I decided that instead of writing about what I bought this week at Costco (it wasn’t that interesting, so you’re not missing out on anything good), I would do a little comparison shopping with three other major grocery store chains in my area. There have been a couple of things I’ve read lately, blog posts and news stories, questioning the value of a Costco membership because you’re probably not really saving over other grocery stores. Over the years I have done quick little comparisons on things like butter, milk, or eggs and Costco has always come out favorably in these comparisons. But after reading this news story, I decided to expand my comparisons and make it more official.
The stores that I compared with Costco are HEB, Wal-Mart, and Randall’s (a.k.a. Safeway). All stores are located within 6 miles of my house, including Costco, and are the stores that I would go to (and sometimes do) if not for my love affair with Costco. I chose 43 items people frequently buy, even things I don’t buy, like coffee, that I knew I would be able to make a direct comparison amongst all four stores. I chose items that were well known brands or store brand items that I knew I would be able to find easily at all stores. I used the store brands of many products for the comparison prices, unless a specific brand is listed such as Tide or Cheerios. I wanted to make sure I was comparing apples to apples. All prices in my comparison were gathered this week – Costco on Sunday, with HEB, Wal-Mart, and Randall’s on Tuesday. I also want to point out a few things: a) I did not cherry pick items from Costco that I knew were cheaper than at other stores; b) I did not have my Costco prices with me when I went to the other stores; c) I want to reiterate that I compared store brands to store brands and name brands to the same name brand.
What Did I Compare?
The items in the list below were what I used for my comparisons. As you can see, they include bread, milk and dairy products, soda, juice, coffee, fish and chicken, pantry items, and household items such as batteries. I figured this was a wide enough range that I could get a good understanding of the way prices in general would compare across the four stores. I was really pleased with the items that I picked because it turned out that the only things that weren’t available at all four stores were steelhead trout (Wal-Mart and Randall’s didn’t have this), wild halibut and Tree Top apple juice (Wal-Mart didn’t have either of these). I also tried to note differences in quality where applicable, such as the size and grade of eggs, and whether the apple juice was from concentrate or not. Other than these small differences, everything was easily comparable.
Where’s All This Great Data?
Updated link information (2008.04.11 at 4:25 pm):
If you don’t have a Google login you can view the data here:
If you have a Google login you can also view it here:
I’ve laid out everything in a spreadsheet to keep track of the comparable prices for each item across the four stores, as well as the items’ original prices and sizes from each store. To get the ‘comparable price’ I made sure that all prices were figured on one specific size (usually the one that was found at the most stores). For instance, regular coffee at Costco was in a 48 ounce can, however, all of the other stores had 34.5 ounce cans, so I figured the price of the Costco coffee per ounce and then multiplied it by 34.5 to come up with the comparable price for Costco.The first column is for the list of items separated into different categories, the next four columns are for the comparable prices for each store, there is one separator column and then the next four columns are for the original prices and sizes for each item across the four stores.
The best comparable prices are highlighted in yellow and the text is bold so you won’t miss who has the best price! So, go check out the spreadsheet and you can see all of the comparison information side by side.
What Are My Conclusions?
The results were interesting, actually. Since I’ve never done a side by side comparison of prices across all of these stores I could easily see I am glad that I quit shopping at HEB! In any case, here’s how my results turned out:
Costco had the best prices on 35 of the 43 items. Real stand outs were butter, yogurt, bread, sugar, Jif peanut butter, Cheerios, fish, the whole rotisserie chicken, fruits and veggies, as well as soap, Clorox 2, and AAA and 9 volt batteries. These are all things where Costco’s price is less by around a dollar or more! There are other items where Costco has the best price but it isn’t quite as dramatic a difference. There are also some places where I was comparing store brands, and there might be a quality difference that accounts for Costco’s price not being rock bottom. A good example of this is with apple juice; Costco juice is not made from concentrate as is HEB’s (this is the only thing that HEB was cheapest on).
The one item that the comparison pricing was really shocking for was the vanilla ice cream. Costco sells the KS brand (which my mom, the ice cream connoisseur, says is the best vanilla ever), so I was comparing store brands but Costco actually turned out to be the most expensive place to buy your ice cream. Now, is this because they have a much higher quality? I don’t know and didn’t compare ingredients and such but that is a possibility. Wal-Mart actually had the cheapest price on the ice cream.
Speaking of Wal-Mart, they came in second in my comparison test with 5 of the best priced items. These items were: AA batteries (by only 4 cents under Costco), Tide, head lettuce (this is a toss up though because it was really quite small in comparison), store brand decaf coffee, and of course the vanilla ice cream. It is kind of interesting that with all of Wal-Mart’s buying power and their commercials about passing the savings right on to the customer, their prices are not way more competitive. Of course, if you consider that their other competition is not Costco but HEB and Randall’s they would do much better.
Randall’s, whose pricing in the store made me think they wouldn’t have the best prices on anything, actually came in third with the best price on two items. These items were: boneless, skinless chicken breasts and store brand regular coffee. Their price on chicken breasts was so much lower than anyone else’s that I think they must have been on some kind of sale and I just didn’t notice the signs. By the way, for all of you Randall’s fans that are thinking I did you wrong, I did actually use the ‘member pricing’ for all my comparisons.
Obviously that leaves HEB in fourth, or last, place in the comparison price battle. As I mentioned already, the only thing they had the cheapest price on was their store brand apple juice. However, since it is from concentrate and Costco and Wal-Mart both have store brand juices that are not from concentrate, it is at best a hollow victory. Especially when you consider that they were only 20 cents less than Costco’s better quality juice.
Okay, this post is getting rather long, so I’m going to cut it off here. In part 2 of this discussion I’ll address the issue of the differences in quantities, if there is indeed a difference.