Whole Foods Seeks To Define Its Prices As Bargains

As the economy sours, premium stores like Whole Foods are struggling to keep customers, reports the New York Times. To remain competitive, the pricey natural grocery store is offering guided tours to customers who want to cut costs but can’t stand to set foot in Winn Dixie.

Perhaps surprisingly, some of the items at Whole Foods are competitively priced. The Times compared the prices of items at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and ShopRite (a typical grocery store in the Northeast). They found that the basic items at Whole Foods—like organic milk, organic carrots, cage free eggs, and natural peanut butter—were lower or comparatively priced. As for the budget tours, Whole Foods advises customers to buy items on sale, and stock up on $1.50 tofu.

Whole Foods Looks for a Fresh Image in Lean Times [NYT]
(Photo: Adam Lawrence)

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  1. Triborough says:

    I’ll just stick to Trader Joe’s since they seem to be better on price and they don’t need sales.

  2. BeeBoo says:

    Whole Foods suggests that people buy vegetables from their salad bar to save money by reducing waste by buying exactly what you need.

    Considering the price of vegetables on a salad bar vs. the price of unprepped vegetables, it boggles the mind that they could seriously suggest this.

    Another suggested cost savings measure is to buy a roll, three slices of turkey, a slice of cheese and a little bag of chips for $4.50 and making your own sandwich vs. buying one prepared.

  3. Norislolz says:

    Isn’t Whole Foods run by some lunatic libertarian who basically threatened Sea Turtles when animal rights activists asked that he only carry turtle-safe seafood products?

  4. EBounding says:

    This is good news since white people need organic to survive.

    [stuffwhitepeoplelike.com]

  5. Is the beef included on the budget tours?

  6. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    Soy milk is also less expensive there, as are many (but not all) bulk items. Bulk items have a higher turnover there also, so you’re getting fresher product for your money.

  7. Mr. Guy says:

    lewis black had a great joke on the daily show the other night. They ran a clip of a BBC reporter shopping in Harare, saying that he purchased “two tins of beans and a loaf of bread for a trillion Zimbabwean dollars”. Cut back to lewis black: “A TRILLION DOLLARS for a can of BEANS? I didn’t know they had Whole Foods in Zimbabwe!!”

  8. Anneth says:

    I haven’t ever shopped at Whole Foods, but I did live within walking distance of an organics-carrying coop for several years, and it taught me all those budgeting devices that keep cropping up on this site as lists, like making lists and avoiding impulse buys and only buying what you know you’ll eat. Because the products at the coop were so expensive, I was forced to purchase very carefully and thoughtfully (or risk spending far too much). Since the quality of the goods was generally better than at conventional supermarkets (and ethically-produced), I kept going back.

    I can’t give you much for Whole Foods’ “suggestions,” but I can speak in favor of using a more expensive store as a way to teach yourself grocery-shopping budget-tricks! That said, I was a single student at the time, and didn’t go in for much beyond veggie burger patties and produce! So my advice may not mean much out of context.

  9. paxcincinnatus says:

    I don’t mean to be pissy, but organic isn’t always a hyperbolic “I need this to survive” kind of choice for every consumer.

    I value spending in line with my ethics, even if it costs a little more. I don’t know about Winn Dixie – but Kroger doesn’t carry wide varieties of hormone-free meats and veggies. It isn’t that I “can’t stand to set foot in [Kroger]”, it’s just that they don’t often have what I believe in.

  10. Rectilinear Propagation says:

    Store tours? Really? Really? Wouldn’t ads about their lower priced goods be more effective? Are they that strapped for cash?

    Then he held up a $1.50 package of tofu. “It looks gross but it’s delicious,” he said.

    Tip: If you want someone to buy something, do not use the word ‘gross’ while describing it.

    The photo for this article is awesome.

  11. ludwigk says:

    @BeeBoo: Buy a single slice of cheese? I’m sure the folks at the deli counter will appreciate that one. Whole Foods sells prepared sandwiches already!!! Of course, they’re like $8 (but they are good sandwiches).

    I still buy a lot of bulk foods there, because the price per pound is still good, and I can buy the amounts that I want.

  12. PinkBox says:

    @BeeBoo: My boyfriend ended up with a $16 salad once from using their bar. Yikes.

    I do like to shop at Whole Foods for certain items (their coffee is nice!), but for most of my staple items, I just hit the local grocer.

  13. umbriago says:

    There’s just no value for me at places like Whole Foods. Sure I’m willing to pay but at least give me my money’s worth (I then head over to Costco, where I feel I’m getting value when I’m being being separated from my money).

