March 11, 2005

How To Shop at Whole Foods

by peterb

Recently, a friend of mine who is new to Pittsburgh paid his first visit to Whole Foods. His comment on the experience was:

This is the place to shop if you enjoy paying a 50-100% markup over traditional supermarket prices so that you can feel good about how much you are doing for the native tribesmen of Mek-a-lek-a-ding-dong. Aside from that, they do have a good selection of international and esoteric foods.
I've heard this expressed by others, too. A common nickname for the chain around here is "Whole Paycheck." I have a complex and conflicted relationship with Whole Foods, so I thought I would share some of my thoughts on the place. In the process, perhaps some of my tips will help you shop there without paying 100% markup over Giant Eagle.

I feel like I should offer a disclaimer, in advance: you might read this article and think that I don't like Whole Foods very much. Nothing could be further from the truth. I like the excellent selection of just about everything. I like that their produce is always fresh, and that their staff is helpful, and the great selection of organics. I like that their very presence in Pittsburgh has forced Giant Eagle to try to improve in certain ways. The only reason I have such strong opinions about what is or is not "worth it" at Whole Foods is because when I go there, I feel like the proverbial kid in a candy store, because I want to buy everything. But that conflicts with my cheapskate gene, and so I have to develop value strategies to maintain my sanity.

If you're anything like me, you buy more or less the same things each time you go into a supermarket. So you end up spending around the same amount of money every time you shop in the same market. I've distilled this down to a formula I think of as the "ceteris paribus price-per-item." Think of it this way: except for some packaged goods and produce, the store has nearly complete control over the minimum quantity of whatever item it is they will sell you. In my experience, it's helpful to think that grocery stores have a target price per abstract item that you will pay, regardless of what the actual price of any given real item is. So the first thing to do is to figure out the target price per abstract item. As an example, Giant Eagle has a ceteris paribus price per item of about $3.50. Obviously, 3 pounds of filet mignon don't cost the same as a pack of gum, but the technique works surprisingly well: count the number of items in your shopping cart. Multiply by $3.50. That's how much you'll be spending when you hit the checkout line, if you're not actively trying to be a smart (or at least cheap) shopper. Using this technique, I've never been off by more than about 3%.

I thought of this calculation because of a trick my dad has. He uses a similar technique in nice restaurants. The accuracy of the results is uncanny. Murray's Law states that the per-person price of a meal (including wine and dessert) will be twice the cost of the most expensive entrée on the menu. It doesn't matter that you didn't order the most expensive entrée. The formula still works.

The ceteris paribus price per item at Whole Foods is about $7. So my friend's estimate of the markup is about right.

So first, you need to decide what it is that you're shopping at a given store for. You can go in to Whole Foods and just buy a pack of (organic, free-range) gum, and "only" spend $2.50 instead of $7. Life is full of tradeoffs. If you're insistent that the only way you can have a quality of life that satisfies you is to do all your shopping at Whole Foods, and don't want to sacrifice any indulgences, then there's not much I can do to help you. But you can get pretty far by being flexible and recognizing what is and isn't a good value at Whole Foods, and either avoiding the expensive items altogether, or obtaining them elsewhere, for less.

Basically, there are only two types of things you should be buying at Whole Foods:

  • Things that are cheaper than they are elsewhere
  • Things that you can't get, conveniently, anywhere else

There actually are a few good deals at Whole Foods if you know what to look for. Arugula, the best green in the universe, is usually only about $1.50/pound there (Giant Eagle sells it in little plastic jewelboxes for something like $5 for 6 ounces. I am not kidding.) In the produce aisles as you walk in, keep an eye open for specials. During the summer, they often use berries as loss leaders. Other fruits and vegetables are frequently put on sale. Organic milk prices are comparable to Giant Eagle — usually a little cheaper, in fact, as long as you avoid the glass bottles. Likewise with heavy cream and some of the yogurt products.

The meat department is worth checking for bargains — the specials are fewer and further between than in produce, but you can often find odd things in the cold case at clearance prices. Basically, there's something on sale every week, but you can never be sure what it is. So try not to get your heart set on anything before arriving and taking a look at what they're trying to unload that week.

You'd think the "bulk foods" aisle would be a place you could really clean up, but you have to be careful. Some of the items often cost more in bulk form than those packaged on the shelves just down the lane. Double check. Or better yet, go to the East End Food Co-op for that stuff, instead. Everything will be cheaper and fresher.

The loss leaders aside, most of the things in Whole Foods cost about the same or more than what you'd see at Giant Eagle. The goal of the store is to convince you of one of two things: that it's worth the price in convenience to pay twice as much for the same stuff you can get elsewhere, or that the things you'll find at Whole Foods are staggeringly unique and therefore are "justified" as a little extravagance. After all, you're worth it, right?

