Canadians paid an average of 9.7 per cent more for food in April this year than April 2021, according to data released by Statistics Canada last month.
Prices are higher in just about every aisle in the grocery store, Statistics Canada reported, with products like bread (up 12.2 per cent), pasta (up 19.6 per cent), meat (up 10.1 per cent), fresh vegetables (up 8.2 per cent), rice (up 7.4 per cent) and fresh fruit (up 10 per cent) seeing significant increases.
The rapid rise in food prices has resulted in many Canadians having to make hard choices about what they can afford.
National polls conducted in March on behalf of Food Banks Canada showed that 23 per cent of Canadians are eating “less than they should” because of the rising cost of food – those numbers rose to 40 per cent for people who earned less than $50,000 per year and 45 per cent for Indigenous households. In addition, one in five people polled reported going hungry at least once between March 2020 and March 2022
With many Prince George residents feeling the pinch of higher food prices, the Citizen decided to put the city’s four largest grocery retailers – Costco, Save-on-Foods (Spruceland location), Real Canadian Superstore and Wal-Mart – to a side-by-side price comparison test, to see which store offered the best value for the money.
Citizen reporter Arthur Williams visited all four stores on Wednesday (June 8), between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and shopped for the same list of 12 staple food items with a $100 budget at each store.
For each item, the cheapest option available on the shelf at each store was selected, including sale items, generic store brands and membership discounts. However, no member points were used to obtain free or discounted items.
Reusable bags were used to avoid being charged for plastic bags.
If the size or quantity specified in the list wasn’t available, the closest available size or quantity was chosen. This was especially a factor at Costco, which specializes in bulk sales. To make this an apples-to-apples comparison, we have listed both the total price and the price adjusted for quantity.
After the Citizen’s test, all the food was donated to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s downtown drop-in centre to help feed people in need in Prince George.
Here is the shopping list we took to each store:
1 2L jug of 2% milk
600g block of medium cheddar cheese
1 dozen eggs
Bunch of 6 bananas
6 apples (red delicious or equivalent)
3 medium yellow onions
3 lb. bag of carrots
1 pack of bacon
500g lean ground beef
1 loaf of white bread
500g pack of spaghetti noodles
1L jug of orange juice
And the winner is...
REAL CANADIAN SUPERSTORE (CHEAPEST BY $0.42)
Superstore came out on top as the cheapest of the four major grocery stores in Prince George, at $50.10 for our 12-item list. But with a less than one per cent savings over Save-on-Foods, it proves just how competitive the grocery market is.
Superstore offered a wide variety of low-cost store brand products, which gave them the overall edge. But store brand products aren’t always a better deal. Superstore offered store-brand cheddar blocks for $5.89, but those blocks were only 400g vs. the 600g block of Armstrong we bought for $7.99. When you do the math, the Armstrong brand-name cheese is actually cheaper.
Superstore could have edged further ahead if they had their store brand 900g bags of spaghetti noodles in stock. Those bags were $0.39 cheaper for almost twice as much pasta.
SAVE-ON-FOODS (NO. 2 WITH A REWARD CARD)
Our list came in at $50.52 at Save-on-Foods’ Spruceland location. Using our More Rewards card saved $4.30, which kept Save-on-Foods in the running.
For the purpose of this test, we didn’t use any reward points to get items for free. If we had gotten even one item free, Save-on-Foods would have easily come out as the cheapest.
Watch out for shrinkflation, however. The pack of bacon we purchased at Save-on-Foods was only 375g, not 500g like at Superstore. The same was true at Wal-Mart. Had we purchased a second pack of bacon to get 500g worth, both Save-on-Foods and Wal-Mart would have been less competitive with Superstore.
Save-on-Foods has more locations in Prince George than any of their competitors, and currently offers the only grocery stores near downtown and in the Hart.
WAL-MART (LOWER PRICES? NOT TODAY)
Our 12-item list cost a total of $51.65 at Wal-Mart, $1.55 more than Superstore and $1.13 more than Save-on-Foods.
Wal-Mart had plenty of low-priced store-brand items which gave the impression they were cheaper, but the final total added up to make them the most expensive of the three conventional grocery stores.
That said, they were only three per cent more expensive than Superstore. If Wal-Mart is your closest store, or you need to go there to purchase other items, the savings in fuel could easily offset the higher cost.
COSTCO (THE X-FACTOR)
Buying our 12-item list at Costco was by far the most expensive, at $131.53. Costco was the only store that exceeded, or even came close to, our $100 budget.
If we’d only had $100 to buy groceries, the bacon and orange juice would have been left behind at the register.
But does buying in bulk pay off? We ended up purchasing roughly twice as much milk, cheese and apples as on our list; roughly 2.5 times as many eggs and onions; roughly three times as much bacon, bread and carrots; roughly 3.75 times as much orange juice; six times as much beef; and a whopping 8.5 times as much spaghetti as we needed. Who needs more than four kilograms of spaghetti noodles?
When we adjusted the prices we paid at Costco by the amounts we got, we paid $43.08 for the equivalent amount of food we bought at the other three stores.
So, yes, buying bulk at Costco saved about $7, compared to Superstore. That makes Costco both the cheapest and most expensive grocery store in Prince George.
But that comes with two big caveats:
Firstly, if you ended up throwing out half the $14 block of cheddar we bought at Costco because it was more than you need, then buying bulk saved you nothing. If half the $29 package of ground beef got freezer burnt before you ate it, then Costco was more expensive than just buying what you need that week. Buying more than you need and wasting food is an expensive habit.
Secondly, the three-pack of bread for $7.49 seems like a good deal, but at $2.50 per loaf it was actually $0.50 to $0.83 more expensive per loaf than the bread we bought at the other three stores. Buying in bulk didn’t always mean a savings.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The grocery industry is highly competitive, so there isn’t a lot of differentiation between them in terms price. It turns out that capitalism works.
If you like a particular store because of their convenient location, selection, service, quality of products or whatever, shop there confidently knowing you’re probably not missing out on a way better deal somewhere else.
A Costco membership might save you some money, if you are smart about what you buy and don’t waste much. Also, the free samples are back.
This test compared prices on a limited number of items, all purchased on a single day, and may not reflect the broader price trends at each respective store. Grocery prices change regularly and sales or other promotions could change the results.
The Citizen is not in a position to measure the quality, taste or nutritional value of the food purchased. Differences in these qualities may account for the price differences.