I’ve always prided myself on being a frugal person; I’ve been the “crazy coupon lady,” I’ve done the “no-spend” month thing, and after several people asked, I did a whole post on how we manage to keep our grocery bill so low (usually between $250-300/month, which includes ALL household goods such as toilet paper and shampoo, in addition to the cost of my makeup).
So, when a reader pointed out to me that though she hadn’t shopped at Walmart much before, she’d been forced to conclude after a recent move that their prices were just plain lower and that she now didn’t shop anywhere else, I was intrigued.
You see, I too had been a bit of a “Walmart snob” before and tried to go in there the least number of times possible in a year. I’ve always been a Smith’s shopper through and through (with a bit of Sam’s Club thrown into the mix in the past couple years as I’ve started buying more in bulk), but Walmart? Never!
But, with our move to our new home in June, we happen to be quite a bit closer to a Walmart than to a Smith’s (and much closer to Walmart than Sam’s Club), so I was curious—
How much merit did her comment have? Were the savings indeed so great that I, too, would start doing the bulk of my grocery shopping at Walmart and eschew my usual go-to options?
So readers, I decided to do some research:
I made a list of 15 of the items that I bought the most and decided to do a little price-check across all three stores.
The results SHOCKED me.
But, before we dive too much into the tables and numbers and particulars too much, I need to give a couple of explanations:
- These 15 items are done according to MY personal preference, which means that some of them are NOT the cheapest option available of that thing in the store. While I do, often, buy shredded cheese of the generic variety, I insist on having The Good Stuff (aka, Tillamook sharp or extra-sharp or bust!) when it comes to my block cheese. Is this the most financially savvy choice? Absolutely not. Is this the choice that makes me the happiest? You bet.
- You will notice that I have two different tables, as a way of trying to be as “fair” to the three stores as possible. In the first table, you’ll notice that Smith’s fares rather poorly, but that is because I did NOT account for any sales they had on those particular items that week—I only took down the REGULAR, non-sale price of the item. As Smith’s frequently runs sales, it would be unfair to assume that all these things would indeed be full price on any given shopping trip. So, you will notice a second shopping trip where I calculated the prices according to what they were the actual week I recorded all this information, and I re-calculated the totals.
- I did not take any coupons or special promotions (such as $5/5 participating items) into the equation. Granted, Sam’s Club doesn’t accept coupons and Walmart doesn’t have any such promotions, but Smith’s is constantly running such promotional deals as well as offers digital coupons that are ridiculously easy to load onto your Rewards card, and if you start taking those into account, it does shift things a bit. All in all, though, I wanted to get a look at what store GENERALLY had the best price on certain items, especially if I had a busy week and couldn’t plan ahead and read the sale ads and load coupons and such.
As for the items themselves, I normally just looked for the price of the generic/cheapest brand of the item. So, for example, with the milk, I looked at the prices for Mountain Dairy (Smith’s), Great Value (Walmart), and Member’s Mark (Sam’s Club). I also tried to price out the cheapest quantity of something if a bulk quantity was offered, which meant that I often looked at the bigger cases of things rather than the individual packages. I have included a nice little explanation below of each of the 15 items and exactly what I ended up finding. (If you’d rather skip past the specifics, you can just go on to the charts. I won’t be offended.)
List of 15 Items (with Specific Quantities and Store Notes)
- 1% Milk, Gallon. Generic/Store brand (or whatever was cheapest.)
- We do also buy whole milk for Raven, which was the same as the charted price at every store but Sam’s Club, where it was $2.13, rather than $1.77.
- 5 Dozen Eggs. Cheapest option.
- We go through a LOT of eggs because we regularly have eggs for breakfast in the morning, so we always buy in bulk. Up until recently, Sam’s Club by far had the best deal on these, but they recently raised their prices by $2, which makes them the most expensive option now, surprisingly.
- Bread: Great Grains Double Fiber & Honey.
- Sam’s Club only offers this in a two-pack (for $3.58), but I still calculated out the unit price per loaf.
- Butter, Salted, 1 Lb. Cheapest Option.
- Cereal: Malt O’Meal Frosted Mini Spooners (when available) OR Frosted Mini Wheats (Sam’s Club).
- Sizes available varied WIDELY from store to store, so an ounce-for-ounce comparison was best on this.
- Bananas, non-organic.
- Even though Sam’s Club actually has the cheapest bananas, I actually like theirs the least because they seem to stay perma-green even when they’re ripe.
- Apples, 3 lbs. Honeycrisp.
- I actually prefer Ambrosia apples over any other variety, but Walmart didn’t have those, so I chose my second-favorite kind (which is also one of the pricier apple picks, admittedly).
