I have been doing the majority of my grocery shopping at Market Basket for years now. The grocery store closest to me, Johnnie’s Foodmaster, was never that great and it had been going downhill for years before it was sold to Whole Foods. So I haven’t minded a few extra minutes and driving by 2 other grocery stores on my way to Market Basket. But this summer, the Market Basket ersatz shutdown forced me to change my grocery shopping habits temporarily. I’m now back to Market Basket full time but I used the Market Basket downtime to shop different grocery stores and do some comparisons.
I kept track of my purchases at the 3 major competitors and when Market Basket came back online (so to speak), I checked their prices on the same items. I ended up with a pretty full spreadsheet but it still had a number of holes. So this morning, I ran around to the 4 stores to plug as many of those holes as I could. The following is a compilation of the comparative data I collected. Yep, this is the kind of thing that only an engineer would apply to grocery shopping.
I’m going to jump to the price results because most people reading this would be interested in that first and foremost. I have totaled a list of 34 grocery items of various types that were fairly easy to compare across the various stores. Market Basket had all 34 items and I had prices for all of them. Stop & Shop, Hannaford, and Shaw’s all were missing a few of the items or I goofed on getting prices for things so in those cases, I substituted an average price from the other 3 stores. In the case of Stop & Shop, they still do a loyalty card for savings which effectively means 2 different result sets from one shopping trip so I treated those results as different (more on that below). And for Shaw’s, there were a number of sale items that changed things considerably so I’ve treated those results as different too (again, more on that below.) Here are the results:
Market Basket: $88.11
Shaw’s normal prices: $108.91
Shaw’s with sale prices: $103.21
Stop & Shop without card: $114.75
Stop & Shop with card: $105.01
And here’s the full detail about how I got to those total prices: grocery2014.numbers
Market Basket is the clear winner and Stop & Shop without a card is the easy loser coming in $26.64 higher. That’s 30% higher than Market Basket! And to put that in perspective, if you were to switch from Stop & Shop without a card to Market Basket and buy these same items for 52 weeks straight, you’d save $1385.28 in the course of a year. Even Stop & Shop with a card is 19% higher than Market Basket with a 52 week difference of $878.80. The prices tell a lot of the story, but there’s a lot more to consider when grocery shopping and those things may vary for different people.
For me, probably the second most important factor when considering where to grocery shop is the degree to which I can complete my shopping in one trip to the one store. In fact, sometimes this is more important than the prices because, as they say, time is money. Market Basket has been my primary store now for years and as such, many of my usual items have been tailored over time to suit what they carry there. So Market Basket is at a bit of an unfair advantage in this department for me. And yet I can still be somewhat subjective in reporting that my favorite Hint water is frequently out of stock (and in fact is the one item on my normal list that hasn’t bounced back from the shutdown) and other items in the store sometimes are missing inexplicably. (Again, not just as a consequence of the shutdown but all along.) Market Basket also has the habit of seemingly intentionally being out of things for which they stock store brand versions in the hopes that you end up trying their store brand. And I hate to say it, but I have done this on a number of occasions and realized that the Market Basket brand is just as good. (One epic fail on the store brand was sliced black olives – inedible compared to the normal name brand olives.) All three competitors to Market Basket did surprisingly well in being able to check off the items on my standard grocery list. Stop & Shop is even carrying Hint water in one location which appears to be a new thing and good since that is a staple on my grocery list. Hannaford is the one store that lost the most points here but it is a bit unfair since the Hannaford location near me is a relatively small store (it took the place of a Wild Oats when Whole Foods bought that chain and decided not to keep it open in that location). I don’t know if other Hannaford locations are larger and if they were, if they would be better at being able to be a one stop shop. (I’ll also pause to comment that there are two Shaw’s locations tested here and one of them is very small and is very different from the other that is about twice the square footage; the fact that Shaw’s operates both as equals is silly. Shaw’s owns the Star Market brand and really should be using that brand on the smaller stores and leave the Shaw’s name for the larger stores.)
Another important consideration is the freshness of the produce. This issue was always the main problem for poorly trafficked Foodmaster and was one of the main reasons I started going to Market Basket. Market Basket has such high volume that freshness is rarely an issue. Hannaford seemed to have equally fresh produce. And despite Shaw’s being somewhat sleepy, the produce there appears pretty good. The Stop & Shop produce seemed the weakest but even there, you had to look hard to find problems.
