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Which grocery stores have the Triangle’s best prices? We visited 16 chains to find out.

In case anyone was ever unsure, the reactions to last year’s Kroger closures and last month’s Wegmans opening laid all doubts to rest: people around here are passionate about their favorite grocery stores.

With Wegmans’ Sept. 29 grand opening on Wake Forest Road in Raleigh — the chain’s first store in North Carolina — the total number of traditional grocery chains in the Triangle hits 16. That’s right: 16. (And that’s if you don’t count Dollar General, Dollar Tree and Family Dollar, which market research company Chain Store Guide does, and if you set membership warehouse stores Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s in their own separate category.)

According to Chain Store Guide research for April 2019, Walmart and Food Lion are nearly tied in market share across demographics that include Wake, Durham, Orange, Johnston, Chatham, Person and Franklin counties, with Harris Teeter coming in third. How all of that shifts over the next few years, with at least four more Wegmans stores scheduled to enter the market, we’ll have to wait and see.

Roger Beahm, the executive director for the Center for Retail Innovation at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, says the competition from Wegmans essentially keeps all grocers on their toes.

“Other grocery retailers have been anticipating this moment for some time,” Beahm said. “Many have already taken steps to shore up their customer loyalty and defend their franchises against this formidable competitor. Upgrading in-store environments, positioning themselves around low prices, introducing higher quality private brands and launching click-and-collect as well as home delivery options, are just some of the ways local retailers have been working to defend against this inevitable day. The question is, of course, will it be enough?”

(True to Beahm’s point, when we visited the Harris Teeter on Edwards Mill Road in Raleigh to do some price-checking, the store was in the middle of revamping its produce department and was in the early stages of adding an Asian food bar to its prepared food area.)

But Beahm says even shoppers satisfied with their current stores are likely to check out Wegmans, as they did when Publix entered the market in 2014.

“In spite of high satisfaction levels with their current retailer, curiosity alone will drive many to try the new entrant,” Beahm said. “And experience shows that once there’s trial, there’s going to be some conversion. Not everyone will change shopping loyalty, of course, but the better the new experience the greater the likelihood of switching.”

Which store to pick?

Kim Hill Gramlisch of Cary is curious about Wegmans, but says she isn’t likely to change her current shopping habits.

“Wegman’s doesn’t change anything for me,” Gramlisch says. “I would be interested in checking it out if I were in the general area, because so many of my out-of-state friends speak highly of it, but ultimately I’m a convenience shopper. I live close to about half a dozen other grocery stores. I’m very blessed to not live in a food desert, unlike so many other under-served areas in our state.”

In the meantime, all those stores mean shoppers in most neighborhoods have unprecedented variety. That is sometimes exhilarating, but sometimes overwhelming.

Which stores have the best prices? Which have the best selection? Where can you get everything in one stop? Or is it best to drive from store to store hitting sales?

We decided to tackle a corner of the grocery puzzle with a price comparison study.

Our price comparison methodology

Here’s what we did.

We came up with a list of 38 items to price-check — 18 of those are popular name-brand items (such as Oreos), another 10 are items that people seem to frequently buy in the store brand version (eggs, milk) and another eight are produce items (a mixture of regular and organic). Then we tossed in a fresh baguette from the bakery and some chicken breasts.

We shopped 16 grocery store chains — the major ones like Harris Teeter, Food Lion and Walmart, as well as discount stores like Aldi and Lidl, and specialty stores like Sprouts Farmers Market and Weaver Street Market. In each case we shopped Raleigh locations.

Almost all of our price checks were done last week, Oct. 8-11, with a couple of missing items added this week. We took photos of every item we priced.

Here’s the controversial part: We only recorded regular prices. No sale prices. We decided this was the only way to do a fair comparison across the board, since sales are fleeting. We know dedicated Harris Teeter shoppers will point out that the store’s VIC deals lower their shopping bills drastically, but sometimes you just have to buy stuff when it’s not on sale. And we also know that many consumers shop several stores over the course of a week, catching the best sales to stock up on things they want.

But even so, comparing regular prices put everyone on a more level playing field for the purposes of this comparison.

We should also note that not all stores had all of the products on our list.

For example, Trader Joe’s doesn’t carry any of the name-brand items we looked for, and stores like Aldi and Lidl carry very few. In a couple of cases, the store carried the item but a small version that didn’t match the items on our list. In two cases, when we felt it was fair to do so, we used a “per ounce” calculation (this was necessary for shredded cheese and frozen peas because of the lack of consistent sizing).

There were also times when the stores carried the items — eggs, for instance — but only an organic / cage-free / fair trade version that understandably jacks up the price. That’s why you may not see eggs in our database for a store like Sprouts or Weaver Street Market, when you know those stores sell eggs. We just didn’t think the cost comparison would be fair.

Another thing to keep in mind is that prices within the same chain could be different in different neighborhoods. For example, Oscar Mayer bacon was $5.99 at the Target at Brier Creek. But when we were in the North Hills Target the next day to check produce prices, we noticed the same bacon for $6.99. So if the prices at your store do not match the prices we found, that could be why (or the prices could have changed — many local stores are continuously checking each other and making adjustments).

What did we find?

In a nutshell, we found out that overall, Walmart has the largest selection and lowest prices.

But we also found that Wegmans — at least in the products we researched — had lower prices than Food Lion, Harris Teeter, Lowes and Publix on nearly every single item. Again, those are regular prices.

In many cases, Wegmans even matched (or came very close to) the super low-priced stores like Aldi, Lidl and Walmart on items like eggs, butter and milk.

Of course, we had no way to factor in the quality of the shopping experience — the warmth of that friendly cashier at your neighborhood store, the nostalgia of shopping a chain you’ve known for years or the excitement of knowing dinner is going home with you from the Asian food bar. That’s the X-factor you’ll have to bring to the equation.

In the meantime, spend some time with our database of price-checked items and see how your favorite store compares. You can view prices item-by-item or look at all items by store. Remember when looking at store totals that not all stores carry every single item we checked.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Why we did this story

When I first outlined the grocery store price comparison story, the idea was to price maybe 20 items at the top half-dozen grocery stores in the area.

After talking with friends and colleagues about their shopping habits, the shopping list soon grew to 40 items (two items were eventually cut). And the list of stores expanded to 16 (and even at 16, we’re worried we missed something).

I put more than 200 miles on my car hitting all 16 stores — and then backtracking at a few to clarify some things. It took nearly two weeks to complete the research and write the story. The News & Observer’s data reporter David Raynor built the pricing database, and Kevin Keister from the N&O visuals team created the video.

In the end, it turned out to be one of the most exhausting single stories I’ve ever worked on (only outdone by the two years where I spent 11 straight days covering the NC State Fair). But this also was one of the most fun stories. I love grocery stores, and I’m fascinated by them — how they choose the items they stock, how they compete with each other and how they treat their customers. There was something to love in every store I visited.

When I started, I had my own notions about which stores in the Triangle were the most affordable and which were most expensive. Some of those beliefs have been shattered.

We always want our work to be useful to our readers, and we hope this one will make you feel more informed as a consumer.

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Brooke Cain is a North Carolina native who has worked at The News & Observer for more than 20 years. She writes about TV and local media for the Happiness is a Warm TV blog, and answers CuriousNC questions for readers.
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