Watch Out For Supermarket Price Spikes

A penny-pinching reader discovered that Giant Eagle—a supermarket chain that heavily promotes a savings club where you earn slight discounts on gas—has some jacked up soup prices, especially on their private label. Remember, if you’re not comparison shopping among local supermarkets, you can expect easy-to-miss price spikes like this one to wipe out any savings you thought you were getting.

Update February 4, 2009: Cassandra wrote in to correct the claims below. She writes, “I shop [at Giant Eagle] so I thought I would check today when I was shopping. Their Giant Eagle brands tomato soup was 65 cents. The “Healthy” version was $1.39, but I think that compares to the Campbells Healthy Request, which was $1.49. It looked like both Campbells healthy request and the Giant Eagle version the reader was talking about are lower sodium.” Thanks for the Healthy Request correction! However, our warning about price spikes remains, and we want to point out that in the first “under $1″ category the OP was comparing prices on regular Campbells brand soup, and in that category Giant Eagle still loses. In the case of house brands, Kroger still comes out on top even with the new info Cassandra provided, although nowhere near as dramatically.

I’m stocking up on condensed tomato soup, and have decided to investigate prices and brands. In the course of Friday afternoon, I discovered the following:

  • Campbell’s 8 pack at Sam’s Club, 63 cents/can
  • Campbell’s individually at Kroger, 64 cents/can on sale, 69 cents regularly
  • Campbell’s at Giant Eagle, 77 cents/can (wow)

I like the Kroger store brand, so I also compared store brand prices:

  • Kroger brand, 59 cents/can

Well, Giant Eagle has store brands too; let’s see what they have. …hmmmm, here’s something they say is “NEW ITEM!” and it’s the same size can. …label says “Healthy Tomato Soup”… is that good, maybe better than Campbells?. ….GOD GAWD, $1.39/can!

OK, this has GOT to be super-organic, made by elves from tomatos picked by virgins at the stroke of midnight on the one day of ripeness, right?

Wrong. Look at the nutrition information: Giant Eagle brand “Healthy Tomato Soup” for a buck-thirty-nine is the same ingredients as what’s in the 77 cents Campbell’s (which is actually 64 cents at Kroger), and the nutrition information is virtually the same as well. And face it: what are the odds that it came from the exact same plant and manufacturing line as the stuff that’s in the Kroger brand can?

It’s bad enough that Giant Eagle labels it as “Healthy”. But then to use that word to get people to pay 2x for the product is pure thievery.

Attention Giant Eagle shoppers: if you think you’re getting such a deal because you use your points to buy their grocery store gas at a discount, think again. No, you’re not really getting gas at 30 cents less per gallon
It’s all a shell game. You pay for it by blindly buying from Giant Eagle, and the net amount you pay for groceries and gas is no doubt significantly higher than what you’d pay just with some careful shopping, not worrying
about anyone’s gas-price tie-in, and buying your gas elsewhere.

For the record, it looks like you only get 10 cents off per gallon using their gas card.

Comments

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  1. mbz32190 says:

    You always got to comparison shop between grocers, especially in this economy. I shop at three different supermarkets regularly as well as BJ’S (who really isn’t that much lower on groceries except for deli, heads of lettuce, etc). By now, I know which items are cheaper at what store.

    And those gas promotions are usually always a joke. You are always paying for something somewhere along the line.

    • johnva says:

      @mbz32190: Agreed. There is no such thing as a “cheapest” grocery. Even Whole Foods is cheaper for some things (store brand butter, for some reason).

    • HIV 2 Elway says:

      @mbz32190: My limited free time is worth more than the pennies I could save shopping at different stores. Life’s too short to drive around trying to save 14 cents on a can of soup.

      • cabjf says:

        @HIV 2 Elway Resurrected: Not only that, even though gas prices are lower than they were, just the money spent in driving around is not worth it. Pick a store that has decent selection and prices then comparison shop there. Between gas and personal time, I just don’t find it worthwhile to shop at multiple stores unless you are buying large quantities of everything.

