Nearly every grocery chain in Hampton Roads launched a new "lower prices" campaign in the past year. And — although it may seem impossible — prices are actually lower in 2013.
In an informal study of the six major supermarkets in the area — Farm Fresh, Kroger, Walmart, Target, Food Lion and Harris Teeter — I found that current prices are lower than they were a year ago at all six grocery chains.
In July 2012, I embarked on the first Savvy Shopper study of area grocery stores. During the survey, I compared prices of more than 50 items, representing every aisle of the grocery store from produce to meats to pantry items.
Last year, I found that prices on most staple grocery items were cheapest at Walmart. Target followed with Kroger coming in third for the cheapest groceries. Food Lion, Farm Fresh and Harris Teeter were the most expensive grocery chains in the area. Shoppers at Harris Teeter would spend about $70 more than at Walmart on the basket of items I included in the survey when comparing base prices alone.
This year, I re-checked the non-sale prices of the same grocery store items, ranging from apples and Oreos to diapers and laundry detergent. Walmart still comes out as the winner of the cheapest grocery store title, with Target following in second and Kroger taking the third spot.
Food Lion, Farm Fresh and Harris Teeter also keep their respective spots, with Harris Teeter the most expensive grocery store.
This year, the basket of groceries cost $200.15 at Walmart (before tax), while the same basket of brand-name groceries cost $269.08 at Harris Teeter.
What is more compelling is the fact that prices decreased — by as much as 8 percent at Farm Fresh — at all area grocery stores.
Farm Fresh and Food Lion saw the biggest drop in prices, with Food Lion's base prices decreasing by about 5 percent. Harris Teeter and Walmart decreased in price the least, with my basket of items costing about 2 percent less this year.
Groceries at Target and Kroger decreased in price by about 3 percent.
Kroger has been a particularly interesting study. About a week after my original price comparison study in 2012, Kroger launched its new lower prices campaign in Hampton Roads. During the launch of the advertising campaign, prices at Kroger dropped by about 7 percent.
During our re-check this year, prices at Kroger are still lower than the original 2012 prices. They are a bit higher, however, than the prices during the first weeks of the "lower prices" campaign.
In other words, my basket of groceries cost $234.02 during my original price check. A week later, the cost of the same basket of groceries dropped to $216.77, lower than Target's prices. This year, the same basket of groceries cost $226.64.
"Margins at grocery stores are so low, we are always evaluating and looking at things to make sure we have the right lineup," says Carl York a spokesman for Kroger.
Apples to apples
So which store had the cheapest strawberries or ground beef or eggs?
In many cases, only pennies separated the base, non-sale prices on specific items at the area grocery stores. Bananas, for example, cost about 57 cents a pound no matter where you shop. That's the same as last year.
This year, there is less variation in price on Folger's Classic Roast, for example. The 33.9-ounce container costs between $8.88 (at Walmart and Kroger) and $9.99 no matter where you shop. In 2012, the coffee cost as much as $11.89 at Harris Teeter.
Prices on diapers stayed largely consistent, as well, with a 96-pack of Pampers Size 3 diapers costing about $25 at most area grocery stores.
Prices on Perdue, boneless, skinless chicken breast saw a wide variety in prices, increasing in cost at some local grocery chains and decreasing in price at others. Chicken breast cost $8.89 a pound at Target in 2012, for example. This year, the supermarket stocked a cheaper version, costing $4.99 a pound.
Chicken breast costs $3.33 a pound at Walmart, $5.59 at Farm Fresh, $4.79 at Food Lion, $5.99 at Harris Teeter and $4.99 at Kroger.
Milk was one of the few grocery items that increased in price this year. Milk costs $3.39 a gallon at Target, up from $3.09 last year. Walmart charges $3.33. Farm Fresh and Kroger stock the cheapest milk at $2.88 for a gallon of 2 percent.
Tide laundry detergent is cheapest at Walmart, at $17.97 for 96 loads, the same price it was in 2012. Farm Fresh matches that price, a drop from $21.99 in 2012. Target and Kroger are close, at $17.99 for the same bottle. Food Lion ($21.19) and Harris Teeter ($22.99) are the most expensive.
Strawberries slightly increased in price at most stores. Walmart charges $1.98 a pound for strawberries, up from $1.78 in 2012. Target charges $1.99, a decrease from its 2012 price of $2.19. Strawberries are the most expensive at Farm Fresh ($3.49) and Harris Teeter ($3.99).
A dozen of Eggland's Best eggs also increased in price in 2013, with the cheapest eggs at Target for $2.69 per dozen. Kroger had the next best price, $2.89 per dozen, the same price it charged in 2012. The Eggland's Best eggs were most expensive at Harris Teeter at $3.49 per dozen.
I looked at prices for 93 percent lean ground beef. Here's a case where prices decreased or remained the same, for the most part. Ground beef was the cheapest at Walmart at $4.12 per pound. It cost $4.59 a pound at Target and $5.08 at Food Lion. Kroger and Farm Fresh priced ground beef at $5.29 a pound. It costs $5.99 at Harris Teeter.
