HMB Safeway isn’t as expensive as you think, but it’s no bargain

Corrected

Posted by
Wed, June 4, 2008


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Chart by Barry Parr, Shopping by Cheri Parr
Prices are indexed relative to Safeway in Half Moon Bay. For example, with an index of 95, Safeway in San Mateo was 5% less expensive than Safeway in HMB. With an index of 106, Cunha's was 6% more expensive.

Correction: Kevin Barron correctly pointed out in the comments that we should have adjusted produce prices so that we were comparing price per pound rather than total price. We’ve updated the comparison. This brings the numbers for New Leaf and Whole Foods much closer to Safeway, which feels like good news to us.

Ever since Albertson’s closed last year, Coastsiders have been grumbling that the Half Moon Bay Safeway seems awfully expensive. Were they taking advantage of the lack of competition to raise prices? In two weeks in April, we shopped our local Safeway and four competitors, here’s what we discovered.

You can’t really compare the bottom-line prices at these stores fairly. We took pains to buy comparable items between stores, but it’s more difficult than you might think. Also, even though we tried to buy lowest common denominator goods, no two people are going to buy the same basket of goods. For more information, you can download our shopping list and individual prices in an Excel spreadsheet.

Dairy and baked goods were roughly equally priced at all stores, including Whole Foods, which we threw into the mix out of curiosity. Although we were tempted by some of Whole Food’s $20/pound cheddar when our shopping list called for Tillamook.

Household items, like Ziploc bags and foil, are cheaper at Safeway. But they’re even cheaper at Costco.

Meat was much cheaper at Safeway. It looked and tasted like it. Also, the service in Cunha’s and New Leaf’s meat departments was outstanding. If you’ve ever tried to buy anything that wasn’t already shrink-wrapped at Safeway, you know what we’re talking about.

Packaged foods didn’t vary much in price, but this is one area where you can be tempted by some pretty pricey merchandise with charming labels at the alternative markets. But if you’re looking for wide selection of processed food, Safeway is an excellent choice.

Produce was significantly cheaper in San Mateo. However, Cunha’s and New Leaf were highly competitive with Safeway in Half Moon Bay, and this is the other category where Safeway’s quality left a lot to be desired. Also, if we’d shopped at Safeway’s tiny organic section, the prices would have been a lot closer to one another.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line isn’t the price.

A couple of generations ago, the typical American household bought groceries from more than one store. It was a little more time consuming, but it was a lot more personal. That world is gone. Supermarkets killed it. But we may find that as it becomes less practical to fly our vegetables across the Equator, we’re moving toward something more local and more humane.

Safeway captures the essence of our modern world. It’s huge. It’s pimped up to look more like a Whole Foods. It has an olive bar with four different kinds of olives, after all. But the lines are long, the employees seem dazed and miserable, and the fresh food seems more depressing all the time.

You can still get something approaching a classic small-town experience at Cunha’s Country Store. You can cruise around the store in a couple of minutes, get what you want for dinner tonight and it’s a completely different experience from supermarket shopping. And it’s locally-owned.

New Leaf was also a revelation. As much as we love Cunha’s, we can’t wait for their store in Half Moon Bay to open. They’re buying local produce. The service, quality, experience, and variety were excellent. We talked to the personnel there and they were not only uniformly helpful, they told us once we engaged them in conversation that they were really happy to be working there.

Then there’s Whole Foods. The quality of much of their food is exciting, but the presentation and atmosphere is so overheated it borders on pornographic. It certainly doesn’t feel as sustainable as their image implies. Go there for the cheese.

What’s missing from this analysis is the Coastside Farmer’s Market, which is not a direct competitor. You won’t find aluminum foil, or potato chips, or hamburger there. But if you haven’t spent a Saturday morning buying produce from local farmers, you’re missing an important opportunity to do yourself a favor while helping your community.


As one of the shoppers in this exercise I have a few additional observations.  New Leaf was a real treat and worth the drive to Santa Cruz on all levels.  Shopping there left me truly excited about their new store in Half Moon Bay. All the products I purchased were organic or green.  The employees raved about the work environment, and I felt genuinely good about shopping there.

