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

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Grocery comparison: How and where to bag huge savings

Everyone knows there are price differences at various supermarkets, but just how much money a consumer could save by shopping at a particular market or chain is often the subject of water-cooler conversation. The most recent issue of Puget Sound Consumers' Checkbook takes a look at food prices around the region. This article and the acompanying charts are excerpted from that magazine.

A price survey of area supermarkets conducted by Puget Sound Consumers' Checkbook reveals that by shopping at Fred Meyer, a family might expect to save $500 to $900 per year compared with shopping at Albertsons or Safeway, and more than $1,400 per year compared with shopping at QFC.

Here are a few key findings:

• The lowest priced of the surveyed stores was Fred Meyer, with prices about 11 percent lower than the prices we found at Safeway, the area's largest chain, and about 18 percent lower than Quality Food Centers (QFC), the highest priced of the area's largest chains. For a family that spends $150 per week at the supermarket, an 18-percent price difference might be expected to total more than $1,400 during the course of a year.

• Although prices at surveyed Albertsons and Safeway stores were significantly higher than at Fred Meyer, these two chains did have lower prices than surveyed QFC stores. Albertsons' prices were on average about 9 percent lower than QFC's; Safeway's prices were about 8 percent lower.

• Intra-chain price differences were small for Safeway and QFC. But we did find some store-to-store price variation at surveyed Albertsons stores. Prices at the lowest-priced Albertsons store surveyed were about 5 percent lower than at the chain's highest-priced store surveyed.

• Although QFC had the highest prices of the area's largest chains, it is worth noting that QFC received higher ratings than Albertsons, Fred Meyer or Safeway on the most recent surveys of consumers for product and service quality. (For Checkbook's rating of supermarkets for quality, go to Volume 1, No. 2)

• Haggen, with six Puget Sound area stores in Skagit and Snohomish counties, proves that it is possible to get high ratings for quality and still have reasonable prices. The surveyed Haggen store had prices comparable to those of Safeway, but also received high ratings for product and service quality in our most recent customer surveys.

• The highest prices among stores we surveyed were found at Whole Foods Market and PCC Natural Markets, whose prices were 54 percent and 40 percent higher, respectively, than the average for Albertsons, QFC and Safeway. Whole Foods' prices were especially high for fresh produce and meats, areas where the chain has consistently rated very high in Checkbook's surveys of consumers. But even when we looked only at nonperishable, national brands, for which product quality is not a concern, prices at Whole Foods, for the limited number of items it had in common with the other chains, were still 20 percent higher than the average for Albertsons, QFC and Safeway.

• When shopping stores that offer store-brand or generic products, you save by substituting these products for national brands. When we allowed the substitution of cheaper generic and store brands for about one-sixth of the items in our price-shopping market basket, the total cost for our market basket dropped by about 6 or 7 percent at all of the big chain stores.

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• For the items that could be compared based on unit prices (price per pound, for example), Costco offered dramatic savings. The surveyed Costco store, for example, beat the Albertsons and Safeway stores we compared it to by a whopping 32 percent.

• Since you can't typically get everything you need at Costco, we looked at the savings you might gain by shopping both at Costco and at a supermarket, assuming you would purchase the lowest-cost size available at either place. We found, for example, that by including Costco on your shopping schedule along with a Safeway store, you might save about 17 percent compared with shopping at the Safeway store alone.

Reprinted by permission from Puget Sound Consumers' Checkbook, a nonprofit, no-advertising magazine that rates many types of area service firms. For information on Checkbook, call 206-332-9696, or visit www.checkbook.org

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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