The Shopping Challenge: Experiment Complete – Becoming a More Conscious Shopper

by Laura on August 1, 2010

in Blog

Several months back, I decided to conduct a little experiment(please see the links to past blogs on this experiment at the end of this post) ; a shopping experiment that could open my eyes different shopping venues, different offerings, and different (i.e. lower) prices. At the time, I shopped only at Whole Foods, was happy with the quality and variety of the foods available, but was wondering if I could lower my weekly food costs.

In recent times I lowered my food bill simply by planning a week’s worth of meals, creating a shopping list, and sticking to it. This easy act saved me at least $50 a week in my grocery bill. It also saved on food that was wasted, and actually cut back on my stress level, making it more convenient to shop because I knew what I was going to make during the week.

Although I was in my shopping comfort zone, I set off to investigate what I could find at the conventional supermarket, local store, farmer’s market and a big-box discount supermarket.

The Criteria

Two of the most important factors for consumers when shopping are price and convenience. And, these factors weighed heavily on my shopping experiences – but I added variety/quality into the mix. I wanted the same variety and quality of foods that I had come accustomed to purchasing, and was unwilling to seek alternatives that wouldn’t meet my criteria.

For instance, buying milk from cows not treated with growth hormones is important to us, therefore I wasn’t willing to switch to conventional milk just to save money. I made similar choices in the meat section, opting to pay more for my choices that ensured growth hormones and antibiotics weren’t used. Finally, I am a from-scratch cook, so I wasn’t going to choose a packaged version of macaroni and cheese instead of the ingredients needed to make it myself.


There is no doubt that price is a major factor in food purchases. According to Consumer Expenditures (U.S. Dept. of Labor, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2009), food costs consumers an average of $6,133 per year. An average of $3,465 of that is spent on food that is consumed at home, and $2,668 of it is spent on food consumed away from home. Combined, the money spent on food is 12.4 percent of the entire yearly household budget.

More recent statistics, available in the 2010 National Grocers Association-Supermarket Guru Consumer Panel Survey, reveal that for the third consecutive year, most families spend $96 or more per week on food. Further, the study finds that consumers continually strive to save money when shopping for food. When asked what consumers look for when deciding whether or not to purchase a product, 97% if consumers want to know the cost before deciding to buy. Additionally, three out of four respondents (73%) say they ‘stock up on bargain items,’ and those who ‘Look in newspapers for grocery specials’ came in at # 2, reflecting more purposeful planning of store trips.

Price is a definite factor when I shop, but it isn’t the sole driver of my purchases. I know I pay more for my food, simply because I choose organic and whole foods, as opposed to conventional and packaged foods options. As a result, I rarely am driven by coupons, which is a big driver for many. If you’re looking to make the change to more natural and organic food choices, but are wary of the price, check outThe Natural Food List for some great coupon deals. You can “Like” them on Facebook, or visit the site at – Also, if there is a specific product you like you can visit their web site where companies will post coupons for their products. Usually you can only find coupons for these products on their site.


The modern family is confronted with too many more attractive uses of time, and oftentimes shopping is not high on that list of priorities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recently released 2009 results from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS). On an average day, 85 percent of women and 67 percent of men spent some time doing household activities such as housework, cooking, lawn care, or financial and other household management. On the days that they did household activities, women spent an average of 2.6 hours on such activities, while men spent 2.0 hours doing housework.

Time spent shopping for food is certainly considered a chore, so fitting this shopping adventure into my busy ‘chore’ schedule was imperative. My original plan was to compare shopping at the place I did my shopping – Whole Foods – with alternatives, the conventional store, local market, Trader Joe’s, farmer’s market, then discounters like Sam’s club or Wal-Mart. I do have to say, that I never ventured to a big box retailer, simply because they were not convenient – too far away for me to do my regular shopping.


Price is a variable that can be easily measured, and convenience is a bit harder to measure, because every consumer defines it differently. When quality and variety are added to the mix, things get more complex, because these variables are more directly related to a person’s value system.

The variety/quality part of my equation is based on my beliefs that my food choices affect the health of my children and that of the environment. For me, that is very important. That is why I choose natural and organic options and those that are produced in a sustainable method. And, the more I read, the more I feel that my choices are a good one.

Increasingly, pesticide use in our food supply has become a public health concern, and has been linked to a range of diseases and disorders.

