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Three grocery stores. Three strategies. Who wins on price?

Before Whole Foods arrived in Amherst last month, most Western New Yorkers knew one big thing about the supermarket: Its nickname is "Whole Paycheck."

So we wanted to find out, are Whole Foods' prices really that high? And how do they compare to our two biggest local grocery chains, Tops and Wegmans?

Comparing prices is a tricky endeavor – made even more difficult by the different pricing strategies supermarkets use.

Tops and Wegmans go to market with very different strategies. Tops rolls out splashy sales and promotions that can offer deep discounts and draw customers in, while Wegmans employs a strategy that focuses on keeping certain prices consistently low.

Whole Foods' strategy is in flux. Since being acquired by Amazon last month, it has lowered prices on some popular items and said it will focus further on Whole Foods' mission of providing high-quality organic, natural and specialty food.

Not every chain carries identical sizes and brands, which vary widely. Prices change often, due to sales, supply, demand and other factors.

To get an idea of how prices compare locally, we randomly chose a list of 103 products and compared their prices.

We chose the three Amherst locations that are clustered together (Wegmans at 675 Alberta Drive, Tops at 3980 Maple Road and Whole Foods at 3139 Sheridan Drive). We compared prices by unit and, where we could, chose the smallest sizes available.

As often as possible, we did apples-to-apples comparisons (literally) but in cases where the same product wasn't carried at all three stores, we worked hard to be sure each product's attributes lined up – whether it was organic or conventional, private label or national brand, contained GMOs, was kosher, gluten free, vegan or free of certain allergens, among other considerations. We also sourced all of the prices on the same day in mid-September.

Of course, where products are not identical, not everyone will agree that products are of like quality or value. Random samples don't give the whole picture. And stores might offer certain value options where no similar comparison is available.

Our research is not comprehensive or scientific enough to tell you whose prices are consistently the best, but a few things did stand out:

* Whole Foods is known for its organic offerings, but its pricing on conventional produce isn't too shabby. Gala apples were on sale at Whole Foods for 99 cents per pound when we checked, but regularly, they're $1.99 per pound, which is the same as both Wegmans and Tops.

Whole Foods' conventional bananas were priced at 49 cents a pound, which is the same as the regular price at Wegmans and Tops (though Tops was advertising 39 cents per pound on sale that day). Vine-grown English cucumbers cost $2.99 apiece at all three stores, though that was a sale price for Tops (regularly $3.49). Conventional avocados were priced at $1.49 apiece at Whole Foods, same as Wegmans. At Tops, they were on sale for $2.50 apiece, regularly $2.99.

* Tops goes to market with a strategy known in the industry as "high-low" pricing that focuses on promotions. It advertises splashy sales ("buy two, get four free Doritos" or  get a "quarter back" on the purchase of Tops and TopCare brand items, for example) and exciting promotions (such as its Monopoly sweepstakes game and fuel discounts). Many Western New Yorkers love it.

But without a sale, some Tops prices can be more expensive than other supermarkets. A good example is Almond Breeze almond milk. On sale late last month for $2.49 per half gallon, it was cheaper than Wegmans ($2.99) and Whole Foods ($3.49). But at its regular price of $3.69, Tops' Almond Breeze almond milk would be more expensive than both stores.

Tops said its promotional strategy regularly saves shoppers money compared to other stores. It has a number of products on which it has set everyday low prices, such as offering bananas for 49 cents per pound and sometimes discounting them to 39 cents per pound.

The company also periodically "locks in" long-term sale pricing for at least eight weeks at a time. Tops' regular price on Kevita Kombucha was more expensive at its non-sale price, but has been locked in at two for $5, making it the cheapest of the three stores while on sale.

Tops also runs weekly ad specials that it rotates each week. For example, its on-sale, 5-ounce container of organic spinach came in at the same price as Whole Foods and about $1 more expensive than Wegmans (its non-sale price was higher than both Wegmans and Whole Foods). But, the company points out, it rotates deals on its Earthbound Farms brand organic spinach, alternately selling them for as little as $2.50 for a five-ounce package and $4.99 for a 16-ounce package.

"Just because a retailer doesn't have a 'sale' price of an item listed indicating it's the 'everyday' price, it doesn't mean that price does not change," said Kathy Romanowski, a spokeswoman for Tops Markets. "All pricing is subject to cost changes, supply, and other variables."

Deep-discount promotions can be a winning proposition for supermarkets, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Retailing by Debabrata Talukdar, a University at Buffalo marketing professor. Significantly discounting some items drives traffic into stores, and increases sales and profits, the study found.