- Walmart only had this in a bulk size of 2.5 lbs, so I had to calculate out the price-per-lb. there and add it on to the price they listed for the 2.5-lb. bag to equal the 3 lbs. available elsewhere.
- Chicken, Raw Boneless, Skinless Breasts, Cheapest Option.
- Honestly, I don’t like Smith’s chicken, so I haven’t bought it from them in a long time.
- When we finally get the chest freezer we’ve got our eye on, we’ll probably be ordering much of our meat through Zaycon Fresh, which is a bulk meat service that offers pick-up times at various locations a few times a season. They’re always running sales, so it’s not unusual to be able to get high-quality chicken for around $1.48/lb.
- Ground Beef, 80/20, Cheapest Option.
- Once again, availability of the different sizes and fat percentages varied widely from store to store, so I decided on 80/20, even though some stores (Smith’s) didn’t offer a good bulk option in that ratio.
- Cheese, Tillamook Sharp Cheddar.
- Smith’s and Walmart offer this in a 2-lb. size, but Sam’s Club offers it in a 2.5-lb. size, so I recalculated the Sam’s Club price to reflect what it would cost at the equivalent of 2 pounds (even though you can’t get it in that size).
- Avocados, Large. Non-organic.
- Bagged avocados (which usually come in a minimum of 4) are almost always the better deal, so I calculated the bagged price at every store but Walmart because they didn’t have any in stock of their bagged avocados, so I was unable to determine how much was in each, or if they were large avocados in the bags or not.
- Onions, Yellow. Non-organic.
- Price was usually based on the bulk bag option, which was 3 lbs. (at Smith’s and Walmart) or 10 lbs. (Sam’s Club).
- String Cheese, Part-Skim Mozzarella. Frigo.
- Once again, package size varied widely from store to store, so I usually took the biggest bulk option they had, since that was always the cheapest. At Smith’s, it was a 24-pack, at Walmart a 36, and at Sam’s Club a 48-pack.
- Chocolate Chips, Nestle Tollhouse Semi-Sweet.
- Sizing was once again the issue, so I compared by ounce. Smith’s and Walmart both had a 24-ounce size (which I used for the pricing), and Sam’s Club had a 72-ounce option.
- Greek Yogurt, Oikos Triple Zero.
- For Smith’s and Walmart, I looked at their 4-pack option (since that was the biggest I could find), and Sam’s Club only offered an 18-pack.
Now, with all that background behind us, let’s actually get to some comparisons, shall we?
As noted, the sizes available often varied from store to store, so to make it fair, I often had to divide the total cost of the item and divide it by the number of ounces/lbs to get the cost per unit.
Check it out:
As I noted earlier, if I don’t take ANY sale prices into account, Smith’s is 25% more expensive than Walmart, with Sam’s Club falling somewhere between the two. But, to make it a little more fair, I calculated the sale prices that just happened to be available the week I did my research, which should give us a slightly more realistic comparison of the price gaps between the stores:
As you can see, Walmart still comes out on top. You also might have noticed (if you’re studying the charts VERY closely) that NONE of Walmart’s prices changed in the second chart—those were just their regular prices, all the time. However, if you do a line-by-line comparison, Sam’s Club is actually cheaper than Walmart for the majority of items–it’s really just due to their high price on the apples and a couple other items that skews the numbers.
However, lest you all are thinking that I’m just going to never shop at my beloved Smith’s ever again, I’m going to do a little pro/con list because I apparently have STRONG opinions on my grocery stores, people. I DO think these things are worth taking into account, rather than just relying on the above price lists alone.
- They offer digital coupons you can easily download onto your Smith’s Rewards card, which would have brought those totals on that chart there down by another $2.50 or so (just based on what I’d already downloaded). Sure, overall Walmart still would beat out Smith’s prices, but not on everything. Since I rarely use paper coupons anymore, I like the ease of knowing that I can still “coupon” to a degree, albeit in a lazy way.
- Smith’s frequently offers promotional deals, like $5/5 participating items. When these promotions are combined with digital coupons, the prices would USUALLY beat both Walmart and Sam’s Club.
- Their checkout tends to be MUCH faster–there is rarely any wait at either of my local Smith’s stores, and employees frequently open up nearby registers if they see that you’re waiting.
- They offer free fruit from their produce section for your kids. (This is such a small thing, but Raven LOVES going to Smith’s because she knows she’ll always get a banana there!)
- Their employees are generally super friendly and helpful. It’s rare that I go a whole shopping trip without an employee asking if I need help finding something or even just saying hi.