Well, no. Probably, you're not. Anyone who is willing to pay $19/pound for Roquefort Abeille when the same cheese is available just about anywhere else for $11/pound is definitely not worth a little extravagance.

The cheese counter is probably the biggest danger in the entire store. It provides a very wide variety of fresh cheeses, and the staff is super-helpful. There's an occasional "bargain," but at the Whole Foods cheese counter "bargain" tends to mean "only pay $1/pound more than you'd pay at Penn Mac, instead of $5/pound more." The main difference between the meat counter and the cheese counter is that the meat counter is selling some products — particularly the dry aged meat, and some of the organics — that you really, honestly can't get anywhere else in town. There are few things at the cheese counter at Whole Foods that you absolutely, positively can't get at Penn Mac, McGinness Sisters, or one of the various cheese wholesalers in the region. If you absolutely must have whatever item they've got there that you can't find anywhere else, go ahead and help yourself, but the only difference between the Mimolette at Whole Foods and that in the Strip is the $7/pound price gap.

The meat counter has many unique, expensive items — such as the aforementioned dry aged steaks and various organics — that you can't get (in person) anywhere else in Pittsburgh. So splurging on those on occasion seems reasonable to me, although whether they're worth the premium is a question you can only answer for yourself. The meat counter also has a lot of run of the mill junk that is just the same as what you'd find anywhere else, only it costs twice as much (such as the ridiculous yuppie sausages for $6/pound). And there's usually always something on sale that is cheap enough that I can use it to make stock without feeling guilty.

I have friends who swear by the fish counter because they find Benkowitz's hours inconvenient. This is a shame, since Whole Foods' fish costs twice as much and is only half as good.

In summary: keep your eyes open for items on sale. Know what things cost at other area stores, only buy items that are not stupidly overpriced, and don't get tricked into thinking that Whole Foods is the sole supplier for something that's actually widely available.

The best way to know what's available in Pittsburgh, of course, is to shop in the Strip District.

If you apply the tips in this article carefully, you should be able to save enough cash to buy at least 2 or 3 Xbox games each year. Shopping is about keeping your priorities straight.

Buon appetito!

Posted by peterb at March 11, 2005 05:24 PM | Bookmark This

Generally a good summary. I will add

1. I find the Whole Food's brand bread products to be mediocre.

2. I don't find the deli or prepared foods counter particularly compelling. To make up for it, they charge twice as much for cold cuts as Penn Mac

3. On the other hand, some of the prepared frozen foods are excellent and also are not full of trans-fat. The Whole Foods brand tater tots are particularly excellent. Really!

4. I'm the guy who likes the fish counter. If you pick your spots it is at least as good as Benkovitz. And when was the last time you could get fresh Halibut at Benkovitz on a Sunday morning?

5. The unique and extravagent stuff at the meat counter (dry aged NY strip) is really excellent.

That's all I can think of.

Posted by psu at March 11, 2005 07:42 PM

Oh. I forgot. Don't buy vegetables at Whole Foods. Lotus is better. Lotus has great fish too, but it's scary and not cleaned sometimes, so my lazy self doesn't take advantage because I suck.

Posted by psu at March 11, 2005 07:45 PM

Their Tom's of Maine toothpaste is the cheapest I've ever found. But it's just too much of a haul to get there from way south South Hills. I've petitioned them via e-mail to build one out here...

Posted by Shar at March 11, 2005 09:17 PM

I'd like to leave here the one big thing Whole Foods had over other, more spread out individual businesses. For me, Location. I hate going long distances for shopping, and it was right down the street. I could have walked there. Going to one place for Fish, another for Produce, yet a third for Vegetables would reduce my interest in cooking to negative territory. Where it generally has stayed, which is a shame.

Also, I liked the yuppie sausages. Different taste, very fast to make, and along with the pre-mixed greens for a salad and a vegetable, a good meal. And certainly significantly cheaper than I paid and still pay for meals at restaurants.

Posted by rmitz at March 12, 2005 05:34 AM

More reasons to shop at Whole Foods:

The prices filter out the riff-raff. You are unlikely to get stuck behind some mom, her litter of kids, and a convoy of carts filled with anything she has a coupon for, and who pays with a check.

Although always busy, my average wait in the checkout is much less than Giant Eagle.

I'm married, but I can still appreciate the fact that on average the women shopping at Whole Foods are better looking.

But, the main reason: I find it easier to control a budget, than I do finding tasty, interesting things to buy. Whole Foods has a high percentage of items I'd actually like to buy.

Still, more often than not, I shop at McGinnis Sisters... from where I live, Whole Foods is an annoying commute. And I know everyone loves the strip, but I always find it a gigantic pain in the ass shopping there.

Posted by Mark Denovich at March 12, 2005 09:39 AM

My latest whole paycheck bill was 54.76 for 26 items, leading me to a etcetera parkthebus price per item of $2.10; and this seems typical for me. Perhaps that explains why I don't understand why people think that WF is super-duper-expensive.

