In the ever-growing phylum of food retailers (supermarket, grocery store, warehouse, supercenter, flagship, convenience store), Charlotte seems to have them all (except those "w" stores we are missing: Wegmans Food Market and Whole Foods Market). Having a mixture is a good thing for food lovers, bargain hunters and minimalists.
Once again, Creative Loafing sent me to find out what's out there, what the current state of affairs is in our local food retailers. This year, I explored 12 stores: ALDI, Super Bi-Lo, Bloom, Compare Foods, Costco (the only membership store), Earth Fare, Fresh Market, Harris Teeter, Healthy Home, Lowes Foods, Trader Joe's, and Walmart Supercenter. For comparison sake, I kept all locations within eight miles of SouthPark.
Why one area? Most people are territorial and shop at the store closest to their neighborhood, a decision made either by price or quality. Shoppers then shop at this store, adding a monthly or bimonthly run out of their neighborhood to stock up on specific items found elsewhere. The SouthPark area and its neighboring suburbs offer a variety of food retailers.
What has changed in the past two years is the increased variety of packaged and ready-to-go foods, as well as the abundance of bargains. Additionally, some stores have changed product lines and departments. Lowes Foods, for example, have cut back on their wine selection in light of the Total Wine planned to open soon in that shopping center.
Remember two important caveats as you read. First, not all stores within the same chain carry the same products. Grocery stores tend to reflect their neighborhoods. For example, pricier neighborhoods have stores with higher end wines, USDA PRIME beef, and more specialty items. Stores located in ethnic neighborhoods tend to have a larger selection of ethnically diverse foods.
Second, quality is not the same as price. I compared prices of six commonly bought items: a store brand gallon of whole milk; a dozen Grade A large white eggs; a store brand pound of butter; a whole chicken; limes; and a pound of vine-ripened tomatoes. Some stores carry only organic milk, free range eggs and organic, locally grown vine-ripened tomatoes, which cost more.
What surprised me was the result of my exploration. This was the first time I have written about Walmart Supercenter. I had anticipated Walmart to have the lowest price in at least one category. It did not. Instead, ALDI, a German-owned warehouse-styled store, did. ALDI had the lowest prices in two categories: the dozen eggs and butter. But then ALDI was beaten that week by Harris Teeter's eggs, which were on sale for a penny less, and Costco's butter actually costs a few cents less per pound, too, but is sold in four-pound packages. ALDI was also tied with Super Bi-Lo for having the least expensive whole chicken at $.79 per pound; the chicken was on sale at Super Bi-Lo.
Compare won again in the lime category. On sale, their limes are 15 for a dollar. The normal price is 10 for a dollar. It's hard to beat that price unless you have a lime tree in your backyard. Earth Fare won the tomato category at $.97 per pound and Costco had the best price on a gallon of whole milk at $2.49. Walmart was in second place for a gallon of milk at $2.94, but this was only a nickel less than the group tied in third: Super Bi-Lo, Compare, and Harris Teeter.
Food finds included the ground elk and ready-to-go falafels at Healthy Home Market (nee Home Economist), and freshly made and still hot corn tortillas at Compare. Harris Teeter has the largest variety of seafood available on a daily basis.
Visiting these 12 stores made me realize that an educated shopper can save a lot of money. I saw the same product, Fago yogurt, vary as much as two dollars in price. Other products, such as Martin's Potato bread, cost the same, $3.19, at all stores.
The economy has had an impact on these stores, too. As they price fight for a larger piece of the pie, we shoppers are the winners.
The customer beside me gushed, "You really need to get their mixed nuts. They are the reason I come here." A discussion then ensued among strangers pushing carts, extolling the shopping bliss found at ALDI. This store has its share of devotees.
ALDI is a no-frills German discount supermarket that trades in cash or debit cards. To get a cart, you must insert a quarter into the lock. You get it back when you return the cart to the corral. The appearance is also no-frills. Items are kept in box frames and the floors need to be swept more often. Employees here wear many hats. My seated cashier said she gets to work at 5 a.m. to unload the trucks and then stock the shelves.