We LOVE the farmer’s market. If you haven’t gone, go.  If you’ve gone to HMB try Pacifica on Wednesdays - lot’s of different vendors including some of the best eggs, chicken and strawberries I’ve ever eaten. Another benefit of the Farmer’s market is talking directly with the growers.  We bought our first Fava Beans from Farmer John and got terrific tips from Eda on how to prepare, cook and serve them - and may I say they are delicious.  Even my 6 year old, who pronounces most vegetables disgusting, loved them.

And finally, a plea to Safeway.  Can you either hire some baggers, or give me a discount for bagging my own groceries? I mean really.  About 90% of the time my daughter or I have to do our own bagging, or wait for the checker to stop, ring the groceries and then bag everything as well.  Last Sunday I waited in line over 20 minutes to check out and yes, bag my own purchases.  Is it really that difficult to get good help in HMB? This is an area where Cunha shines.  Josie and Yolanda are one in a million, I’ve never packed a single item, and never waited more than 2 or 3 minutes in line.

Wow - well done!  I am glad you took the time to perform this comparison and call out some of issues with HMB Safeway.  Now I have some data to present to my wife the next time I return home from HMB Safeway grumbling about their produce which they claim in advertising to have inspected 3 times before it gets placed on the shelf - an inspection process I suspect is performed in a very dark room!

Just to be fair, I have always loathed Safeways in all locations for their cluttered and over-merchandised aisles which do not leave sufficient room for 2 shopping carts to pass at the same time.  Safeway GMs:  Put that tower of canned chicken broth in aisle 3 on the shelf - I will still find it!  If forced to go to Safeway I will say Linda Mar is OK only because it is so large.

The baby and I stroll the HMB farmer’s market every Saturday morning for great local produce.  Plus, who doesn’t want a samosa and some cherries for breakfast?!

Thanks for a great article!  Cheri, I agree with your comments about self-service bagging at Safeway.  If there are any Pak-N-Saves left, I wonder how their prices would compare?  If we’re not getting baggers at Safeway, shouldn’t we be paying (at least a little) less for groceries?  Most Safeway employees are very nice, but there simply aren’t enough checkers or baggers.

Thank goodness the Farmer’s Market is back!  Now, THAT is a pleasant place to shop.  I’d buy all my groceries there if I could.

Wish Linda Mar Safeway had been the other Safeway in the survey, as lots of us in MMB and some in EG use it as their primary big store. For MMB it’s closer, quicker, and there is no problem with bagging. I have seen a “Why wait for Wednesday” bumper sticker in the parking lot there a couple of times, so at least one other Coastsider.com fan shops there.

Yes! to the Farmer’s Markets and also to the local produce stands. With the “crude awakening” under way for many, local makes increasing sense. It can’t compete on price, but Coastside Market in Moss Beach works very well for us as a convenience store.

That other Coastsider reader whose car you see in the Linda Mar parking lot is probably me. We decided to use the San Mateo Safeway to have an example of a Safeway in a more-competitive market.  Linda Mar’s not much more competitive than HMB.

The one market I wish we had been able to include is Food Town in Pacifica in Eureka Square:

http://www.yelp.com/biz/food-town-pacifica

It’s not well stocked, but has good meat and produce departments, good variety, short lines, and easy parking.  It’s not very convenient unless your driving to the Coastside from points north. Then, it’s on your way home.

Definitely worth checking out.

Last Friday we had a customer who was visiting friends here, who lives in Belgium. She said that our gas prices were lower than in Belgium, but that our food prices are outrageously high (she was talking about the HMB Safeway). If it isn’t one thing, it’s another.

Great. Just great. Barry and Cheri—-This is a wonderful example of what a coastside internet magazine can do. You scooped the Review.

John

I’ll add my thanks for this chart - very useful in hard economic times. I too love the Farmer’s Market (I rarely miss a week), local stands, Cunha’s, and I am waiting eagerly for New Leaf.

But, but, but ... I do NOT get this kneejerk dumping on our local Safeway, just as I don’t get the kneejerk dumping on the Review and Clay that I see in other articles and comments. Our local Safeway seems pretty well-run to me, with friendly and helpful workers and reasonably good quality goods.

No, they are not New Leaf, nor are they meant to be—they are our local corporate supermarket, with all of the good and bad that that entails anywhere in the country. They usually have what I need at a reasonable price, and keep me on this side of the hill.

I live within walking distance and shop there 3 or 4 times a week, and, as long as I avoid the rush-hour mob after work, find it to be pleasant, quick, painless, and convenient.