        • nataku8_e30 says:

          @cabjf: I pass by 2 different grocery stores on my way home from work, and live within 5 miles of 3 more (different chains, I think there are a couple of redundant stores that are the same chain as well). My motorcycle gets 80 mpg and gas costs about $1.90 for premium. By planning well, using coupons, etc… my g/f regularly saves between about 30% and 60% off the grocery bill (including card savings). When you buy groceries weekly, a savings of $10 or so works out to a yearly savings of over $500. It may seem insignificant, just like that morning cup of coffee, but over time it really adds up.

      • catnapped says:

        @HIV 2 Elway Resurrected: Until it snowballs to a difference of 25 cents on that pack of rolls, 50 cents on that bacon, $1 on that chicken, etc.

        Unless you’re a Wall Street exec making $4 million in which case, what the hell are you doing here?

      • johnva says:

        @HIV 2 Elway Resurrected: Well I guess that depends on a) how much excess money vs. excess time you have, and b) how carefully you plan. What we do is go to the “alternate” groceries only when we’re near there for some other reason, and get only the stuff we know is much cheaper or better there. Yes, it’s easier to just shop one place, but that’s certainly not going to save you money. Your point is valid, but the whole point of this article is about saving money, not time.

        • HIV 2 Elway says:

          @johnva: But time is money…

          I’m fortunate though when it comes to groceries. My everyday market is half a block from the premier or specialty market. If I need everyday groceries and a few specialty items I can get to both markets without having to move my auto.

          @catnapped: In general I value my free time at $50/hr. If its not going to save me more than that I’ll pay the premium. Used this when I considered hiring a lawn service, but the $30/week quote was more than the $16 it was currently costing me (20 minutes at $50/hour).

          • johnva says:

            @HIV 2 Elway Resurrected: Not everyone has the luxury of pricing their free time at $50/hour, is all I’m saying…the OP that you responded to specifically said “especially in this economy”. If you got laid off or whatever, then you probably have an excess of free time and a deficit of money.

            Like I said, there is nothing wrong with your rule, but it’s totally dependent on each person’s situation.

        • Ingram81 says:

          @johnva: I agree with both yourself and Elway. I understand from his perspective that the cost rises for each alternative sought. The opportunity cost for the soup isn’t enough to offset the associated costs.

          I recommend on certain items that you know will have to be replaced on a certain schedule (toilet paper, paper towels, laundry detergent, etc.) to do some research before hand and buy in bulk when you have found the lowest cost per unit. However on one off items, say a can of paprika, that the associated cost with finding the lowest price (driving around and time spent) offsets any cost savings.

          What would be wonderful is if you could do your grocery shopping / price comparisons online before going to the stores. But alas we can only dream…

          • johnva says:

            @Ingram81: I agree that it makes no sense to drive around looking for marginal savings on cans of soup. All I’m saying is that it makes sense to shop multiple places regularly when you can do it without really going out of your way. And after awhile, if you have a good memory, you really do get a feel for which things are better to buy at which places. (Of course, this works best for non-perishables).

          • Clobberella says:

            @Ingram81: You can do price comparisons online, if the store delivers. Albertson’s & Safeway both do this; I’m sure there are others. It’s kind of a pain to look everything up, but some of the price differences are significant, so it’s worth looking into.

      • t0ph says:

        @HIV 2 Elway Resurrected: exactly – what is your time worth?

      • Erika Price says:

        @HIV 2 Elway Resurrected: But surely you have an upper limit where extra driving/hunting is justified in the savings. If you were looking at a TV in a Best Buy and learned you could save $50 by buying that same model somewhere else, you would probably want to pursue that cheaper deal. We all just have different limits.

        I probably wouldn’t hop from store to store to save 14 cents, but I would to save a dollar. I drink General Foods International coffees in huge quantities, and Giant Eagle charges 3.99 for the stuff. Target sells it for 2.69. Over a dollar of savings per can really adds up for someone who drinks as much of the stuff as I do. Deal-hunting comes down to personal preference- how much the trouble of searching for a lower price is worth to us.

