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5 Supermarkets, 25 Items, and 6 Sets of Prices in 1 Day A Price Comparison by Zelda Gordon, No-Cards Shoppers
July 27, 2002		Method  The Data  Analysis  Conclusion
Albuquerque, NM	  More Observations  Back to NO CARDS! Contents

Thirty-two months have elapsed since I last undertook a
grocery store price comparison in Albuquerque.  It's taken about 
that long to recover from my previous MILES OF AISLES Supermarket
Pricing Survey adventure, but this time around my job was easier.  
I had my Shopping List ready to go, 25 common items I had priced 
and compared in '99.  Wouldn't it be fun to see how much that same 
group of items would cost today, at those same stores?  Well, here 
you go -- have fun!

Total Price of 25 Common Grocery Items  
Store 		Nov. 1999     July 2002    % Change

Brooks           $52.59      	$53.00         .78%
Furrs w/card*    $47.84      	$53.59       12.02%
Furrs Reg./Lowes $54.56      	$53.59       -1.78%
Raleys           $50.83      	$54.07        6.37%
Smiths w/card    $52.35      	$55.63        6.27%	
AVERAGE          $52.01      	$57.53       10.61%
Albertsons       $50.19      	$63.16       25.84%
Smiths Reg.      $55.70      	$65.71       17.97%

* The Furrs store has been converted to a no-cards Lowes; Lowes 
7/02 total is compared to Furrs 11/99 w/card & regular price totals.

Background: We've certainly seen some interesting developments 
in the 'store wars' since my original price survey.  At that time 
we had two card schemes operating here, the Furrs "Extreme 
Savings" and Smiths "Fresh Values" programs.  A third program at 
the Lucky chain (formerly Jewel; the name seems to have been 
changed solely to allow introduction of the cards) had existed 
briefly from August 1998 until June of 1999.  Then Lucky stores 
were sold to Albertsons, which subsequently sold the markets or 
converted them to card-free Albertsons stores. (Albertsons, 
interestingly, having staked their reputation on being a card-free 
store, did not discontinue card programs at the chains they 
acquired, and has recently launched new card programs under the 
Albertsons banner in several states.)

At the time of the Albertsons merger, New Mexico also got the card-
free Raleys chain.  By November of 1999 I was able to survey prices 
at 5 stores within a five mile radius of my home; between the 3 
card-free stores and the 2 card stores I analyzed 7 sets of prices. 

Then, early in 2001, in our own little mini ENRON scandal, Furrs 
went bankrupt!  A local corporation of long standing, with 5,000 
employees and 70 stores in New Mexico and West Texas, the state's 
biggest privately own company, Furrs also happened to be the first 
store in NM to try a card program.  Much was made of the bankruptcy 
(the preceding statistics come from the Alb. Journal, 2/8/01, 
"Furrs files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy"), but there was nary a peep 
about the role shopper cards may have played in Furrs financial 

Fragments of the gutted Furrs corporation went to a Texas company, 
Lowes, and they re-opened some of the old stores under that name, 
without a card program.  This leaves us with but one card program, 
Smiths Fresh Values card.				Top of Page

Method: ON ANY GIVEN DAY.  This day was July 27, 2002.  If an item 
was on special, that's the price I included in my total (though I 
did make a note that it was called a special).  In the case of 
Smiths I noted the card price and the non-cardholder prices as if 
I were going to shop for my 25 items twice, once with and once 
without the card.  The main thing was consistency -- from store to 
store I tried  not to diverge from the brands on my list, and never 
diverged from the size or the quantity (usually 1 each) of the 
items noted.  Quantity was significant in the case of Albertsons 
and their 'bonus buy' stickers, which sometimes gave the price as 
$5 (for example) 'when you buy 2' (at least it was clearly stated) 
with no discount offered on a single item.  At other stores, 
specials were offered as '2 for $5' (for example) and really did 
mean '1 for $2.50' as I made a point of clarifying with a worker at 

ON ANY GIVEN DAY. To be as fair as possible, you almost have to go 
to all the stores in one day.  Prices are in a constant state of 
flux, special offers change frequently.  Even if you make a day of 
it, there are many opportunities for error.  The tags can be 
confusing, products or tags can be misplaced on the shelf, or the 
tags might be hard to locate or illegible... not to mention that my 
eyesight isn't what it used to be.  I admit, I am fallible.  I am 
one person with a pencil and a list printed out from the computer.  
These are the pitfalls of embarking on an informal study of grocery 
store prices.  On any given day, this same set of items might be 
priced completely differently.  

