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Sep 24, 2009

Safeway vs. Walmart: Grocery Prices

I live in the wine country town of Sonoma, California, where I buy day-to-day grocery items at Safeway and most everything else at the farmer's markets or at the local Whole Foods.

Sometimes the prices at Safeway outrage me, but that chain is no different than any other; Sonoma has another mainstream chain store, Lucky, where prices are just as high as at Safeway. Both have good sales each week, but it's the items not on sale that put a dent in the ol' wallet. These prices have nothing to do with location; items cost exactly the same whether I'm shopping Sonoma Safeway or an hour away at the Safeway on San Francisco's Marina Green. I imagine the same is true for all other chains, as well.

So a while back, when my stepmother suggested that I try shopping at a Wal-Mart grocery, I decided to trek over to the one closest to me---about 25 minutes away---and give it a try. I did so this past September 9. I was startled by how good the prices were on almost everything. Few items were on sale; they just had good baseline prices. When I left the store, I thought: "I bet if I bought these exact same items at Safeway it would cost at least twice as much." I decided to find out.

The first thing I did was make a chart of all items I'd purchased at Walmart along with any salient info, such as size, weight, brand name (or house brand), and price. Then, over the course of a couple of weeks, I took my chart along with me on trips to Safeway and filled it in with the current price. I had to remove two items from the chart, because Safeway didn't carry them, but everything else was on hand.

The end result: I spent $54.50 at Walmart; for the same or similar items I would have spent $105.58 at Safeway---nearly twice as much! You can download a PDF of my chart for your interest, but let me give you a few examples:
  • A 32-oz container of low-fat cottage cheese at Walmart was $2.08; at Safeway it was on sale for $3.79 (the regular price was $4.49)
  • 1.15 pounds of sweet potatoes at Walmart: .83; at Safeway, $1.69
  • 1 can tomato sauce at Walmart: .26; at Safeway, .69
  • Healthy Choice roasted turkey medallions (frozen): Walmart, $1.68; Safeway, $3.00
  • House Brand 42-oz box Old Fashioned oatmeal: Walmart, $1.94; Safeway, $3.99
And so on....

Of course, Walmart is notorious for the fact that many of its "associates" don't earn a living wage or have health insurance (check out Wake Up Walmart, which is waging a campaign to change Walmart; or walmart employees speak out, with numerous awful stories; or Wal-Mart Watch, which fights for the rights of Walmart employees).

On the other hand, the employees of Safeway, Lucky, Whole Foods, and other chains make a good living---even a very good living---and can provide for their families. They have health care, and a good preventive health plan (read this Wall Street Journal article by Safeway's CEO about its health plan). That's as it should be, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

But what I want to know is this: Why can't I buy reasonably-priced groceries in a store where employees earn a decent wage? Isn't there some sort of medium ground---where prices could be halfway between Walmart and Safeway, and employees are paid decently?

I don't know the answer. I'm not an economist. I read all the time that food in America is cheap, but it doesn't seem that way to me. What do you think?

Download a PDF of 9/09 Safeway vs. Walmart prices

© Suzanne Rodriguez 2009
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