    I go into Whole Foods occasionally just to laugh, and view it as an extremely smart way to separate gullible people from their money. But after seeing people gleefully pouring out entire sacks of money into the Whole Foods coffers and speeding off in their Excursions, I walk out thinking to myself, “Damn self, how can I, personally, separate gullible people from their money?”

  14. BeeBoo says:

    I promise I didn’t make that stuff up. If you click on the links for “Learn More” and “Find Out Here”, you’ll see those “ideas” for saving money. [www.wholefoodsmarket.com]

    There are some good basic suggestions, but a lot of it boils down to it’s usually cheaper to eat at home than to eat in a restaurant even if your grocery store is expensive.

  15. JulesNoctambule says:

    After finding out that the co-op near a friend’s house in Asheville sells local, organic, free range eggs for USD$14.00 a dozen — FOURTEEN DOLLARS A DOZEN!! OH MY GOD! (sorry, that happens every time I think about it) — Whole Foods almost looks like a bargain.

    Said friend has a farm of her own and is currently thinking of ways to separate Asheville hipsters from their money using her own fantastic, sustainably farmed produce and eggs.

  16. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    @JulesNoctambule: My CSA sells organic free-range eggs from a local supplier for THREE dollars a dozen. You guys are so getting ripped off.

  17. JulesNoctambule says:

    @speedwell: I buy mine from a local farm; three dollars for 18 and they taste so good! I *might* pay fourteen dollars for a dozen eggs if they cooked themselves, cleaned up afterward and then did my laundry.

  18. Canino says:

    The vast majority of people, including myself, just don’t care whether their eggs are laid on a bed of organic peat moss by a freerange chicken with its own psychologist or whether they’re squeezed from a chicken in a box by a chicken squeezing machine.

    You might care, but most people just don’t. Price what drives the market.

  19. OKJeff says:

    For the record, the Organic Tofu at Whole Foods is cheaper, then many other grocery stores in my experience.

    I think some of the main grocers add a premium to their organic products because they don’t stock as much of them and people expect to have to pay more for them.

  20. qwickone says:

    @Canino: People DO care. Why do you think Wal-mart isn’t doing so hot? Now, not everyone cares, but there are a lot of people that do.

  21. RagingBoehner says:

    Regular Milk at Whole Foods in DC is cheaper than Safeway. And there’s no checkout lines or surly staff.

  22. purplesun says:

    I don’t like to shop at Whole Foods due to the general cost involved, but after my local H.E.B started placing my $5 for not-quite-a-pound of all-purpose gluten-free flour in the same aisle as the cooking needs (i.e., leaking bags of normal flour) I’ve had to start shopping there.

    In fact, HEB put the entire gluten-free section next to (and below) the wheat flour. It’s enough to make a celiac cry.

    I’ve noticed that Whole Food’s prices are pretty much the same as HEB these days, largely because things at the regular grocery store are costing a fortune as well. I guess Whole Foods had to slash its cushy profit margin a bit.

  23. mrgenius says:

    Maybe I am in the minority, but I probably do about 90% of my shopping at the local Whole Foods. It’s very convenient to my home, so it allows me to purchase food for that night’s dinner, and perhaps the next two days.

    In the past, I think a lot of my problem with food costs was going to a big store like Harris Teeter or Safeway and buying half the store with all of the buy one get one free offers. And then half of that food ends up getting tossed because of spoilage.

    Net net, I think I end up spending the same amount on the food I end up eating from WF as I do from Harris Teeter, but I waste less. Also, I think the organic selections are superior and in many cases cheaper than most of my local grocery stores’ selections.

    I guess everyone has their priorities, but I’d just as soon drive my paid off 2001 Corolla and spend a car payment on tasty food without hormones or pesticides. I am always amazed when I go to a regular grocery store what I see in many families’ carts. I’d never dream of feeding a child most of these processed foods (Lunchables? Grape Soda? You’ve GOT to be kidding me!).

    I don’t feel like it is a problem being “separated” from my money by going to WF (money is a medium of exchange after all). I think the gullible people are the ones who think that the FDA is not in the pocket of the large agri-chemical companies and will protect them against dangerous ingredients. I can’t fathom why someone would drink milk made from cows treated with r-BGH when there aren’t even long-term studies showing that it’s not harmful. These are our kids for goodness sake! As long as parents choose to depend on processed foods to feed their children, I fear the health care system is doomed.

    /soapbox

  24. Canino says:

    @qwickone: Sure, a lot of people care. Maybe you do and everyone you know does. But the vast majority of the public does not.

    You can’t compare Walmart with Whole Foods unless you take into consideration the volume of sales of each. Walmart has how many stores compared to Whole Foods? There are something like 18 Walmarts for every Whole Foods store. Walmart handles 20% of the US grocery market. There’s your answer.