While lots of traffic may be good for produce turnover, it can cause headaches for shopping. On my wrap-up errands where I visited all 4 stores in quick succession, I saw wildly different shopper volume. At the sleepy but huge Shaw’s, I saw 2 full service registers open (out of maybe 10 or so) with a couple of self-checkout aisles also open. At Hannaford, there were 3 full service registers open (out of maybe 8 or so) with a couple of self-checkout aisles also open. At Stop & Shop, there were 4 full service registers open (out of maybe 12) with a couple of self-checkout aisles also open. And at Market Basket, all 14 full service registers were open and 2 express lanes were open (with 2 permanent express lanes and 4 temporary express lanes the only ones not open). Market Basket doesn’t do self-checkout. The wait at all 4 stores appeared to be about the same with 2 carriages waiting while 1 was active, so about 3 people per register. That means at checkout, Shaw’s had 6 people, Hannaford had 9, Stop & Shop had 12, and Market Basket had 48.
And even saying that Market Basket was 8 times busier at the checkout doesn’t really give you a full picture of how crowded the rest of the store was. At Shaw’s, when I happened upon another shopper, it was almost like when you are on a hike in the woods and you see someone so infrequently, you feel obligated to say “hello” or “good morning”. At Market Basket, there was frequent gridlock of shopping carriages. There’s no question that the crowds at Market Basket are a disincentive. A few days before Thanksgiving last year, a couple leaving the store told me to follow them to their car so I could have their shopping carriage when they unloaded it – he warned me it was like “Thunderdome in there” and that I’d need to go in with a carriage since there was a line inside of people waiting for carriages. (I thanked him profusely and can verify that it was indeed like Thunderdome.) So whenever possible, I do my shopping when the store opens on Sunday morning. In fact, I’m usually there about a half hour before it “opens” along with maybe 40 other regulars who know that you can start your shopping before the official store opening. So, grocery shopping at 6:30am on a Sunday to avoid crowds is probably not for everyone and yet since it works for my schedule, I manage to avoid the usual “Thunderdome” that is the normal Market Basket crowd experience.
Cleanliness is another important feature of a grocery store and again, I’m pleased to say that all 4 stores seem to do pretty well in this regard. Again, all 4 are far beyond what I used to see at Foodmaster, so relatively speaking, they are all good. But out of the 4 being compared here, Market Basket is probably the least clean. And yet again, that’s probably not really fair since the additional traffic makes it that much harder to keep clean. Over at Shaw’s, I figure they could probably clean by deploying one guy weekly with a Swiffer. I have seen other Market Basket stores, however, that are not as clean. It seems that the older the Market Basket store, the less clean it is kept.
Back to the subject of prices for a minute, some stores make it harder to get their best prices. At both Market Basket and Hannaford, there is no loyalty card and everybody gets their best prices. Shaw’s used to have a loyalty card thing but after they were purchased by Cerberus, they ditched the card program (and employees got spiffy new outfits). So that’s good, and while the Shaw’s prices seem lower than they were historically, they have steep sale price drops that makes comparisons difficult. I’m sure that’s the way they want it. So for the included data, I showed both with sale prices and without. For Shaw’s, there would be less consistency on a weekly grocery visit because of the many ups and downs but you’d probably make out okay since over a long period of time, you’d probably hit a number of things on sale. Stop & Shop still has their loyalty card program and they still push it hard. Special sale prices are only for cardholders and other items have regular prices that are always lower for card holders. I don’t like loyalty programs because I need to carry around a nonsense card and because I don’t like the feeling that the store knows what I am buying based on who I am rather than just an anonymous customer. It is nice that when you go through a full-service register, the cashier will generally swipe a courtesy loyalty program card so that you get the savings. But you don’t get that privilege in the self-checkout lane. And since Stop & Shop doesn’t guarantee that you can get those savings, I have kept the prices for loyalty card holders separate from those for the rest of us. Oh, and Market Basket is running a gimmick for all of 2014 that promises 4% back on most items. I didn’t include the 4% savings in my price comparison because it is temporary and after what the Market Basket management had to pay to regain control, there’s no chance that 4% is going to be repeated in 2015.
And back to the products on the shelves, there’s more to it than prices. Hint water used to be available at only Market Basket (of the 4 grocery stores being compared here) and Market Basket has historically had a hard time keeping the 4 flavors of Hint that they carry in stock. As of at least this morning, it is available at all 4 stores in at least two varieties. Stop & Shop had a special in-aisle display this morning that had 4 varieties so their stock is good currently. To highlight a produce item, all 4 stores sell shredded carrots but Stop & Shop is the only one selling the wet version – you know, the kind that gets funky and rots within a few days in your fridge at home. The other three sell the dry kind that lasts for weeks. So Stop & Shop loses out on that one. I feel like I have become a connoisseur of grocery bakery cookies and Market Basket offers only one really good cookie, but it is really the best there is. They call it a gourmet chocolate chip cookie and although it isn’t cheap like their other cookies which taste pretty bland, it is totally worth it. Hannaford has a good cookie selection too and they have a good variety of cookies that are all pretty good. Shaw’s chocolate chip cookies taste a little too shortening-y for me but they offer them in a chocolate dipped variety that makes them great. I haven’t had a chance to really experiment much with Stop & Shop’s cookies – the one time I was going to, I stopped when I realized the cookie assortment was going to cost $11.
