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How to be a smarter supermarket shopper

Learn how to get more from your store. Plus, Ratings of 55 grocers nationwide.

Published: March 2014

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Illustration: Eva Tatcheva

When it comes to supermarkets, biggest isn’t always best. Our survey of 27,208 readers reveals that Walmart, America’s largest grocer, is at the bottom of the food chain. The mega-store finished last among 55 supermarkets, earning subpar scores for checkout speed and employee courtesy, as well as for meat and produce quality. Despite the knocks, Walmart’s 3,300 supercenters—180,000-foot shopping stadiums that combine a grocery, a mass-merchandise store, and sometimes a pharmacy—were the destination of choice for 28 percent of respondents, many of whom were drawn by low prices. But our survey found that you don’t have to settle for limp produce, helpless help, and long checkout lines.

Fourteen of the top 20 chains even had prices on a par with Walmart’s, readers told us. Those 20 include the national stores Costco (the no-frills warehouse club with large-sized goods), Trader Joe’s (a limited-­assortment store featuring store brands and specialty items such as Sardinian parchment crackers), and Whole Foods (focusing on perishables, organics, and service), as well as the regional chains Raley’s (West Coast), Publix (South), Wegmans (East), and Fred Meyer (Pacific Northwest and Alaska). Respondents also lauded a Ratings newcomer, Sprouts Farmers Market (160 stores in eight Western states), which showcases fresh and whole-grain food.

Store choice matters because Americans are heavily invested in their supermarkets, averaging 88 trips per year and spending about $6,000, according to the Food Marketing Institute, a trade group. But just because people shop a lot doesn’t mean they enjoy it. Fifty-six percent of our survey respondents experienced at least one problem; 31 percent had two or more. Walmart was the worst offender: Eight in 10 shoppers there had at least one gripe, mostly that there weren’t enough open checkout lanes, that aisles were congested, or that basic items were out of stock. (See “Top Gripes About Grocery Shopping,” below. And find out what irks men and women about each other's shopping habits.)

Retail rancor prompted one-third of readers to quit shopping at a nearby store in the last year, mostly because of high prices, but also because of long waits, inadequate selection, or poor-quality food. High prices were a more important reason for “firing” a store now than in the years immediately after the recession. In our current survey, 58 percent of respondents gave a store the boot because of prices, compared with 43 percent in 2011.

Consumers’ readiness to seek less expensive supermarkets doesn’t surprise Jim Hertel, a partner with Willard Bishop, retail consultants in Barrington, Ill., who cites high unemployment and prices that remain at or near all-time highs. “The Great Recession also spurred consumer trial of many extreme-value formats, like Aldi’s limited-assortment stores,” he said. “Many shoppers found them more than acceptable. Taken together, consumers are still nervous, and they have more alternatives.”

For quick trips, shoppers have been turning to pharmacies, convenience stores, and dollar stores, which have added refrigerated and fresh items and broadened their assortment of packaged goods. To retain customers, the historically slow-to-change supermarket industry has had little choice but to up its game. Among the tactics: Enhanced preferred-­shopper programs, nutrition-awareness counseling, additional organic offerings, take-home meals, and new technology to make shopping easier.

Top reasons consumers dumped a supermarket

Reason

Cited in current survey

Cited in 2011 survey

Cited in 2008 survey

Too expensive

58%

43%

52%

Long wait at checkout

26

26

28

Poor selection

25

27

29

Poor-quality food

24

24

26

Poor cleanliness

20

21

26

Lack of employee courtesy

17

17

20

Source: Consumer Reports National Research Center 2013 Annual Questionnaire

Dinner to go

More grocers are offering full dinner menus.

Americans have been eating more meals at home since the recession, and supermarkets have begun offering serious competition to restaurants, says Bonnie Riggs, an industry analyst with the NPD Group, a market-research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y. They’re filling the void with inno­vative dining options without “white tablecloth” prices. Forget about rotisserie chicken and salad bars. Several Hy-Vees have a Market Grille, a restaurant with a full dinner menu. All items are made to order and served by trained wait staff. There’s even patio dining during warmer months, and a Sunday brunch buffet. Wegmans has dining options ranging from casual to fancy, including market ­cafés, pubs, and an Italian restaurant and wine bar. Many Schnucks stores have wine experts certified by the Society of Wine Educators, and the Schnucks in Des Peres, Mo., has a beer cave with more than 500 craft brews. Some Whole Foods stores offer sit-down dining and “boutiques” with a wide range of food (sushi, seafood, tacos) and settings (a Paris café, a barbecue shack, a neighborhood diner).

The first step toward getting the most from your supermarket is to choose one that caters to your priorities, whether low prices, top-notch perishables, sparkling service, or high-quality store brands. The Ratings list many good options. The next step is to work the system so that you can shop cheaper, smarter, and faster.

Want to spend less on groceries? Try these 16 ways to save at the supermarket. And learn how to avoid getting tricked when shopping

Where we saved

To compare prices, we made a grocery list and shopped for the items in various ways. We bought the same name-brand product for all but the store-brand category. (Store-brand and regional-chain prices are from Price Chopper, a midpriced supermarket.) In each instance, we sought the best possible deal—choosing the most economical package size, using coupons, and swiping club cards. Package sizes differed, so we’ve listed cost based on unit prices.

Bottom line. Store brands and Costco vied for cheapest. Walmart.com came in third. Its shipping is free for orders of more than $50 ($4.97 for those less than $50), with expedited service for as little as $2.97. Walmart’s online and in-store prices were largely the same. Walgreens, which lacks the product depth of even a small supermarket, was by far the priciest overall.

Product

Store brand

Costco

Walmart.com

Regional chain

Walgreens

Flour, lb.

$0.36

$0.48

$0.49

$0.60

$0.70

Coffee, lb.

6.15

8.00

10.64

14.39

9.32

Ketchup, qt.

1.59

1.26

2.48

2.99

3.99

Laundry detergent, qt.

1.00

3.67

3.83

4.26

4.90

Tall kitchen bags, 100

13.11

8.99

16.55

10.83

25.76

Toilet paper, roll

0.62

0.65

0.73

0.85

1.00

Shampoo, pt.

3.80

3.00

4.80

4.44

5.70

Diapers, 100

12.00

19.22

17.97

18.98

23.98

Raisin bran, lb.

2.15

1.57

1.87

2.92

2.32

Cranberry juice, qt.

1.74

1.31

1.57

1.97

1.14

Ibuprofen, 100

4.40

4.61

6.48

7.50

12.98

Dish detergent, qt.

2.67

2.73

3.11

3.20

5.11

Total

$49.59

$55.49

$70.52

$72.93

$96.90

What bothers men and women about each other at the supermarket

In a nationally representative survey conducted in 2013, the Consumer Reports National Research Center asked 1,128 adults what ticked them off about the shopping habits of their significant other. (Watch the video, above.)

Men complained that their partner:

  • Spends too much (cited by 49 percent of respondents).
  • Takes too long to make a purchase decision (43 percent).
  • Makes too many impulse buys or doesn’t follow a list (33 percent).

Women complained that their partner:

  • Makes too many impulse buys or doesn’t follow a list (44 percent).
  • Spends too much (39 percent).
  • Buys too many treats (31 percent).
Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
   

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