Posted by Benoit at March 12, 2005 01:49 PM

>The prices filter out the riff-raff. You are unlikely to get stuck
> behind some mom, her litter of kids, and a convoy of carts
> filled with anything she has a coupon for, and who pays with a
> check.

Ah, the "I'm better than you" argument. I'm sure you take great pride in your superiority.

Posted by Shelby at March 13, 2005 01:21 PM

My theory is that the people who complain that WF is super-extra-expensive are generally the ones loading their carts full of $9/box organic free range frozen dinners lovingly hand-crafted by Peruvian peasants.

If you buy, y'know, *ingredients*, it's really not very expensive, especially compared to the already-too-expensive Giant Eagle prices.

Posted by Nat at March 13, 2005 04:07 PM

Re: Peruvian peasant sandwich

Is it really my fault if exploiting indigenous peoples tastes so darn _good_?

I think not!

Posted by peterb at March 13, 2005 06:49 PM

My two cents:

I agree completely re: the deli and prepared foods. The co-op, I feel, has much better (and healthier) prepared foods. On that note, the co-op also has better prices on some produce, such as organic bell peppers (e.g., 2.99/lb vs. 5.99/lb). Unfortunately, the co-op's produce tends to not always be the freshest and spoil too quickly.

The bulk chocolate is worth it for the most part, unless you are the sort to buy 5-kilo bars. Chocolate Moose in Sq. Hill has decent-priced bulk but not as many varieties.

The amount of money they charge for shiitake mushrooms is outrageous. Lotus has them for less than half the price.

Same as above; replace with olives and Penn Mac.

The cheese prices are truly shameful, but there is no other place to my knowledge that carries the yummy Abergavenny welsh cheeses and 4yr old cheddar that comes close to the kind found in NY.

Posted by a. at March 13, 2005 11:10 PM

Also: write out your entire shopping list, then hit WF and GE in a row. Do this a couple times and you start to notice items which are basically the same at both and cheaper at one or the other. If you go at seperate times you don't have the inventory fresh in your mind, and the list in front of you.

Posted by Faisal N. Jawdat at March 14, 2005 12:59 PM

The big problem with the cheese-at-pennmac solution is that I don't always need an entire pound of triple-cream brie or whatever.

I know WF is ripping me off for most of the weird cheeses I buy, but I'm a lot less willing to pick up a random new cheese if I have to buy it in gigantic chunks.

Also, it turns out that I'm willing to pay a decent premium to be able to buy things after 4pm on a weekday.

Posted by Nat at March 14, 2005 02:14 PM

Cheese at Penn Mac: They stopped forcing customers to buy a whole pound some time ago. They also are happy to let you taste. Admittedly, though, this is awkward when it's Saturday morning and there are 50 slightly impatient people waiting their turn as you're pondering the creaminess of that 8th sample. But perhaps WF does tasting, too...?

Posted by a at March 14, 2005 06:19 PM

Yeah, WF does tasting -- they encourage people to taste and ask questions about all of the cheese.

I coulda sworn I still saw the 'one pound minimum' size up at Penn Mac last time I was there. Huh.

Posted by Nat at March 15, 2005 10:30 AM

I've managed to get half pound chunks of cheese from Penn Mac for at least the last 5 years. They have also started carrying various cheeses that only come in small sizes, so might have relaxed their rules a bit.

Posted by psu at March 15, 2005 11:56 AM

The fact that I can walk to Whole Foods any evening of the week, whereas the Strip is only available on Saturday mornings, is a deciding factor for me. I don't plan a week's cooking in advance. If I want something, it's either at Giant Eagle or Whole Foods. If I want *two* things, chances are that I have to go to Whole Foods (or else make two stops).

Yes, I'd rather get raped in the wallet than stop in two stores when one would do.

Posted by Andrew Plotkin at March 15, 2005 02:30 PM

I can't quite figure out what counts as "one item" for the purposes of the math. I am assuming one bulk spinach leaf = obviously not one item, but what about 10 apples? Is that 1 item or 10?

Anyway, as Nat said about ingredients...we tend to end up spending ~$3/item at WF, based on our last two receipts. I recognize that being one of those people with a hate on for processed food helps here -- but that's kind of the thing. For my particular shopping habits, I get higher quality food for about the same price as Giant Eagle would charge me. For someone with different habits, it's easy to get only marginally better food for twice as much as Giant Eagle.

Posted by Laura at March 16, 2005 10:21 PM

I'm using the Express Lane Rules, so 10 apples == 1 item.

Perhaps my ticket average is higher because I can't resist the allure of the Cheeses Made From Fine Turkish Heroin section.

Posted by peterb at March 16, 2005 10:36 PM

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