Pull out your magnifying glass and trench coat folks, we’re going in to detective mode! You’ll want to get up to speed on the background of this investigation by reading my last post Greenwashing your dollars if you haven’t done so already (actually, you should just go ahead and read all my posts as they contain riveting information and insightful perspectives. #ShamelessSelfPromotion )
What we are diving in to today is whether shopping at Whole Foods for our organic staples, now that it’s been acquired by online retailer giant Amazon, is actually more expensive than shopping for organics at Safeway. Does the Whole Foods moniker “Whole Paychecks” still hold up? Let’s see!
First stop: Whole Foods.
I sauntered in to the Berkeley Whole Foods on Gillman St. on a sunny afternoon. As I walked in, I snapped this photo of their produce section. Notice the large sign above the refrigerated produce ‘Supporting Local Organic Farms’. Nice touch. Turns out Whole Foods has a Local Producer Loans Program. According to the Whole Foods website, they hand out $25 million a year in low-interest loans to help local producers bring their products to market. During my undercover jaunt through the aisles, I noticed this shelf-talker promoting how the loan program assisted a San Francisco-based ice cream producer. (Mmm, honey graham ice cream… ).
But, being the good detective that I am, I didn’t want the shelf to do all the talking so I turned to Julie, a friendly employee in the Whole Body department. I asked Julie what her observations have been since the Amazon takeover. She said that as an employee, she hasn’t seen a huge difference. Yes, there have been some price reductions, mostly in the ‘grocery’ and ‘produce’ departments (though she did point out that Tom’s deodorant prices have gone down! Get it while it’s hot!). She said that online prices aren’t competing with in-store prices, so there’s no disincentive to do your grocery shopping IRL (millennial speak for “in real life”. You’re welcome.) When I asked her about local products, she sighed, and said actually she has seen her store purchasing less local products since the acquisition. Dun, dun, duuuun!! She elaborated by saying that in fact it’s part of a bigger strategy to offer more “consistency” throughout all the stores. (But I want my honey graham ice cream!) Seeing as how Whole Foods’ pitch leans heavily on their support of local producers, I’m curious to see how this dichotomy plays out. (Note: Julie said that pulling local products off the shelves is her least favorite part of the Amazon acquisition. Thanks Julie, that goes for me too.). I continued my undercover moseying through the store, snapping photos of some of what I think of as ‘staple’ food items. Not actually needing any groceries myself, I felt oddly guilty for going in to the store, ‘snooping’ around and not buying anything. So I purchased a REBBL Mocha Elixer (fabulous marketing!) and walked briskly to my car.
Next stop: Safeway.
It was evening time when I pulled in to the Berkeley Safeway parking lot on Shattuck Ave. The store was lit up and I was pleasantly surprised how cozy-like the inside felt compared to the impersonal coldness I often associate with major supermarkets. Flooring and lighting are key (says my inner interior designer)! You can see, much like Whole Foods, Safeway has called out their organic produce. Upon closer inspection, I found their selection to be lacking compared to that of Whole Foods, as is evidenced in my comparison chart below where organic Romaine lettuce was not offered at Safeway.
Oddly, there was hardly anyone in the store. That went for customers and employees alike. No friendly Julia to covertly extract strategic information from in the deodorant aisle. Maybe they heard I was coming and went on their break. Cover blown. Regardless, I came for the price tags and that information I successfully apprehended.
This morning I sat down to compare the evidence, and low and behold we have a winner!!! The items I price-compared included romaine lettuce, bananas, apples, packaged spinach, milk, eggs and bread. I controlled for price differences between brands by comparing the same brand at both stores (ie. Organic Girl packaged spinach and Dave’s Killer Bread), and comparing the prices of the private label products (ie. Whole Foods’ branded milk and eggs, compared to Safeway’s branded milk and eggs). Without further ado, my fellow sleuths, here are the results:
Whole Foods for the win!!! Surprised? I have to admit I was a bit surprised too. The difference isn’t a lot, but it does start to challenge the ‘Whole Paycheck’ stereotype. However, we could argue that both stores are over-priced, catering to a more affluent population and thereby limiting access to pesticide/herbicide/antibiotic/poison-free food for lower income populations. But that’s a topic for another post. 🙂
PHOTOS: WHOLE FOODS MARKET