Similarly, growth hormones have been linked to a variety of issues. For example, hormone residues in beef have been implicated in the early onset of puberty in girls, which could put them at greater risk of developing breast and other forms of cancer.

And, I can’t deny the mounting evidence that use of antibiotics in animals. As recently reported on Huffington Post:

During a hearing House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, a representative of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) admitted that the use of antibiotics in farm animal feed is contributing to the growing problem of deadly antibiotic resistance in America.

During the hearings, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Principle Deputy Commissioner of the FDA, “was clear in his testimony that the overall weight of evidence supports the conclusion that using antibiotics for production purposes in livestock farming (as growth promoters and to prevent rather than treat illness) is not in the interest of protecting and promoting public health.”

My Observations:


Thinking I would get a great deal at the conventional supermarket (Safeway), I was proven wrong.

Buying the same products that I would typically purchase at Whole Foods, including organic produce, natural meats, milk and eggs, I spent virtually the same amount of money I typically spent. The prices at local market proved to be way too high, Trader Joe’s offered some comparable alternatives, and I was surprised to find that the farmers’ market prices for organic produce were often better than I could get at Whole Foods. I did, however, have to pay attention to prices, be cognizant of everything I bought. After a few weeks of cognizant shopping, I was able make the decision as to where I would buy produce, knowing I could get a better price at one store as opposed to another.


Convenience is important, but it doesn’t totally outweigh price or value/quality. My tolerance for finding a good deal is within a 15-minute radius. So, the big box retailers were immediately out of the game. I’ve friends who enjoy making the Costco run, 40 minutes away, but my time is so precious to me, that the potential cost savings didn’t outweigh my convenience needs. However, being conveniently located doesn’t outweigh other factors. Safeway is closer to home than Whole Foods, yet the variety/quality didn’t meet my criteria. The local market is a bit further, but my desire to support local businesses didn’t outweigh the fact that the prices were way too high for my liking, and the farmers’ market I liked to frequent, was about 15 minutes away. (There are local farmers markets here in Mill Valley, but they are much smaller and don’t offer me up as many choices as I desire.)


Organic and natural foods can be found at all the venues in my experiment, so there needed to be sufficient amount of alternatives for it to be worthwhile to shop at that store.

Meeting my criteria for food quality and variety, I found that both Trader Joe’s and the farmers’ market offered up numerous Whole Foods alternatives – enough to make them a viable shopping place. I struggled to find enough alternatives at the conventional supermarket as well as the local market – especially when price weighed into the equation.

The Results:

Today, my weekly shopping consists of a run to Whole Foods, a trip to Trader Joe’s and a visit to the farmers’ market.

  • I give up a bit on the convenience scale because I am now shopping at three places instead of one, but when price is factored into the equation, I am willing to compromise a bit on convenience to save on my weekly food bill. By shopping at three places, I have been able to bring down my food bill considerably – about $50 a week. I don’t feel as if I have compromised on quality or variety, and I am more aware of alternatives.


  • I have become more conscious shopper – more aware of prices, more aware of seasonality, and more equipped to compare labels when trying to find lower priced alternatives.


  • The kids are excited about Farmer’s Market – they know the foods that are in season and look forward to the adventure. I’ve benefited as well. I enjoy the market, know which stands offer better prices, and I am able to plan my weekly meals according to the foods I know I will find at the market.


  • Changing the way I shop took several weeks or trial and error. This experiment took me out of my comfort zone, and required me to spend a bit more time in order to make the change. In the end, the time and effort it took to find alternatives was worth it. Now, I’ve found my new shopping groove, and feel that I’ve made a good change . . . one that is now considered my new normal.



How The Stores Fared – (Five star (*) scale, with five stars being highest)

    Whole    Foods    Trader     Joes   Conventional


   Local  Market   Farmer’s   Market
Price   ***   ****1/2   ***    *   ****
Convenience   *****   ***1/2   *****    ****   ***
Variety/Quality   *****   ****   **    **   **

Recent Blogs on the Shopping Challenge

The Shopping Challenge

The Groundwork: Rational Behind Where I Shop and What I Buy

The Conventional Grocery Shopping Experience

The Shopping Experiment: Trader Joe’s

Disorganized Shopping

Shopping Local

New Research: Your Weight is a Reflection of Where You Shop


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