* One complaint against Wegmans is that it carries too many of its own private-label products over national brands. Wegmans actively develops its own private-label brands and has trimmed back sizes and varieties of some national brands. But Wegmans goes to market with an "everyday low price" strategy, which takes advantage of the lower prices that can be secured with volume buying. That selective approach is part of how Wegmans makes that low pricing feasible, the company said. The store doesn't run major sales and focuses on keeping prices relatively low on a consistent basis.

"There are a number of factors that determine the products we carry. Each year, approximately 10,000 new products are introduced. We can't carry every one, but in order to offer those that will be in demand, other products in the same category must be discontinued, and it's usually the slowest selling items – Wegmans brand included," said Michele Mehaffy, a spokeswoman for Wegmans.

As it makes more room for the natural and organic products that keep growing in demand, Wegmans has looked to eliminate duplications on shelves, she said.

"In some categories, cleaning products or cooking oils, for example, we have offered several nearly-identical products, except for the name on the label," she said. "We're trying to scale that back to be sure we are offering the best quality products and those that offer the best value."

For example, one of the most common brands of organic milk you'll find in many stores is Maryland-based Horizon – the red carton with the black-and-white cow on the front. But you won't find it in the half gallon at Wegmans stores in the Buffalo market. Instead, Wegmans produces its own line of Food You Feel Good About organic milk through Upstate Farms. And while you won't get the Horizon brand, you'll pay $3.49 for a half gallon of Wegmans organic 2 percent. The half gallon of Horizon organic 2 percent was on sale for $4.79 (regularly $4.99) at Tops and sells for $5.39 at Whole Foods.

* All three stores have special brands that set higher food standards while trying to keep prices low. Each brand is meant to make shopping easier for label-conscious shoppers, signaling that foods under those banners are better-for-you, price-conscious choices.

Foods sold under the Wegmans Food You Feel Good About label have no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, hydrogenated fats, high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners. Tops recently overhauled its private label brands to eliminate those same types of ingredients and make their products "cleaner." Whole Foods doesn't allow foods with any of those ingredients on its shelves, period. But it also has a private-label brand called 365 Everyday Value that meets those standards, at lower prices. Tops also carries the Full Circle Market brand, products from Illinois-based food industry cooperative Topco. The Full Circle brand touts simpler, "closer-to-nature" ingredients and a large array of organics. There is no list of ingredients banned in Full Circle products, but the brand uses clear labeling to tout the products' specialty features, such as whether they are non-GMO, organic or nut free.

* Sometimes, but not often, Whole Foods had the lowest prices. Its conventional blueberries are a staggering example. Priced at $2.99 for 11 ounces (the smallest container it had), Whole Foods was cheaper than Wegmans and Tops. Tops had a sale price of $2.99 for six ounces of blueberries, though its regular retail price is $4.99 per six ounces. Wegmans priced its conventional blueberries at $2.99 for six ounces. Whole Foods, which opened its first location in Western New York in Amherst last month, said it was not introductory pricing.

Signs throughout the store show where Amazon lowered prices when it took over Whole Foods last month. They include Fuji apples, which went from $3.49 a pound to $1.99 a pound; salmon filets, which went from $14.99 per pound to $9.99 per pound and almond butter, which went from $7.99 a jar to $6.99 a jar. Those post-Amazon prices are "just the first, tiniest step," according to Whole Foods spokesman Ted Kwong.

Here's a look at how five products stacked up:

Almond Breeze almond milk, unsweetened original, half gallon

  • Tops: $2.49 on sale, regularly $3.69
  • Wegmans: $2.99
  • Whole Foods: $3.49

Organic spinach, 5 oz.

  • Tops $3.49 on sale, regularly: $3.99
  • Wegmans: $2.49
  • Whole Foods: $3.49

Great Lakes beer, 6-pack

  • Tops, $9.99
  • Wegmans, $8.99
  • Whole Foods, $10.99

Conventional blueberries

  • Tops, $2.99 for 6 oz. on sale, regularly $4.99 for 6 oz.
  • Wegmans, $2.99 for 6 oz.
  • Whole Foods, $2.99 for 11 oz.

Kevita Kombucha, 15.2 fl.oz.

  • Tops, 2 for $5 on sale, regularly $3.49
  • Wegmans, $2.79
  • Whole Foods, 2 for $6, regularly $3.39

* These are five of the 103 products whose prices we compared on the same day in mid-September. All products were sourced in Amherst at Tops, Wegmans and Whole Foods. Sale and regular prices reflect those on Sept. 22 and may have since changed. Where same sizes were not available, the smallest available size was chosen.


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