There are some other small things that are worth noting. I like that Market Basket cash registers can do double-sided printing, although they don’t always have it working (or maybe it is some registers can do it and others cannot). Less paper is nice. And I like the fact that the credit card part of the receipt is separate from the list of food so that you can throw away the list of food part and hold on to the credit card part until your statement comes through (or whenever you normally ditch credit card receipts). The other 3 all print on one side and mix up the credit card payment part with the food list, sometimes including silly things about filling out surveys smack in the middle of the receipt. Stop & Shop’s receipt is a mess because of the loyalty card savings (assuming you have one or got to use the guest one) and there’s no categorization to it. The Shaw’s receipt is a little unusual because it includes grocery item numbers that you can actually Google – cool for times like this when the receipt printing failed on a few lines and I could Google the missing things, but probably not too important most of the time.
The people that work at a grocery store also make a difference. Until Cerberus took over, I could say that quite easily the people at Shaw’s were the least pleasant to deal with. But damn if they aren’t all super nice these days. I don’t know if Cerberus forces happy pills on them all, but whatever they are doing, it is working. Stop & Shop seems to be a fairly typical assortment of people that seem temporary and not too enthused about the work. Hannaford has a typical assortment of people that seem temporary but seem to be generally happy (I heard a produce worker making a pun with a customer asking about a shallot and turning it into Charlotte: “no, she doesn’t work here any more” before smiling and bringing him to the shallots). Market Basket easily has the employees with the greatest longevity (a big part of the reason for the shutdown) and therefore they all know their stuff. But that longevity can lead to complacency and general malaise so the employees on the happy pills at Shaw’s have the edge in that comparison.
If you’ve read this all (and good for you, if you have!), you may have noticed I have very little nice to say about Stop & Shop. I’m not trying to bash them, but they just seem very much to be operating in the wrong decade when it comes to the loyalty card program, to the general approach to grocery pricing and product offerings. But it is worth pointing out that they have lots of additional services that no other stores offer. For example, you can have your groceries delivered. Or you can order online and pick them up. Some stores even offer the Scan It feature that allows you to bag your items as you put them in the cart and skip the usual processing of each of your grocery items at the checkout. The deli counter offers the ability to punch in your order to a kiosk and pick it up later or if you choose to wait in line, the take a number device is even high tech and computerized. And in the produce section, you can have scales print barcodes for your individually bagged produce that work at the self-checkout. That’s a lot of technology to throw at a grocery store but I don’t find any of it particularly helpful or useful. Things like the Scan It or barcoded produce may improve over the normal Stop & Shop checkout process but another way to do that would be more cashiers – and that reduces my time in the store, which is more important to me than the technology used. I wouldn’t mind trying out the deli order feature but I have a suspicion it would take five minutes to enter the order on the computer kiosk.
I should also point out that the Stop & Shop stores and the large Shaw’s store I went to are massive. And they end up including a modern-day drug store (a la Walgreen’s) inside the grocery store. I know I wrote earlier that one-stop shopping is important to me. But that’s one-stop shopping for groceries. I visit a drug store much less frequently. And when I do, it’s usually for toothpaste or something that you can get at a normal grocery store. I don’t need a grocery store to carry flip-flops, beachballs, RC cars, Christmas lights, etc.. All I can think of when I see that space in a grocery store is how much better the store would be at being a grocery store if they filled those aisles with Asian food specialties or some other similarly poorly represented category. Or used it to expand their other aisles to include more varieties of products.
My conclusion is probably predictable. Based on price, Market Basket is the clear winner. Based on selection, it is the winner, although the lack of stock of some items on a routine basis probably brings it down to being equal with others. I like Hannaford and if I could find a bigger one with better selection, I might make visiting there a regular thing. Shaw’s is fine once in a while (and for their bakery cookies) but their prices are not consistently low enough to make the store a worthwhile regular. And Stop & Shop? I have nothing nice to say so I won’t say anything more about them at all.
Finally, I was actually planning to make this a 6 store comparison. I shopped and saved receipts at Whole Foods and Wegmans in addition to the 4 above. The experience at Wegmans was so different from what I expected, that will get its own post. As for Whole Foods, you probably already know the result. Most things at Market Basket didn’t have a comparable item at Whole Foods and the few that did were clearly priced better anywhere other than Whole Foods. You can see the prices in the spreadsheet but the result is pretty obvious: Whole Foods will remain a place to go for specialty items and prepared foods. They have lots more flavors of Hint water, even if the price averages $1.89 for it. You get 5 cents off for each reusable grocery bag you bring that is used. Oh, and their bakery cookies are pretty good and have the perk of coming in a huge bucket!