The Baltimore Banner received a flood of responses from readers when we set out to compare prices at area grocery stores last month.
Many of you wanted us to go to even more stores, ranging from some small, locally-owned establishments like Graul’s Market and Eddie’s of Roland Park to large discount chains like Walmart and Target, as well as Save A Lot.
As a nonprofit news outlet, we aim to serve our readers whenever we can. So we got back to shopping.
Overall, inflation is decreasing. And the prices for some non-food commodities — such as new and used cars, and clothes — have dropped. Are food prices still as high as they were when we first hit stores?
They’re actually higher. Food prices rose 0.5% last month, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Grocery prices went up 12% from a year ago.
Food prices are affected by many factors, including weather, rising labor costs and issues such as avian flu, said Daniel A. Gerlowski, professor of economics at the University of Baltimore. He doesn’t think stores are being greedy or gouging prices. “I think we are simply seeing a higher cost of business being passed on to consumers.”
He also thinks some sellers are playing catch-up with prices. When prices first began to rise, some grocers were slow to pass that on to customers, he said, instead eating the costs. However, as losses have continued — and people expect inflation to go on — more retailers have raised prices.
“When inflation cools down, don’t expect to see prices fall,” he added. Most prices are still going up — just not as fast as they were before, Gerlowski said.
As we headed to 10 different spots in the Baltimore area, we found prices to be relatively high for many household items.
Again, we looked for the same shopping list of common items: bananas, bone-in chicken thighs, Old Bay, peanut butter, canned green beans, ground beef, milk, sugar, chips, bread and eggs.
We picked the same name brand whenever possible — Eggland’s Best eggs, Domino sugar, Land O’Lakes butter, Schmidt Old Tyme bread, Del Monte beans and Utz chips.
When our first choice wasn’t available, we went with the closest substitute available. Streets didn’t carry the 8-ounce bag of Utz chips, so we went with two 5-ounce bags of their kettle chips. Save A Lot didn’t have Old Bay, so we made do with their same-size seafood seasoning (although for most Marylanders, there’s no real substitute for Old Bay).
In comparing the checkout totals, we noticed a few things that we expected. And a few things that surprised us.
As people may have expected, Walmart had the lowest check total: just $38.63 for all the items on our list. Next toward the bottom was discount store Save A Lot, which has multiple branches in Baltimore. The total there was $39.69.
As expected, some of the smaller, local grocery stores were among the most expensive. At Eddie’s of Roland Park, our total came to $54.98. Graul’s Market was also on the pricier end; our total for 10 items was $53.10.
But we found the highest overall prices at H Mart, a supermarket that specializes in Asian and particularly Korean foods. Our total at checkout was $57.78.
Shoppers also came in at the higher end of the spectrum, on par with small and specialty stores. The total for 10 items was $50.68.
It might sound obvious, but the experience reinforced how much more affordable store brands, or private-label products, typically are than name brands.
Want to save tons of money at the grocery store? Often, the easiest way is just to ditch recognizable brands, which can cost double the price of store-brand counterparts. And some stores keep prices low by not offering name brands at all, or only in certain cases.
For example, neither Sprouts nor Save A Lot even carried Land O’Lakes butter, which we found costs as much as $8.99 per pound at H Mart. Instead, they offer less expensive brands — at Save A Lot, Coburn Farms butter was $5.29 per pound, and at Sprouts, the house brand was $4.99 per pound.
It’s a trend that’s only increasing. The Wall Street Journal reported this month that sales of private-label goods have soared as customers seek ways to stretch their dollars amid rising inflation — and supermarkets are expanding their offerings to meet the demand.
At European outlets Lidl and Aldi — the two most affordable options in our first round of comparison shopping — such products outnumber brand name goods by a ratio of four to one, according to The Journal.
It’s also worth pointing out that those two stores offered cheaper prices overall than any of the stores on this round of shopping. If you remember from last time, our checkout total at Lidl was $34.88 while Aldi cost us just $26.52 for all the items on our list.
Another obvious point: For those consumers who care about snagging name-brand items at the cheapest price, Walmart is likely the best bet. The retailer beat its competitors on items such as Land O’Lakes butter, Old Bay and more.
Data visualizations by Emma Patti Harris