    • Outrun1986 says:

      @mbz32190: I agree, there is a store here that does a similar promotion, the gas price is usually jacked up along with the price of almost EVERY non-sale grocery item too compared with other stations that are a 2 min drive from them. Definitely beware of these “savings” advertisements. There are some items at this store that are probably $3-4 less at another grocery store that is just down the street. I don’t know how they stay in business, I guess its a tax on stupidity.

  2. geeky_reader says:

    I wish Consumerist would do a feature on Sav-A-Lot. Sure, their generic brand names are hilarious, but the deals are A-MA-ZING.

    • friendlynerd says:

      @apronk:
      Are they the same ingredients though? I’m not being snarky, I’m really curious. Many times the super-cheap generics have a lot more salt and/or fat in them.

      Case in point: I bought cheap frosting once. The 2nd or 3rd ingredient was straight-up lard.

      • geeky_reader says:

        @friendlynerd: Taste and quality are comparable, haven’t compared ingredients to that extent at this point.

        Also, and I am not the only person I know to admit this, their meat tends to be much better and more fresh (not to mention cheaper) than our local grocery chains.

        Their produce isn’t worth it, but as far as kitchen staples like canned veggies, fruits, snacks, frozen foods, baking items, boxed foods like mac and cheese and taco kits, it is sooo worth it.

        We usually follow up a trip to Sav-A-Lot with a trip to a local grocery chain. And then we laugh at how 12+bags of Sav-A-Lot products comes to $120 and 3-4 bags of the grocery chain’s stuff comes to $120. It’s crazy.

        In an economy like this, it really is the time to give this store a chance if you haven’t already.

        My one piece of advice, however, is to make sure the neighborhood is cool. Sav-A-Lots in sketchy places can be interesting to say the least.

    • Corporate_guy says:

      @apronk: Second that.

  3. tubedogg says:

    Regarding the gas promotions, it’s $0.10 off per gallon per $50 spent, plus an additional $0.04 if it was a purchase made on their store-brand credit card. So it can add up, and if you are shopping wisely (i.e. shopping the sales) it can definitely be worth it.

    The other thing is they sell gift cards for about 100 other places (restaurants, Best Buy, Sears, etc.) and you earn the fuel discounts when buying those as well. The best deal I got was when I bought my PS3, Giant Eagle was running a buy-$50-in-gift-cards-get-$0.20-off-per-gallon deal. I bought $600 in Best Buy cards and got a tank-and-a-half of free gas when it was $2.75 per gallon.

    • geeky_reader says:

      @tubedogg: There’s also some sort of promotion where you get 1 cent off per gallon every time you purchase a beverage from a “GetGo”, which is the chain of Giant Eagle owned gas stations.

      • b.k. says:

        @apronk: You have to use the Giant Eagle gas stations to get your Fuelperks discount, anyway. The foodperks aren’t as impressive, but they help a little bit.

        And in my neighborhood the Giant Eagle is much MUCH cheaper than shopping at Kroger, so I guess it depends on where you’re at? I don’t buy tomato soup so I can’t say firsthand that this is or isn’t the case at every Giant Eagle.

  4. Ash78 ain't got time to bleed says:

    We usually hit both Publix and Walmart (especially Neighborhood Market…much less hassle). It’s amazing how much more competitive Publix has become, despite being perceived as a mid-to-high-end grocer among the competition.

    The store brand stuff is usually good, and funny, too (Everything has a tagline, sort of like Heinz ketchup does. Publix mixed nuts, at the bottom: “We must be nuts”)

    And double coupons every day means almost every coupon item is cheaper than Walmart.

    • Rectilinear Propagation says:

      @Ash78: Man, I miss Publix’s generics. Their vegetables are better than Kroger’s generics.

    • madamdalriada says:

      @Ash78: I find the W-M Neighborhood markets around OKC are higher priced than the regular Walmarts that are less then a 10 minute drive away. I only shop there if I’m desperate, I’d rather brave Aldi or Buy for Less for quick milk runs or whatever.