The numbers fluctuate, yet the results are surprisingly consistent.
Aren't you curious?
On any given day in your town, which of your local stores will 
give you the best deal on these 25 items?  Shopping List

Analyzing the Results:  For my 1999 price survey I was most
interested in comparing the stores' prices to each other and the 
'special' card prices to the so-called 'regular' prices at the card 
stores.  This time around I was also eager to compare each store's 
1999 prices to today's prices.  Let's look at those numbers again:

Total of 25 Items    Nov. 1999   July 2002      %Increase 
Brooks                 $52.59      $53.00         .78%
Furrs card/Lowes       $47.84      $53.59       12.02%
Furrs Reg./Lowes       $54.56      $53.59       -1.78%
Raleys                 $50.83      $54.07        6.37%
Smiths card            $52.35      $55.63        6.27%
AVERAGE                $52.01      $57.53       10.61%
Albertsons             $50.19      $63.16       25.84%
Smiths Reg.            $55.70      $65.71       17.97%

How interesting.  Brooks, that modest independent grocer around 
the corner, the store I fled to when the cards came to town, has 
increased prices less than 1%; while Albertsons which has slowly 
(and slyly) been shifting to loyalty cards, has increased prices by 
over 25%!

Worth noting here is that according to the American Institute 
for Economic Research, the cost of living factor for that period, 
based on the Consumer Price Index, is only 1.07383.  According to 
their on-line Calculator $52.00 worth of groceries in 1999 (that 
was the average of 7 price totals) should be worth $55.84 
today.  But look at what the average of today's survey actually 
comes to: $57.53.  Now look again--  4 sets of prices did come in 
under the Consumer Price Index, as we'd expect in NM with its 
relatively low cost of living.  But 2 sets of prices are so 
inflated they have raised our average.

Not at all surprising is that the highest cumulative price for 
those 25 items is the without-card price at our one remaining card 
store, Smiths.  Smiths 'regular' price came in highest last time 
too, but today the price you pay for not using a card is over 200% 
above the penalty for shopping without a card in 1999.

Total of 25 Items    Nov. 1999   July 2002    Difference 
Smiths card            $52.35      $55.63        $3.35
Smiths Reg.            $55.70      $65.71       $10.08

Will you look at that -- Smiths 'special' Fresh Values card price 
today is within pennies of their 'regular' price of 1999, yet right 
in line with today's Consumer Price Index.  This supports two 
points that card foes have been making right along:

A) In a two-tiered pricing scheme, the lower price is what the 
'regular' price used to be, and the higher price is inflated. 

B) Every true mark-down offered is more than offset by mark-ups on
other items.

The fact is that what Smiths calls a 'value' today is still higher 
than the no-card totals at Raleys, Lowes and Brooks, while their 
'regular' prices look highly, and I mean highly, irregular.  And it 
gets worse over time, as shown by the chart above.  Let me 
reiterate: That $10.08 difference between using the Smiths card or 
not does not represent more savings to the 'loyal' customer, it 
represents more penalties to those who don't comply.

It is worth noting here that the Brooks chain was featured in a 
recent edition of the Albuquerque Journal's Business Outlook ("The 
Old-Fashioned Way" by Diane Velasco, 7/18/02).  Apparently Brooks 
has survived and prospered throughout our local grocery store wars, 
opening four new stores in eight months -- while still managing to 
keep prices down and customer satisfaction up.  No surprise there; 
I personally have grown to love this store, and appreciate it all 
the more after my tour of its competitors this afternoon.
Really, there were not many surprises for me on my survey of the 
stores today.  Common sense tells me, as it has from the beginning, 
1) The card programs increase operating costs and so must naturally 
increase prices at the stores which have them. 

2) The two-tiered pricing system invites abuse, as one price is 
inflated to create the illusion that the other is 'special'. 

