here, I shop a lot at Walmart and target and wanted to see if I was being smart about it, I just need to check a couple more places before having the final results


  9. Great experiment! And so very time consuming. I looked at doing a magazine story on this in our own area a few years ago but nobody had the time to go to all the supermarkets and do the price comparison. Here in Cambodia, I largely shop at local markets and my prices vary depending on whether I can catch a break and get produce at Khmer prices or I get the “Barung” price. My negotiating skills are improving slowly.


  10. I appreciate your handwork. I also do a cost comparison about once every two or three years. But I just list the 15 to 20 items that we use regularly and then compare prices at our favorite grocery store our nearest Wal-Mart and our favorite warehouse club. What I find is that typically the store brands at Wal-Mart and the store brands at warehouse clubs are the better deal, provided there is room to store the stuff and food won’t spoil before consuming. About the only thing we get at our local grocery store are meat and fresh produce; it’s not the cheapest deal, but the quality is generally greater.


    • Oh wow – that’s super impressive that you do a comparison every few years! It was so much work that I’m not sure I’ll repeat it anytime soon.

      I think your approach is very similar to what I’ll try to do in the future – fresh stuff from the grocery store and everything else from Target.


  11. Brian says:

    “For example, if you try out a new laundry detergent and learn (as I once did) that it causes you to break out in hives all over your entire body, you’re going to be stuck with a lot of unusable laundry detergent. ”

    Costco will take back opened packages for a full refund if you are not satisfied. I have had to do this a couple times and have never had an issue. Just a data point.


  12. I have tried to do a similar experiment just so I can have an idea of when a price is actually really good and worth stocking up on… but I haven’t actually ever really completed it…

    I don’t do the big box stores or warehouse stores ever, but it might be worth looking in to. I didn’t look at your prices though because I’m up in Canada, so my prices will be very different.


  13. We make a trip to Costco about once a quarter and stock up on some things. We buy toilet paper, vitamins, paper towels, frozen fruit, and a few other things. Their photo center is also cheaper than my local drugstore and I tend to bulk print years of photos at once, so that is convenient. Honestly, we’re either going to make a big trip to Costco every few months or order bulky things off of Amazon. Since we figured out Friday nights are prime time to go to Costco (i.e. no one else is there), it hasn’t seemed as daunting as it used to.


    • Thanks! That is awesome that you’re within walking distance of more than one grocery store. If its no too much trouble, I’ll also head to more than one store in a week to take advantage of really good sales.


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