  5. Claytons says:

    I comparison shop between 3 stores and a Trader Joe’s. Interestingly, where I am, the high-end grocer (similar to Whole Foods, but regional) typically has the lower prices. Yeah, they sell the super-expensive organic stuff, but they, like Whole Foods also sell lower end stuff that is often cheaper than the same goods at other stores. So long as I know not to reach out and pull into the cart the impulse buys of what are for me luxury groceries like high end olive oils and the like, I end up saving a bundle. They also don’t have a discount club with a care, so I don’t have to try to uncover dishonest sales and the like.

    • Claytons says:

      @Claytons: care = card

    • johnva says:

      @Claytons: As I said above, I’ve found exactly the same thing. Most people who say that Whole Foods and other high-end groceries are super-expensive aren’t really fairly comparison shopping. Those places *do* carry high-end products that ARE extremely expensive, but that’s because they’re not the same as the store brand stuff. You just have to know what’s worth it and what isn’t, and compare identical products.

    • Plates says:

      @Claytons: I have found Trader Joe’s to almost always have the best prices. As for Whole Foods, if you buy some of their house brand items they are quite reasonable.

      • Claytons says:

        @Plates: Yeah, TJ is fantastic in terms of pricing, and their prices are constant, unlike the stores which inflate prices pre-sale. Unfortunately, their selection makes them, for me at least, more of a supplementary grocer.

  6. bohemian says:

    I periodically reprice everything we buy on a regular basis per unit. I found that for the same amount of money I could get 3# cans of almonds or peanuts that gets you a 2# can at Target or Hyvee. That is a pretty considerable savings.

    I quit buying yogurt and started making it at home. It takes half of a $3 bottle of milk so for $1.50 I have about $8 worth of yogurt.

    If you haven’t done a price book, do so.

  7. HarcourtArmstrong says:

    I’ll give you another reason to comparison shop. No store is truly cheaper than another. They make up for discounts on some items with price spikes in complimentary items.

    For example: Hot dogs may be cheaper than anywhere else, but hot dog buns will be more expensive.

    These complimentary items may not be as obvious as the example I just gave. Large supermarkets track consumer buying habits, and through the magic of statistics, determine which items to discount and which items to spike.

  8. catnapped says:

    And watch out for that zone pricing. The supermarket one town over might be considered to be in a different zone (with more aggressive competition), whereas the other store will bend you over and steal your wallet as you walk in the door because the competitors in that particular area also suck.

  9. ludwigk says:

    I don’t frequent multiple grocery stores for price-comparison, mostly because any savings would be wiped out by the time lost to travel to another grocery store. I can conveniently hit Trader Joes, Whole Foods, and SafeWay on my commute, but going anywhere else adds 30-45 minutes of driving.

    I have an exception head for numbers, so I have a pretty good sense of the cost of various grocery goods when it comes to fresh vegetables and meat. My strategy is that I avoid food that isn’t on sale. If cucumbers are $2.99, I’ll wait till the end of the week when they get marked down to $.99. I get whichever cut of meat is on sale, as it naturally alternates between chicken/meat/pork, and if none of them are particularly attractive, we’ll do something like hamburgers, as the price of ground chuck is relatively stable (well, I only buy it from a local butcher, and their price is very stable). Overall, eating out less would save more money than anything, but a mixture of busy and lazy keeps that one from happening.

    • ludwigk says:

      @ludwigk: haha, I mean t “exceptional”…. apparently I still have trouble with words. o.O

      • Claytons says:

        @ludwigk: I simply stagger my comparison shopping. I know what a good price is for almost anything I will buy, so I mix it up a bit. If I’m in somewhat of a rush to get a few small items, I’ll go to the store that’s near to my house and maybe quickly check on the prices of a few of my dietary staples. If they’re cheap, I’ll buy them in addition to what I came for. I can also stagger the comparison shopping by occasionally dropping in to stores I wouldn’t normally patronize to get a greater perspective on prices.

