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Wednesday, July 5, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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How do markets measure up?

To evaluate supermarket prices, Puget Sound Consumers' Checkbook conducted a market-basket price survey of 146 items and included national-brand nonperishables and fresh produce, meat and dairy products. The price chart at right shows how each store's prices compared with the average prices the magazine found in three sample stores from each of three large area chains: Albertsons, QFC and Safeway. The survey was conducted March 16-23, 2006.

The first column of the price chart shows how each store's national brand and fresh produce, meat and dairy products stacked up. The $87 score for the surveyed Fred Meyer store shows that it was about 13 percent cheaper than the Albertsons/QFC/Safeway average for the same products.

The $107 score for the surveyed QFC store in Seattle means that its prices were about 7 percent higher than the Albertsons/QFC/Safeway average. Since the market basket includes fresh meat and produce, some price differences may be explained by store-to-store quality differences. Also, savings might vary depending on other factors, such as the extent to which shoppers take advantage of specials and coupons.

For this survey, the magazine assumed shoppers would use club cards at all stores where they were offered. Although there are some privacy concerns about the cards, they are likely to save consumers money. (In stores that offer these cards, you don't get to take advantage of most specials unless you use a card.)

The second column of the chart shows the effect of substituting the cheapest available brand in each store in place of 26 national brand items. Thus, we see that the Fred Meyer store, with an index score of $81 in the second column of the chart , beat the Albertsons/QFC/Safeway average for our national-brand market basket by about 19 percent once we allowed substitution of cheapest brands in place of some of the national brands.

The chart also shows the percent of our market basket's items that our shoppers were able to find at each store. For example, at the Albertsons store in Issaquah we surveyed, we found 86 percent of the items in our full market basket.

For some food shopping, Costco Wholesale, a membership warehouse club, offers an alternative to supermarkets. Since Costco specializes in bulk sales, it had few of the items in our market basket in the usual sizes. But when we looked for the same brands regardless of size, we found that Costco did have 41 percent of our market basket's items.

Since Costco had in stock so few of the items in the sizes that we looked for in our basic market basket, we did a special comparison, looking for items of any size so long as they were of the same brands as specified in the basic market basket. We then used unit prices (for example, price per pound) to calculate Costco's prices to get the amount of product specified in the market basket. After this adjustment, we compared the prices of items we found at Costco with prices we found for the same brands at several of the other stores.

The Costco chart at right shows how much you might save by buying products at Costco instead of a supermarket. The left half of the table compares the unit prices of all of our market basket items that we found (in any size) at both Costco and the supermarket. The number of items found is shown in parentheses.

For example, we found 38 of our market basket items at both the QFC and the Costco we surveyed. On average, the unit prices for these items were 40 percent lower at Costco than at the QFC.

This is not an "apples-to-apples" comparison; the sizes of the items priced at Costco were almost always larger than the sizes of the items priced at the other stores, so Costco enjoys an advantage in such a comparison.

Since the products at Costco were often much larger than the items at supermarkets, in the right half of that chart the magazine compared prices of items found at both stores wherethewarehouseclubpackagewasnomorethantwicethesizeofthesupermarketpackage.For instance, of the 38 products found at both QFC and Costco, QFC had 11 of these items in sizes that were at least one-half the size found at Costco. For these 11 items, Costco's unit price was 39 percent below the prices at QFC.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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