The Tip Jar: We went to 9 grocery stores to find which one was cheapest

Walmart, Cub, Target or Hyvee? We checked out Twin Cities grocery chains to find the best deals.
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The Tip Jar visited grocery stores across the Twin Cities over the past several weeks, comparing prices from a shopping list of about 40 items.

We tried for a broad cross section of fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, dry goods and household essentials to create a picture of how much a typical shopping trip will cost, depending on where you go.

After number-crunching, we picked out the one with the overall cheapest groceries in the metro area – and took a closer look at which grocery chains are cheaper in certain categories. You can find a full spreadsheet of the itemized shopping list and prices right here.

Overall cost

Cheapest: Walmart – $86.59

No surprises here, with America's biggest grocery chain, Walmart, proving to be more than $20 cheaper than its nearest competitor, Hy-Vee. Where it pulled ahead of rivals particularly came with the cost of its meat and dried goods.

Most expensive: Whole Foods – $163.80

The same basket at Whole Foods would cost nearly twice as much. Much of this difference comes down to its predominantly organic offerings plus the higher cost (and let's face it, quality) of fresh food prepared in the store. One of Whole Foods' fresh pizzas sets you back $13, but is prepared before your eyes, while every other store has them packaged.

Fresh produce

Cheapest: Target

Honorable mention: Fresh Thyme

Shopping list: Honeycrisp apples (1 lb), bananas (1 lb), clementines/mandarins (1 lb), avocado, Roma tomatoes (1 lb), slaw mix, baby carrots (2 lbs), cauliflower, cilantro bunch, cucumber, russet potatoes (1 lb), yellow onion.

Target came in the cheapest with a total of $18.24. This was 45 cents cheaper than Walmart at $18.69 – and Target gets a bonus point because its 72-cent bananas were organic.

Fresh Thyme gets a mention because at $18.72 it was just 3 cents cheaper than Walmart. But Fresh Thyme is known for its weekly discounts, particularly on fruit and vegetables – yet none of the items I surveyed were on sale the day I went. That it was still one of the cheapest shows it's a good place to go for inexpensive fresh produce.

Meat and fish

Cheapest: Walmart

Honorable mention: Fresh Thyme

Shopping list: 85 percent ground beef (1 lb), chicken breast (1 lb), and salmon fillet.

In retrospect, I should have included more items. Walmart was the cheapest at $10.31 but you should bear in mind that it doesn't necessarily mean you're buying quality. Its $1.99/lb chicken breast included "rib meat and chicken broth." Fresh Thyme was the next cheapest at $14.97 partly because its salmon fillet was on sale for $8.99/lb.

A word on Target here. It has been criticized in the past for not stocking its shelves enough, and this was an issue when I shopped there. The selection in the meat section wasn't particularly wide, and I could only find chicken breast for $9.99/lb. This made it the second-most expensive for meat.

Bakery goods

Cheapest: Walmart

Honorable mention: Hy-Vee

Shopping list: Pack of 12 chocolate chip cookies, bag of flour (5 lbs), loaf of white bread, bag of sugar (4 lbs), and a pack of Oreos.

Walmart and Hy-Vee could pretty much both be winners considering there's just two cents separating them. Walmart's bakery bill cost $11.81 and Hy-Vee's $11.83. Hy-Vee had cheaper bread and sugar than Walmart, while Walmart had cheaper cookies and flour. Oreos were the same price.

If you want cheap sugar, don't go to Whole Foods. The cheapest 4-lb bag was priced at a whopping $7.19.

Dairy

Cheapest: Walmart

Honorable mention: Cub Foods

Shopping list: 2 percent milk (1 gallon), butter (16 oz), 12 cage-free eggs, cheddar cheese (8 oz).

Once again Walmart was the cheapest at $10.85. Cub was second at $11.57, and this is another store where coupons and weekly ads are king. None of the dairy items were in the coupon book, but it didn't make a difference as its prices were still among the cheapest.

Kowalski's and Whole Foods were the priciest, at $13.76 and $14.16 respectively.

Pantry

Cheapest: Walmart

Honorable mention: Target

Shopping list: Spaghetti (1 lb), salsa (1 lb), extra virgin olive oil (500 ml), diced tomatoes (14.5 oz), long grain white rice (5 lbs), mac and cheese box (7.25 oz), Sweet Baby Ray's (18 oz), and Honey Nut Cheerios (17 oz).

Walmart was cheapest at $15.13, more than $2 less than Target – mainly because at $3.96, Walmart's own brand extra virgin olive oil was a bargain.

Whole Foods was most expensive again at $34.62, hurt by its costly (but like we've said, probably better quality) $8.99 bag of white rice. Second most expensive was Lunds & Byerlys at $28.99.

Final results

Here are the final results:

  1. Walmart – $86.59
  2. Hy-Vee – $107.23
  3. Target – $107.82
  4. Fresh Thyme – $108.29
  5. Cub Foods – $112.27
  6. Jerry's Foods – $119.07
  7. Kowalski's – $127.43
  8. Lunds & Byerlys – $131.67
  9. Whole Foods – $163.80

Things to keep in mind

The comparison in the spreadsheet isn't perfect, as there were issues with finding certain items, sizes and brands. But here are some of the principles I stuck to.

  • I wanted to compare some name brands, which is why I didn't include Aldi and Trader Joe's. (I will visit them in the future, though).
    If I couldn't find an item or particular brand, I used the closest comparable or store brand product.
    I visited chain stores only. I know there are independent grocery stores dotted around the Twin Cities, and again I'll make it to some of them in the future.
    If the size I was looking for wasn't available (say, for Honey Nut Cheerios), I calculated the percentage difference in size and applied that to the cost. I also rounded down some items (like clementines) to a per-lb cost, as stores would sell them in different sizes.
    I used coupon books in stores as I went around, but bear in mind the offers at stores like Cub and Fresh Thyme fluctuate from week to week.

Here are the stores we visited:

  • Hy-Vee, New Hope
  • Walmart, Richfield
  • Fresh Thyme, Bloomington
  • Lunds & Byerlys, Edina
  • Jerry's Food, Edina
  • Cub Foods, Edina
  • SuperTarget, Edina
  • Kowalski's, Bloomington.
  • Whole Foods, Lake Calhoun, Minneapolis.

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