BONUS: How Whole Foods really prices its food

Posted on: 22 Nov 2014

It’s easy to gloss over the details in all the hubbub over the feature I just published with Slate and the Food and Environment Reporting Network, “Can Whole Foods Really Chance the Way Poor People Eat?” But I would encourage anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of food reporting to pay attention to the data set we amassed for the piece.

What’s the big deal with the data?

Comparing food prices between stores is phenomenally difficult to do well. Brand names, sale prices, different sized packaging…all of it gets very confusing, very quickly. The USDA does track food prices, but only at the bulk level—for a pound of green peas, for example. But most of us don’t buy just a pound of shelled green peas. We buy Green Giant, or we buy Cascadian Farmr, or we buy White Rose, with all the presumed differences between them affecting price. There simply isn’t anywhere that researchers can go, let alone consumers, to see a coherent comparison with name brands. Until now.

Is your food expensive? Now you can check.

Slate has published the raw data comparing 50 grocery item prices for cheapest option; organic option; and  national brand option at four stores: Whole Foods Detroit, Whole Foods Orchard Lake (a suburb), Walmart (Dearborn, a suburb), and King Cole (a neighborhood supermarket in Detroit) . These are a snapshot, collected over the course of five days in September 2014. But they give a good baseline comparison. If you want to know how the price you’re paying stacks up against these stores, check out the Slate data.

But if you want the full story of the data, it’s worth looking at FERN’s post of the story which includes some research extras.

On a budget? You can’t do all your shopping at Whole Foods.

If price-to-price comparison is the most important thing for you, you’ll want to steer clear of Whole Foods. Although the retailer lowered prices in its DEtroit store on select items, doing grocery shopping there was still 27 percent more expensive compared to King Cole, and 56 more expensive than Walmart.

Looking for local produce? Your best bet may be Walmart.

Local items showed up in three varieties: Produce, dairy and processed. When it came to local produce, Walmart had the most options off the shopping list, with 5 local produce offerings. King Cole came in with 3, while Whole Foods Detroit had just 2. But if you want local jam and butter, Whole Foods is going to have a better selection.

Who’s got the best price on organics?

To take a close look at how organic prices compare, check out the data posted by FERN, which compares Walmart against the two Whole Foods stores. And here’s a surprise: Walmart’s prices on organics are on par with Whole Foods.

If you’re devoted to national name-brands, stick with Walmart or a regular supermarket.

For processed foods that come from national name brands, our study showed that your best bet is going to be conventional superarkets like Walmart or even a neigborhood grocer. Going for national brands at Whole Foods Detroit was twice as expensive as at Walmart.

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