  25. camille_javal says:

    Whole Foods’ generics (the 365 items) tend to be cheaper than brand names at another store, and better than other stores’ generics.

    When I moved to New York, I did a comparison shopping, taking my basic grocery list to Whole Foods, Fairway, and my two nearest grocery stores, and comparing with Fresh Direct. On the balance, the totals were within a few dollars of each other. (This was before there was a Westside Market in my neighborhood, which tends to be ridiculous for the things I want, at least.) Fresh Direct has won out, because I don’t actually have time to go anywhere.

    When I lived in Jersey, I compared the Stop & Shop near me and the Wegman’s less near, but 1000x more pleasant, and the difference was very little (I like Wegman’s generics, and have had less luck with S&S generics).

    Of course, because of the nature of my work, I tend to live in college areas, where stores tend to jack up the prices a bit in my experience.

  26. Dobernala says:

    @paxcincinnatus: Yes, you get it. I can survive off of Kroger’s food, but I don’t want to. The quality and ingredients are inferior.

    Organic has its value.. depending on the item, you get less pesticides and often a better tasting product. I don’t buy everything organic… just the things that make sense.

    I don’t even buy weird/exotic things from Whole Foods.. Just better quality staple items that you can’t find at Kroger.

  27. johnva says:

    There are lots of things that are cheaper at Whole Foods than at the other local high-end groceries like Harris Teeter. You just have to shop intelligently and buy different things where you get the best value.

  28. jillian says:

    Ethical shopping for less (time-dependent):

    Produce – farmer’s market
    Perishables (hormone-free milk, cage-free eggs, wild caught frozen salmon, etc) – Trader Joe’s
    Bulk bin items – Whole Foods.

    Whole Foods is like indulgences in the Middle Ages. It’s a nice way to buy off your conscience by purchasing at a store that touts its ethics. (Thanks to Penn & Teller for THAT metaphor)

  29. revmatty says:

    As others have noted, the store brand stuff at WF is actually a pretty good deal. I’m on a budget like everybody else, but I’m willing to pay a little bit more for something I’m going to be putting in my body.

  30. trekwars2000 says:

    @mrgenius:
    I agree wholeheartedly with your post. The wife and I don’t eat out much – we really enjoy to cook with high quality ingrediants. Whole Paycheck (Foods) provides that.

    Sure I’m not buying everything in there, but I buy most of my produce and other speciality items there. I still buy my canned stuff and boxed stuff at Walmart/Smiths (Kroger) and use my butcher for my meats.

  31. Urusuru says:

    Some of us shop at Whole Foods because we have food allergies and whole foods is the only grocer around, other than online, that carries food we can eat. Ask anyone who needs wheatfree, cornfree, glutenfree etc. food, they probably shop at Whole Foods because of the large selection of *free goods.

  32. Youthier says:

    Eh… as someone who grew up on a farm that is the complete opposite of organic (my grandpa accidentally sprayed us children with pesticides every month or so), I figure it’s too late to really care. Between that and the nuclear hotbed that my hometown is, cancer seems to be inevitable.

    Honestly though… I’m sure most of the people who eat organically are very reasonable people. However, in my town, the people that eat organic are the ones that want to live “in the country” and build their mini-mansions with well water on former farmland that’s been seeped in every pesticide and poison imaginable. We call them geniuses.

  33. Kvinna says:

    There’s a reason my husband calls that store “Whole Paycheck”. Our local co-ops are a way better deal.

  34. johnva says:

    @jillian: I concur with your post, except we don’t have a Trader Joe’s here. We generally get most of our produce at the farmer’s markets when they’re in season, and stuff like fish and meat at other local businesses. We go to Whole Foods for the bulk bins and some other stuff that we can’t get elsewhere (mainly store brand canned goods and perishables like milk, butter, eggs, and cheese). We don’t spend very much money at Whole Foods this way and it’s very affordable. In fact, in many cases WF is cheaper than other options of comparable quality. I think that where the “Whole Paycheck” thing comes in is when people don’t comparison shop and buy stuff that’s way more expensive because it’s a luxury item (like super-fancy cheeses, or expensive organic name brands, which aren’t really comparable products to the stuff in other grocery stores).

    So no, I don’t believe anyone is a sucker for going to WF. I think that the biggest suckers are the people who shop at places like Wal-Mart and eat total crap because it’s the “cheapest”.

  35. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    @purplesun: Have you talked to the manager at that HEB? Do it. If you make a good case, they might be able to do something. The managers at HEB often can tweak the way an individual store runs.