This year, we also took a look at sales prices. Keep in mind that these sales only represent a snapshot of how grocery chains discount items throughout the year.
In our study, Food Lion offered the deepest discounts on sales items. My basket of groceries cost 8 percent less at Food Lion ($221.31 versus $240.68) when taking into account MVP sales prices.
Harris Teeter sales prices shaved about 6.5 percent off of store base prices. Farm Fresh sale prices were about 5 percent lower, and Target sale prices were almost 4 percent lower.
Kroger's sale prices only discounted my basket by 3 percent. There were no sale offers on the chosen items at Walmart.
Even when considering sales prices, Walmart is still the cheapest grocery store for shopping, and the order of cheapness among other grocery stores remains the same. However, when taking sales prices into account, the gap between Walmart and Target ($214.10) and Kroger ($219.73) narrows.
How did I do it?
During my analysis, I maintained consistency by comparing products that were identical in brand, flavor and size. In general, I stuck with "originals" within product categories.
For example, I compared the 15-ounce box of original Ritz crackers, staying away from garlic-flavored or lightly salted versions of the cracker.
Product size was a bit trickier, as some stores carry different sizes of the same brand and flavor. In most cases, the size differences were insignificant. For example, in 2012, Heinz offered a 32-ounce bottle of ketchup. We could not find that size bottle on any store shelves this year. Instead, we looked at the 34-ounce bottles.
The items I chose to compare come from every aisle in the grocery store and would be considered some of the most commonly purchased products. Within those categories, I chose the variety in the middle price range — not the biggest and not the smallest.
You can download and print a complete list of products and their prices at each of the six stores at dailypress.com/shopping.
Our final cost-to-you tally, $200.15 at Walmart, is the simple addition of available products. In other words, that number does not account for slight differences in size, it reflects what the shopper would actually pay for the basket of groceries I compiled.
In Walmart's case, if product size differed from other stores, it tended to be larger.
I did not compare the quality of the food, the level of customer service or the atmosphere of the store in this analysis.
What to conclude?
For the cheapest prices with the least amount of work, Walmart is your go-to shopping spot in Hampton Roads.
Still, sales prices can make a significant difference, particularly at stores where base prices are higher.
Putting together a personalized price comparison list can be a daunting task. I spent a little more than six hours inside grocery stores (and I was working as quickly as possible). Combine that with the hours in preparation and analysis, and embarking on your own grocery comparison is a big project.
Still, compiling your own price list with your preferred brands can save you hundreds each month. On my compiled list, there was a $70 difference between the final cost at Walmart and Harris Teeter. You can also download a blank copy of the form I used at dailypress.com/shopping.
You may have to spread out your personal research over a period of weeks or months, but knowing common prices will make you a smarter shopper.
Our lists, available in complete form at dailypress.com/shopping, can serve as your launch pad.
Paitsel can be reached at 757-247-4737 or email@example.com.
At a glance
Here is what the basket of 50 survey items cost at each store in our 2013 survey:
Walmart: $200.15, 2% decrease from 2012 ($204.24)
Target: $222.75, 3.4% ($230.68)
Kroger: $226.64, 3.2% ($234.02)
Food Lion: $240.68, 5.1% ($253.49)
Farm Fresh: $245.43, 8% ($266.87)
Harris Teeter: $269.08, 1.7% ($273.84)
Prices with sales
The same basket of groceries cost a bit less at each store when I took into account that week's sales prices. Here is a snapshot of what sales looked like during my recent shopping trip.
Walmart: No sales prices logged, original basket cost $200.15
Target: $214.10, 3.9% savings
Kroger: $219.73, 3% savings
Food Lion: $221.31, 8% savings
Farm Fresh: $232.32, 5.3% savings
Harris Teeter: $251.36, 6.6% savings
What things cost
Here is a small sampling of how six of the area's largest grocery chains (Farm Fresh, Harris Teeter, Walmart, Target, Kroger and Food Lion) compare with four household staples. View and print full price comparison lists on each of the store chains at dailypress.com/shopping.
Cascade dish detergent (75 ounces)
$3.99 at Target
$4.19 at Kroger
$4.36 at Walmart
$5.19 at Harris Teeter
$5.49 at Food Lion
$5.79 at Farm Fresh
Breyer's ice cream (1.5 quart)
$2.97 at Walmart
$3.49 at Food Lion
$3.89 at Target
$4.99 at Harris Teeter
$5.99 at Farm Fresh
$6.29 at Kroger
Nature's Own Wheat bread (loaf)
$2.29 at Farm Fresh
$2.78 at Walmart
$2.79 at Target
$2.99 at Harris Teeter and Kroger
$3.29 at Food Lion
Kraft Velveeta Shells (12-ounce box)
$2.17 at Farm Fresh
$2.25 at Walmart
$2.27 at Kroger
$2.49 at Target
$2.50 at Food Lion
$2.59 at Harris Teeter
Find more local deals at dailypress.com/shopping. Connect at Facebook.com/SavvyShopper. Sign up for mobile alerts at dailypress.com/textalerts. Choose "free stuff."