  10. catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

    comparison shopping tip:
    if you local/chain grocery store has a website, check it out. see if they have an online weekly flyer or, even better, several of the ones near me have shopping to go programs where you buy your gorceries online and pay them to bag them up and have them waiting. i DON’T use that service but i do use the online shopping tool to price check and make my lists

    so i might end up stopping at lowe’s foods on my way home from work one night because they have tomato sauce on sale 5 for $1, etc. then take another route the next night because harris teeter has bread, milk, and a great sale on chicken this week. and then i know that on the weekend i will save myself a good $20 by getting dog food, butter and a giant bag of rice at sam’s club. i don’t have to drive around to all those places and i know what’s the best price before i walk in the store so i don’t have to sit there trying to work out the price per ounce on one label compared to the price per pound on the other label.

    • baquwards says:

      @catastrophegirl:
      Sounds exactly like what I do, I rarely make a special trip for anything. I happen to drive by food lion, harris teeter, lowes foods, kroger, and aldi on my way to and from work. Knowing what is a good deal is the key.

  11. Anonymous says:

    We probably save in the neighborhood of 40% a month on groceries by shopping at Marc’s (a Ohio discount grocer) instead of Giant Eagle. And that is still buying name brands. Fuel Perks is the biggest ripoff going.

  12. greatgoogly says:

    The Price Chopper chain in the Northeast has this same promotion in many areas, and while prices have gone up in grocery stores everywhere, Duh Choppa’s prices have gone up more sharply. In my town we have a Big Y and a Price Chopper. It used to be the Big Y was almost always more expensive, but slowly but surely I’ve noticed the price difference between Big Y and Price Chopper has all but disappeared. The other thing to watch out for, is with The Price Chopper promotion you get the discount at Sunoco, funny thing Sunoco is often more expensive than most of the competing stations in the area.
    and yes it is 10 cents off for every $50 spent. A couple weeks ago I gassed up for 2 cents a gallon.

  13. squatchie44 says:

    I support the Germans.

    ALDI

    • Brunette Bookworm says:

      @squatchie44: Yep.

      Most of what I buy I have an idea of what it costs or I check the ads but since I have one grocery at the end of my block, that’s where I usually shop. It seems silly to drive to the other side of town when that one is so close. If they don’t have something or I know something I need is cheaper somewhere else I try to incorporate that trip on my way home from work.

  14. Thaddeus says:

    The reason Giant Eagle can get away with this is becasue they have limited competition. TOPS markets went out of NE Ohio, closing 46 stores, and Giant Eagle bought up many of them. For many places in Cleveland and the surrounding burbs, they are the only game in town. There are other places to shop such as Daves and Heinens, who carry specialty items that can be a bit more costly.

    I’m not saying there are no Aldis or Save-a-lots but you know as well as I do people shop where it convenient and continue to shop there out of habit. With less big-chain competition they are free to price as they please.

    • varro says:

      @Thaddeus: Big difference between there and suburban Pittsburgh – the Giant Eagle near my dad’s house has a huge Shop & Save just up the hill, as well as an Aldi 2 minutes down Route 88.

    • uncle moe says:

      @Thaddeus: in strongsville, parma, north olmstead, middleburgh heights, brunswick, medina, and basically every giant eagle i know of from medina county to lake erie, there’s a Marc’s withing half a mile. big savings on most everything there, not to happy with the selection of meats and veggies from time to time.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I am a regular Giant Eagle shopper. The three Giant Eagle stores in my area offer a gasoline discount of $0.20 per $50.00 spent. I have found that Giant Eagle is a store that you really must do your homework to save money over shopping else where. One of the biggest advantages I have found with Giant eagle is that they double manufactures coupons up to $1.00. The other stores in the area only double coupons up to $0.50. As another commenter point out they also offer their ‘fuel perks’ on gift cards. I always get the maximum amount of gasoline (30 gallons) when using my ‘fuel perks’. Therefore, if I buy a $50.00 gift card it is like saving $6.00.
    The Giant Eagle in my neighborhood is surrounded by 3 other major grocery stores all within a 2 mile radius. I often view the competitors’ ads online prior to making any major shopping trip.
    Of course prior to the current economic conditions I did not invest the time to discover the best way to save money on groceries.