- They almost ALWAYS have a big section of meat that’s been marked down in their “Manager’s Special” section, so if I don’t care what kind of meat I’m cooking with, I can often find a steal (or three) from this pile.
- Obviously, their prices are overall higher than their two counterparts, unless you count special promotions or coupons. So, for weeks when I don’t have much time to price check and load coupons and see what sale items match with which deals and which coupons, it doesn’t make sense for me to go to Smith’s money-wise.
- Although most of their produce is quite good, I’ve frequently been unimpressed with their avocados and rarely buy them from there because they usually go bad before we can use them. As mentioned before, I’m also not a fan of their chicken—it seems to always turn out tough and kind of rubbery, no matter how carefully I prepare it.
- In many categories, they beat out both stores in price (and on some things, like yogurt, they blow the competition away).
- Their produce, other than their bananas (in my opinion), is excellent. I also LOVE their frozen vegetables–their frozen broccoli is super high quality and at a GREAT price.
- I like that they offer samples. I mean, who doesn’t?
- Because they offer things in such large quantities, I find I don’t need to go grocery shopping as much.
- Because they only offer things in such huge quantities, it’s really hard for me to make a Sam’s Club run and spend less than $90-100, which is a LOT for me to spend in one go at a grocery store (I mean, that’s more than a third of my grocery budget! Spent on around a dozen items, usually!).
- I’ve often had a hard time tracking down employees while wandering through the store if I need help finding something, and very rarely has an employee been the first to ask if I needed help.
- It’s easy to assume that since most everything is cheaper in bulk, it must stand to reason that Sam’s Club has the best prices on EVERYTHING, but as I’ve proved in this post, that’s just not true. Now I’m tempted to price check other frequently bought items just to make sure I’m not way overspending at SC (like I was on my apples!).
- They don’t accept coupons of any kind.
- THE PRICES. I mean, now that I’ve actually done the work and price-checked stuff, I can see that in many cases, their prices just are not beat very easily. In addition, I think (?) they still accept paper coupons at Walmart, so if I were to go back to couponing again, I could save even more.
- Being a newbie to grocery shopping at Walmart, I have been pleasantly surprised to find that their produce and meat is decent quality. A lot of it still doesn’t quite match up to Sam’s Club (like their ground turkey meatballs), but it’s pretty good nonetheless.
- A financially savvy reader pointed out to me that you can scan your Walmart receipt online and that they’ll price match with all the stores and give you money back every few months. Talk about an easy way to make sure you’re getting the best deal!
- Their checkout is by far the slowest of the three stores. At Smith’s, I rarely have any wait, and at Sam’s Club, the wait is minimal (if there at all), but I have yet to make a trip to Walmart where I wasn’t waiting in line to check out, and usually behind at least two full cart-loads, too.
- Like Sam’s Club, their employees don’t generally tend to be as friendly or as easy to track down, and while my checkers at Sam’s Club and Smith’s are usually quite friendly in general (I’m guessing it’s part of their training), I’ve had a very mixed bag of Walmart checkers, some of whom have barely spoken to me at all.
- I’ve found that Walmart FREQUENTLY runs out of products and sometimes takes awhile to restock them. I have rarely seen something out of stock at Smith’s and only sometimes at Sam’s Club, but I am almost guaranteed to find that at least one thing on my list at Walmart is unavailable.
My Final Verdict?
For me, Walmart is closest anyway, so I will likely be doing much of my “small trip” grocery stops there, where I’ll stock up on the “fresh” things I need to make my meals that week, such as vegetables, butter, cereal, eggs, and anything that I want in a smaller quantity (particularly things that spoil quickly, like produce or certain dairy products like buttermilk or heavy cream). For most staples (especially baking staples), as well as yogurt, cheese, and meat (when I don’t go through Zaycon Fresh), I’ll go to Sam’s Club (ideally just once a month, to save myself the temptation of picking up “just a few extra things,” which adds up QUICKLY at bulk retailers.
However, once a month or so, I will likely do a price check at Smith’s when they’re running one of their big promotions, and I’ll double up my coupons and purchase things like toothpaste, shampoo/conditioner, makeup, laundry detergent, cleaning supplies, diapers (Pull-ups), etc. The non-food items in particular are the ones you tend to save the most on when you double up a promotion WITH a coupon, and it would be well worth the effort to do that at least once a month. Also, their case lot sales would likely beat most of Walmart’s prices and rival Sam’s Club, so I will likely continue to look forward to those once a quarter.
What’s your go-to grocery store, and why? And do you agree with my final verdict?