  36. @Urusuru: I’m one of those allergy shoppers. I have a mild soy allergy, (symptoms much like lactose intolerance,) and Whole Foods carries many things that I’m unlikely to find soy-free elsewhere.

    When my wife and I do our weekly shopping, (after pre-planning our dinners for the upcoming week,) she drops me off at WF and she does half the shopping at the Kroger across the street.

    For those who think we aren’t doing this out of necessity, have you ever tried to find soy-free bread at a normal grocery store? My niece once described us as being more label-conscious than vegans. If it weren’t for WF, I wouldn’t have been able to have many things such as Mayo during the past 10 years. (In addition I like having more types of cheese to pick from than just 15 different varieties of processed or industrial cheese.)

    For me Whole Foods is among a few choices that I have. 1. Make everything from scratch. (We cook a lot, but we don’t have time for that. 2. Eat what everyone else eats and have higher medical bills for me. 3. Pay extra money for some items that I don’t have to worry about eating.

    Event though as a company WF is not perfect; number 3 is well worth the price for us.

    Thanks Whole Foods,

    James T. Savidge, Monday, August 11, 2008

  37. HooFoot says:

    It really says a lot about Whole Foods clientele that they need guided tours to find bargains. I didn’t think perusing a sales circular or browsing the aisles required learned skill, but apparentally I was wrong.

  38. Colage says:

    @qwickone: Walmart’s troubles have almost zero to do with the fact that they don’t deal primarily in organic/”natural” foods and just about everything to do with the fact that people have less disposable income to spend there because of the bum economy.

    This is a common problem to all grocers, including the Whole Foods/Wild Oats/Trader Joe’s of the world.

  39. purplesun says:

    @speedwell: Oh, yes. I even talked to them before they moved it. See, the gluten free food used to be in the natural foods section, which they dismantled because, “Customers were running straight to that part of the store and not shopping down the rest of the aisles”. When I learned they were moving everything next to the flour, I went straight to the customer service desk and spoke to the store manager, who apologized and said the situation would be rectified.

    I went back to the store two days later, and they still put the gluten free items next to the flour. When I spoke to the manager for that section, he told me, “Well, the gluten free stuff is sealed well enough. It’s not like you’re gonna die.”

    I escalated it up the chain, and yet, no change was made. I’ve since given up.

  40. ElizabethD says:

    I’ve noticed in the last few weeks our Whole Foodses (yes, plural!) in RI have been cutting prices on meat and fish.

    I still do better at a small local market, though. Plus I don’t have to look at all those gaunt vegans in their spandex biking gear.

  41. atypicalxian says:

    Whole Foods is great for people who have specialized (e.g. gluten-free) diets. Their store-brand is pretty decent, quality- and price-wise. Bulk foods are a good deal. However, I think most everything else is overpriced. I bought a romaine lettuce on Saturday and by Monday most of it was brown or slimy. Any cold-cuts you buy there should probably be eaten within 3 days. Their Granny Smith apples, which are grown in Washington, are more expensive than the ones at the local Shop Rite, which probably come from the same place.

    @EBounding: I was going to say that!

  42. FLConsumer says:

    @atypicalxian: Funny you mention that about the lettuce. Was browsing WholePaycheck late one evening (sometimes they have good prices on Terra chips) and remembered I was running low on lettuce for my house rabbit. She actually turned her nose up at the stuff! Cheeky little animal.

  43. pirate_eggie says:

    @Rectilinear Propagation: And yet, $1.50 is still a blatant rip-off, as I buy my tofu from Asian supermarkets for anything between $0.70-$1.19 a package. They are SO failing at this “Whole Foods =/= Whole Paycheck” campaign.

  44. bctampa says:

    For the real story on the myth of pesticides and organic food, go to the link I’ve provided and read what Dr. Ames ,the inventor of the carcinogens tests has to say:

    [abcnews.go.com]

  45. johnva says:

    @bctampa: Possible health benefits are not the only reason people might choose organic food. A big reason for it is environmental. Of course, one has to wonder whether the lower crop yields negate any environmental gain from not using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, if it causes more land to be needed for farming. But then again I think the real root of the problem is the bloated human population. We wouldn’t need to spray ridiculously toxic chemical pesticides everywhere if there weren’t so many people.

  46. johnva says:

    @bctampa: Oh and I have to say that Stossel is full of it on a lot on a lot of the other issues he raises in that link. Being a skeptic can be a good thing, but only if you actually have the expertise to evaluate the evidence. And he doesn’t, so instead he’s just relying on the word of some contrarian expert – sometimes someone with a hidden agenda. I agree with him that reporters are too credulous about scientific issues, but he gets it wrong when he tries to do the opposite.