3) Misrepresenting inflated prices as 'regular' will eventually 
condition the public to accept or at least expect higher prices, 
encouraging all grocery prices to creep (and sometimes leap) 
upward. 						Top of Page


More Observations:  Plugging today's numbers into my spreadsheets, 
I was mainly struck by how obvious the price hikes are.  And I was 
amazed, in hindsight, at how busy Smiths had been this afternoon.  
In a field of 5 stores within just a few miles of each other, 3 were 
less expensive than Smith's, and they were cleaner and tidier too.  
Why are my neighbors flocking to this store?  Perhaps they are just 
doing their grocery shopping as a sideline to renting videos, banking, 
getting photos developed, etc. and price never was the deciding 
factor in where they shopped.  Perhaps they have been taken in 
by the hype and totally confused by the multiple sets of prices. One
thing I have noticed about shopper card stores -- they seem less
and less interested in the business of selling food and more into 
hype, gimmicks, and the trade in valuable customer information.

2002 Award for Most Blatantly Manipulative Pricing:  This has to go 
to Albertsons, where half a dozen flavors of Ritz crackers were 
marked $3.69 for a one pound box.  I crawled along the floor (why 
were so many of these popular items so often located on the bottom 
shelf?) observing the tags until I finally came to the plain Ritz 
crackers, one pound box.  $5.79?  They've got to be kidding!  But 
no, they weren't.  Right next to the overpriced box of Ritz 
crackers, I found the Albertson's brand of a similar looking 
cracker, one pound box for--  Go ahead and guess.  $3.69.  "Compare 
and Save" the sign said.  The Albertsons brand was also intrusive 
in the frozen vegetable aisle.  This was the only store at which I 
failed to find either Birdseye or Green Giant frozen broccoli.  The 
Albertsons version of the product was of course cheaper but I 
penciled it in.  As mentioned above, I was tough on them when it 
came to the 'when you buy 2' deals, so I gave them a break on 
broccoli.  Over all, I found Albertsons to have the most confusing 
and oppressive specials.  Are they laying the foundation for a new 
card program here?  I wouldn't be surprised.  They've already 
raised the prices.		

Empty Promises.  We have shown that shopper cards have not 
fulfilled their promise of lower prices for consumers.  I wonder 
whether they have fulfilled the promise of higher profits for the 
stores.  The downfall of Furrs suggests they have not.  The truth 
is, when I checked prices in 1999, I found that the Furrs Extreme 
Savings program did offer real savings, even 3 years after 
inception.  Cardholders were getting lower prices in exchange for 
letting their purchases be tracked.  But apparently Furrs couldn't 
afford to be so generous.  As I have noted elsewhere, they began 
placing more limits and conditions on their specials over time, 
could not keep their shelves stocked, and eventually folded -- 
after 70 years in business!  Maybe they were in trouble before they 
brought in the cards -- but the cards surely didn't save them.  I 
personally shifted hundreds of dollars of spending per year to 
other stores when the cards came in.		  	Top of Page

In conclusion, I will say that on this day is Albuquerque, a smart 
shopper could certainly pay less for these 25 items, though she
might have to pay more to do so (that is, stock up on the sale items)
or accept a different brand; and she'll certainly go to more stores.
Stretching the grocery dollar is still an art requiring preparation
and perseverance. "Loyalty" has never served the consumer well,
and folks are saving money today the way they always have, by
knowing their prices and shopping at a variety of stores.  

You would think the stores would want to woo customers with better 
service and a more pleasant, efficient shopping experience-- 
especially if they know their prices are not competitive. Instead 
we get the insult and inconvenience of an ID card, while outrageous 
and manipulative pricing complete with misleading claims of so-called 
savings.  Perhaps the idea is to make our shopping experience 
such a hassle that we won't have the strength to trek to the other 
stores.  We certainly won't have any energy left over for protesting 
and complaining about supermarket practices...  Or will we?

It's time to fight back.  Let's do a little surveillance for our-
selves. The stores are providing us with such marvelously detailed 
receipts, we should all be saving them, checking them, comparing 
them, and periodically pooling them to create our own 'profiles' of 
the stores and their pricing habits.  If you are shopping at a card 
store under duress, you can still contribute to the cause by saving 
receipts and monitoring prices.  For more ideas on how to fight 
the cards and keep the stores honest, visit C.A.S.P.I.A.N. 
Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion.

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