  16. doofus666 says:

    IMHO aldis is the best on canned items. AS for save-a-lot. Perhaps the one in your state are good but the ones here in tennesse are horrid. I used to love them in college but now it seems the quality has gone way down. Not to mention i really don’t see prices there any cheaper than at Aldi or publix if it is a BOGO. My suggestion. Coupons. I FREAKING LOVE THEM! check out http://www.couponmom.com it even tells you how to maximize the deals. Went to publix last night the normal cost of what i got would of been $50, but thanks to the bogo deals and double coupons got it for $15.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Best way to use the Giant Eagle gas discount is to use their BOGO (buy one get one free) sales and let the points add up. I don’t do my major shopping at Giant Eagle, but will hit them only for sale items. BOGO may just be a Pittsburgh region thing though, never saw it in the south when I lived there

  18. enthreeoh says:

    I update the price database for a grocery chain and that sounds like a mistake to me, assuming they’re the same size ofcourse. It defeats the purpose of a store brand if you’re going to charge more for it.

  19. pridkett says:

    One interesting caveat about Giant Eagle — for many people who live in Pittsburgh, there really isn’t much of a choice. There are a few other stores once you get into the suburbs, and some Walmarts too, but in the city, it’s basically Giant Eagle. If you ask any Pittsburgher, they’ll let you know their prices are higher on most things than they should be. Especially as they’ve gone on this new kick with some of their private label stuff marketing it as higher quality. Although, for the record, when I just checked normal brand Giant Eagle soup was always cheaper than Campbells. Their other brands, like Natures Basket (or whatever the organic one is) were more expensive.

    However, like many things, Giant Eagle still does some nice things. Their fuel perks isn’t a bad deal if you pay attention to what you purchase. You can make a killing off gift cards — especially if you combine it with a rewards card that gives you 5% back on groceries. They also double coupons up to 99 cents all the time. Which is a nice little touch. I also tend to not lose my faith in humanity after going to the Giant Eagle stores by me, which hasn’t been the case with the local Walmart.

    • RabidWombat says:

      @pridkett: Came here to basically post this. The Geagle monopoly in Pittsburgh is horrible and frustrating, because they can pretty much set whatever prices they see fit. Your only other options are either even more expensive specialty places like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, or a Costco membership. Even so, it seems like these places jack their prices because their only competition here is so expensive. There’s only one of each here, anyway, and for me, at least, the locations are a much longer bus ride than Geagle.
      I want another supermarket to move into Pittsburgh and give Geagle some real competition so badly it hurts.

  20. Anonymous says:

    one great way to save a lot is simplely to get rid of the individual mentality and get a group together to shop at a Sams club/Costco bulk stores..one of our local church ladies goes every 2 weeks and we go with her.
    With the price of bulk rice and pasta/cases of fruit and large cuts of meat ones savings can be seen dramatically right away.once you have a stock of basic foodstuffs you just need to alternate what you have as snack.and side dishes w/meals
    .it really seems worth it to buy the 5 gallons of dish detergent and the giant contianers of laundry soap,etc.if you pay for months of supplies upfront it is much easier to save your money later as you do not need to shop as much.and any time avioding the urge to binge while at the store can only be a good thing?right.so tempting to buy the extra bag of crisp when you walk by them.(alright sometimes they jump into the cart when i am not looking).
    last year some of our nieghbours saved easily over a $1000+

    .make your own cookies,cakes deserts.and become friends with tupperware again.if you can eliminate the prepackaged goods and cook yourself it saves money.especially with the old WWW full of cheap recipes. these are just a few thoughts perhaps they may help.

  21. uncle moe says:

    this is very true, Gatorade is another prime example…

    32oz bottle at G.E. = $1.39
    32oz bottle at Marc’s (another local chain) & even Target = $1

    i go thru about 10 every 2 weeks and it really adds up fast.