  47. trujunglist says:

    Personally, I do most of produce shopping at farmers markets or the swap meet. The amount of food you can get for the $$$ is fucking mind-boggling, and that’s putting it lightly. It’s guaranteed fresh (just look at it!), and you just have to ask if they use pesticides or anything else to determine what you will and will not take (I personally hate bugs so a little pesticide is OK for me).
    Just the other day I was in Roseville, CA, setting fields on fire (accident..), and I decided to go to a little strawberry stand at the side of the road. I bought a basket for $2, which is a pretty good price; about 1/2 the cost of a grocery store around here. Still, the freshness alone and taste of the berries was incredible and worth paying more than that! I went back the next day because I saw some cherry tomatoes the day before but was unsure about buying them because I was there on business and didn’t know if I could eat them all. I gave the guy $2 for the basket, but he refused, only taking $1, and then he gave me a FREE basket of the strawberries! I was impressed, and this is the type of thing that just can’t happen at a regular store, and it is why I recommend going to the local farmers market or swamp meet or stand at the side of the road so much more. You really get a sense of what goes into the food and have a direct influence on the grower. You learn more about your food and you’re therefore more connected with it. You connect with the people who grow them. It costs less (WAY less; a basket of those cherry tomatoes goes for about $3 if you’re lucky around here), and you get freebies!
    Quite frankly, if it were possible in this day and age, I would rather see everything sold in a similar fashion, just because of the personal connections you make with individuals. It is important to put a face on these things – as opposed to a corporate office somewhere – especially when it comes to things that you’re putting into your body.

  48. bctampa says:

    @johnva: You’re not specific as to what issues in the link that you assert “Stossel is full of it”.
    Ames isn’t “some contrarian expert”, but the originator of the testing method of which the claims are called into question. It seems that this [topic explained] is a good example of one of the principles of scientific methodology: the hypothesis must be falsifiable.

    Granted, Stossel’s book is pedestrian fare and his attributions seem counter intuitive, he does provoke communication.

    He presents not unlike the style used in “Freakonomics”.

    That said I wouldn’t use either to rally a misinformed confirmation bias.

  49. johnva says:

    @bctampa: I’m not talking about Ames (and neither I nor Stossel know enough to evaluate the credibility of his claims). I’m saying that unless you are a scientist who works in those areas he mentions, you aren’t in a position to effectively evaluate the credibility of evidence in that area. Since Stossel is not a scientist, I have to assume he’s relying on what some scientist told him. But if you don’t know enough about the area yourself, you don’t know whether that particular scientist is correct or not, or if his/her opinion reflects scientific consensus. It’s one thing to debunk popular misconceptions, but another to try to make a judgment about a genuine scientific controversy. And I’ve seen quite a few instances where John Stossel pretends to be an expert when he’s not. And he does have quite a track record of errors and borderline dishonesty, which makes him even more suspect.

  50. bctampa says:

    @johnva: Interesting
    I’ve known Stossel to make mistakes and own up to them, but
    “quite a track record of errors and borderline dishonesty”
    seems a bit of an overstretch.

    Perhaps you could inform me where you I might verify your claims.

    I know JS does incite quite a bit of rhetoric in the comments section of ABC news, but nothing substantial.

    Investigative reporting [ors] are not the experts. Certainly some are better than others. All bring biases, that’s a human characteristic we all shoulder, but do our best to invest neutrality when trying to do act in a responsible manner.

    He is subject [maybe seniority allows less than others]to the confines of the politics of broadcast television. The selective editing and sensationalism goes with the entertainment factor.

    He has a different style than a “Mike Wallace” for example.

    I’ve said previously, JS content is a consumer level place to begin conversation. Those of us that do have a scientific background are able to wade through and evaluate
    “legitimate” journal articles and studies; to verify the overt limitations, ctitiques and progression.

    It’s not as if you can include JS in the decisively different category as Michael Moore.

    Geez-when I first posted it was 2:16 am.
    It was a reactionary move to all the comments about the “pesticide laden” foodstuffs.
    I suppose that using the term “real story” was probably intended to garner attention rather than express absolutism.
    You can’t say that the food industry hasn’t been complicit in perpetuating some tall tales and exploiting the fears of
    a mis or under informed consuming public.

    JS had a link that I knew of that would save me from having to type, cognate, and footnote, perhaps overtaxing an already fried set of ganglia.

  51. zyodei says:

    Actually, the price of Whole Foods are GREAT – in the bulk bins, and the in store brands. They also have good sales. Many things there are a ripoff, but as a starving college student I found them to be a Godsend.