Are we being gouged for groceries?

When gas rates flew through the roof last summer, so, too, did food prices. Here, in the hinterlands of Humboldt, the price at the pump is frequently higher than the highest described in national reports. Prices in June reached over $4.79 /gal. here. So it was the gas companies that were causing our woes, right?

Well, not exactly.

Gas prices fell but grocery prices didn’t seem to correspond.

When Ray’s bought our two independent grocery stores (which had amazingly good prices and organic selection unparalleled except in health food stores in big cities), Ray’s  had a virtual monopoly on groceries for almost an hour in either direction (technically, we have another food store, Chautauqua but it carries natural foods and doesn’t carry many mainstream brands.) The company reassured locals that they wouldn’t raise prices or change their wide selection of organic items. At the time, several people shook their heads and mumbled grimly. But prices did seem to stay low for quite some time and people from out of the area are still constantly amazed at the quality and variety of organic foods available on our shelves.

However, prices began creep steadily up. Yet, I wondered if maybe this was true everywhere, so I created a list of 17 items that covered a wide variety of food types and compared prices. First, I shopped the Redway Shop Smart (owned by Rays), the Garberville, Fortuna and Eureka Ray’s Food Stores last Thursday and Friday. Then yesterday, I delved into prices at Safeway in Eureka and Fortuna, too.

Although, I had been prepared to find Eureka much cheaper than the southern stores, an employee at the Fortuna Ray’s told me that the Garberville/Redway stores were much busier than the Fortuna/Eureka ones and would thus access larger bulk purchases resulting in lower pricing. So I began to wonder if Redway would be the cheapest.

What I found surprised me. (see below for methodology.)

Ray’s: First of all, the Ray’s normal prices were cheapest in Fortuna, but Redway was next. Then followed Eureka and, finally Garberville. The span ran from $75.90 in Fortuna to $79 in Garberville—a difference of $3.10.

The average grocery bill for a family of 4 last March was about $175 per week. If the stats hold true through these more expensive recent months, then a family would save about 2 1/3 times the $3.10 per week by shopping at the Fortuna Ray’s—about $7.13. Not exactly worth the 3 gallons of gas it would take to drive up and back.

The prices were even closer when I took into account sale prices. Substituting sales prices wherever found, the prices then ranged from $75.57 in Garberville to 76.19 in Redway—.only $.62 different and hardly worth the short trip between the two towns.

Safeway: This week, I checked the same items at Safeway. The prices were nearly identical between the Eureka and Fortuna branches of that business. Even their sales prices were the same. The only change was a 20 cent difference in price per pound on Foster Farms Fryers.

But the price difference between Safeway and Ray’s was substantial. The price for normal Safeway groceries was $71.61 in Fortuna and $68.11 when on sale. The difference between the highest priced Ray’s—Garberville at $79. 00 and the lowest price Safeway—Fortuna at $71.61 was $7.31. The difference, once sales prices were added, was $10. 08 in the Fortuna Safeway’s favor.

If the savings hold true across the 2 1/3 times more groceries the average family buys than what I examined, a 4 person family that normally buys $175 per week would save roughly $23.00 by buying groceries at the Fortuna Safeway rather than the Redway ShopSmart—$92.00 per month.

Conclusion: If a family is concerned  more about price than convenience, a trip to the Fortuna Safeway is the best value by far.

Concerns: Although Ray’s is a chain and not based in Southern Humboldt, the employees are. I need to emphasize how incredibly friendly and helpful all Ray’s employees were and are. In fact, Ray’s is very welcoming to the local non-profit community. I have frequently stood out front of both the Garberville and Redway stores selling raffle tickets for our schools and our local martial arts group. The managers, clerks and stock people not only are cheerful and helpful but frequently buy tickets and some have lent a quick hand setting up.

Out-of-Towners find the stores charming.  One Washington woman took the time to write a delighted review of the Redway store here.

Explanation of Methodology: I only compared exactly the same item, i.e. 8.9 oz Cheerio box would not be compared with another brand or a 14. 7 oz. Cheerio box. Many times I did not find the item at all stores. In order to compare prices, I then averaged the cost of the item at the other stores and then replaced the not found item cost with the resulting number.

Normal prices for Safeway were done at the Club member cost—as there is no charge to become a club member and if you shop there you should become one.

Chart:Here is my chart of products and prices.

(Thank you to Kaivalya who helped me format the chart!!!)

. Product GarRay RedRay ForRay EurRay Safe E Safe F
. Milk Humboldt ½ gal.whole 2.99 2.99 2.99 3.19 3.49 3.49
. Bread Brio Rustic Ital 16 oz 4.79 4.79 4.79
. Cheerios 8.9 oz 4.09 3.89 3.89 4.29 4.29
. Eggs Ray’s orgc val 12 brn eggs omega 4.89 4.69 4.39 4.69
. 1/2 gal Trop pulp free 5.29 5.09 5.09 3 3
. Hamburger Lean ground not over 19% fat 3.48 3.49 3.49 2.99 2.99
. iceberg lettuce 1.69 1.79 1.69 1.99 1.29 1.29
. vine tomatoes 3.49 2.99 2.99 3.99 3.49 3.49
. gala apples 1.99 1.98 1.99 1.99 1.99 1.99
. Dreyers tangeringe fruit bars popsicles 4.79 4.59 4.59 4.59 4.69 4.69
. Foster Farms Fryer 2.28 1.99 1.89 1.69
. palmolive original dish soap 4.69 4.49 4.49 4.49 4.49 4.49
. tp Quilted northern 12 double rolls 12.19 11.44 10.99 10.99
. Bien Padre tortillas 12 2.19 2.19 2.19 2.19 1.79 1.79
. newman’s own balsamic vinager 16 fld oz 4.69 4.49 4.49 4.49 2.99 2.99
. signature coffee organic dak french 12 oz 11.29 10.89 10.89 10.89
. Oro Wheat Double fiber muffins 4.69 3.69 3.69 3.69 3.99 3.99