Turns out it’s not possible to do a literal apples-to-apples price comparison of Juneau’s grocery stores, at least for one type of apple. But a comparison of a list of other items reveals the perhaps obvious high and low price leaders among the four major stores — with the caveat each offers sales, customer loyalty discounts and unique features.
Take chicken, as in take-out from in-store delis. The raw numbers show shoppers can save a buck buying fried birds at $8.99 from Fred Meyer compared to the competition.
But that doesn’t factor in the buck or two Safeway plucks off prices on Mondays (along with bigger discounts regularly for online shoppers). Or foodies fond of Foodland IGA’s super-thick coating compared to the others (and for those into rotisserie chicken, how Foodland’s unique smoker makes them subjectively superior).
Then there’s the matter of if items are in stock, which remains a consistent problem in inconsistent ways at all stores. What stores allow customers to shop online and pick groceries up for free or have them delivered for a fee. Plus the cold reality that no matter when a person shops prices tend to seem shockingly high these days due to inflation (adding to prices already 20-30% more in general than the Lower 48).
Super Bear IGA’s July 13 weekly specials ad, for instance, shows large green bell peppers for $1.50 each, compared to 79 cents in the ad on July 14 of last year. Deli Swiss cheese is $9.99 per pound. compared to $7.99 per pound a year ago and London broil $4.99 per pound compared to $4.49 per pound last year. Some items, such as six-packs of Angel Soft toilet paper at $7.99, remain the same.
The bottom-line spoiler: there’s no fresh news when it comes to which store has the lowest everyday non-sale prices. Fred Meyer came in about 10% lower on 19 common items at non-sale prices on July 1 compared to the nearly identical totals at Safeway and Superbear IGA and Foodland.
Michael Stoll, lead assistant manager at the Juneau Fred Meyer, stated in an email responding to questions about the price survey “our PR department informed me that we are not authorized to speak to the media at this time.”
Fred Meyer’s local competitors, however, acknowledge the reality.
Mark Jones, store director at the Juneau Safeway, said his store checks prices at Fred Meyer every week and they return the favor — hence why many are identical. But ultimately Fred Meyer’s all-in-one store concept where they sell items like towels and electronics means they have an advantage when it comes to groceries.
“There’s a lot of things they sell that can offset their food prices,” he said.
Savvy shopper savings
But “what ifs” frequently exist even for items costing notably more than the competition. A 12-pack of 12 oz. cans of Coke cost $10.79 at Safeway compared to $7.49 at Fred Meyer and $9.49 at the IGA stores, for example, but Jones said his store constantly offers “buy two, get two free” or similar multi-purchase specials. Plus the not-meant-to-be-creepy knowing of people’s shopping habits that results in discounts via the free customer membership cards offered by all stores.
“If you consistently get Ben & Jerry’s there’s going to be a discount for that,” Jones said.
Fred Meyer also offers plenty of discounts via specials and customer cards. But the loyalty cards is one of the areas where Foodland and Super Bear go a step beyond by offering $25 gift cards for customers with points equating to $2,000 in spending (although there’s various double-point and other opportunities to earn them).
On the other hand, what Safeway and Fred Meyer offer that the IGA stores don’t is delivery at their websites via third-party services for about $10 (plus optional tips added by default). Fred Meyer’s is more flexible, offering two-hour windows (and generally within two hours) compared to Safeway’s four, and both offer unlimited free deliveries by purchasing monthly/annual memberships.
Both also offer free in-store pickup if online shopping orders, as does Super Bear — although same-day services are not always available from the latter (offering a Friday shopper Monday pickup times at the earliest).
Among the individual items (and usually in the broader general categories) where the biggest price differences existed were soda, snack foods, some staples such as baking mixes, canned basics like soups and vegetables, and personal care and household products. Differences were minor with dairy items, brand-name cereals, many produce products (albeit with significant differences in quality for identical items), and some canned products such as Spam.
Availability of items was all over the map — as in varying products for varying stores were obviously somewhere far from Juneau for sometimes long periods of time. While some crisis-shortage items like infant formula continue to inconsistently appear on all stores’ shelves and others like Jif peanut butter were nearly or entirely absent due to the effects of a multi-state recall, even the two IGA stores getting their stocks from the same supplies showed notable differences.
Foodland and Safeway both were lacking 80/20 ground beef, for instance (which is why along with a few other items on the Empire’s shopping list are not included in the cumulative totals). Fred Meyer was lacking some produce items sought including red apples (and the store’s website lists the cost as “prices may vary” and not available for delivery). Super Bear had all the items on the list, even though like the others there were gaps on some shelves that in some cases existed for more than a few days.
Jones said that for his store the supply chain issue isn’t as bad as a year ago.
“If we ordered, say, toilet paper…I know I’m going to get it,” he said.
But some items such as cat food remain troublesome to obtain (“that one is long term, they don’t know when it’s going to recover”), along with cough and cold medication.
“That has been very difficult to recover from,” he said.
Then there’s personal preferences beyond price for features every store has such as bakeries, produce and delis. Setting aside the non-neutral question of quality in the delis, for example, competition for Fred Meyer’s pricing advantage comes from individual store specialties such as Super Bear’s Mexican food bar, Safeway’s similar Chinese spread, and Foodland’s salad bar and smoker.
Store size and selection can also be a personal factor, with Safeway and Fred Meyer having clear size advantages that mean, among other things, large sections dedicated to natural foods. Foodland and Super Bear, on the other hand, are quicker in/out options and offer some shared specialties such as local meat/fish items.
Finally, there’s those with personal preferences going beyond the “big four” stores with the all-natural selection of Rainbow Foods or late-night/24-hour convenience of Breeze In. While only a limited item-to-item comparison was possible at the Valley Breeze In — and wasn‘t possible at all at Rainbow Foods — a sampling of shopping at those two stores shows prices and availability aren’t entirely as distant from larger store’s prices as one might suspect.
A 12-pack of Coke at Breeze In for $9.99, for example, falls within the high/low prices of supermarkets, as does $6.49 for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. But $4.49 for a half-gallon of milk, the largest container available, was essentially the same prices as a gallon at the grocery stores.
Meanwhile, the cheapest half-gallon of organic milk at Rainbow Foods was $5.59. A dozen eggs at $4.79 was roughly double the supermarkets’ prices and a box of Annie’s macaroni and cheese at $4.59 was more than double the Kraft blue box at the “big four.” But a pint of Straos ice cream at $6.29 was lower than what three supermarkets charge for Ben & Jerry’s, and apple prices starting at $2.99 per pound not too distant from similar varieties at the bigger stores.
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com