Yes, it’s true, the workers there, by and large, seem less than thrilled with their jobs, and who can blame them. But I’ve never met one who was not friendly and hardworking, and who did not go out of his/her way to be helpful. Perhaps you have had some other experience, but that can happen anywhere—I for one have encountered some occasionally snippy attitudes at Cunha’s, for instance.

So, yes, I’ll be one of the first lining up for opening day at New Leaf. But I’ll still shop Safeway too, for those things you just can’t get elsewhere, or which are less expensive there—and I’ll be glad to do so.

—Matt

My guess is that most of my grocery dollar winds up at Safeway. Old habits are hard to break. But I find it to be an increasingly exasperating experience for lots of reasons. 

The store appears to be intentionally understaffed. The staff seem to be doing their best under difficult circumstances, but they’re clearly having a tough time of it.

They’ve clearly devoted a lot of square footage to fresh-baked goods that are barely better than the stuff that comes from factories, rather than encourage real locally-baked goods.

A lot of this is about creating the illusion of choice in a world increasingly dominated by a handful of food manufacturers.

Then there’s that whole creepy enforced familiarity designed to create the illusion of shopping in a neighborhood store.

Getting beyond all this is a process. I think the first step is thinking about what’s really going on.

Neat article… love the CPI like coverage. Speaking of, would be neat to keep a Coastsider CPI: 500kwh electricity, gas, propane, gas, bread, beef, etc…

And I must say, many Montara and Moss Beach residents do use the Safeway in Linda Mar, due to proximity and ease. Their butchers are nothing like what you mention in HMB. They usually come out from behind the counter, much less jump at the chance to help with your custom order, and makes suggestions thereof.

Anyone remember that Safeway 25 years ago? They’ve come a long way baby.

P.S. I don’t think I’ve bagged my own groceries at Linda Mar Safeway in a year plus. Perhaps closer to two years. And ALWAYS, whether it’s the bagger or clerk, they never miss to ask if I need to help out today. Maybe the HMB store manager can shadow the Linda Mar guy/girl for a week… and see how it’s done ;-)

Re:  Pak-N-Saves

I shop weekly at Pak-N-Save in Emeryville - it’s close to work.  It’s a big store about the size of Linda Mar Safeway and they have a better baby food/gear selection.  Their prices are identical to HMB Safeway and their produce is fresher.

Pak-N-Save is owned by Safeway, interestingly enough.

One clarification about my comments on Safeway in HMB. My issues are more experiential than about the employee’s themselves, most of whom I see working hard and all who have been pleasant.  When I do get a bagger, it is usually Mirabel - who is fast, efficient and very nice.  When there are no baggers, the checkers are always apologetic and pitch in to help, but at the end of the day, the problem is staffing for the rush hours.  Many of us are bound to the 2:30 - 3:30 timeframe when we’re picking up loads of kids at school, so it seems some remedy could be made when the problem is easily identifiable and happens at a regular and consistent time.

That all being said, I also want to point out that during my years as director of Coastside Hope, Safeway was always an excellent corporate citizen and partnered with us in many ways to give aid to the hungry in our community.  They help with food collection, and corporate donations of food all the time. 

One final note - it is NEVER a good idea to brand meat or seafood as an “Extreme Value”.  Every time I see that sticker on said products, I run for the hills.

I know I am late in commenting…

but what about TRADER JOE’S?

I love Trader Joe’s and drive up to Daly City once a week to shop there. Their prices are way lower than Safeway, and they have unique, yummy items.

I’m just sayin…..

noticed in the spreadsheet…a few odd anamolies.

There is a purchase of 3 Fuji apples… Safeway was 2.99/lb as was the new fan fave New Leaf at 2.99/lb.

Yet Safeway came to $4.96, whilst New Leaf rung in at $2.21?

So if I am correct, they should of cost the same or somewhat close, what am I missing as to why Safeway would cost a whopping 102% more, yet was charging the same price/per weight. Are their apples twice as big? The math seems awry here.

Might be good to take everything that is sold by weight or volume and standardize, at say, 1 pound. We know how much soda is a 6 pack of Hansens, but discretionary choice of produce seems to vary.

Also, noticed how Whole Foods is well WELL below the two Safeways on russet potatoes ($1.09 versus $1.69 and $1.99) yet they wound up being twice as much. Even more than twice as much… via $5.12 v. $2.14 & $2.42.

A few other places too… like Cunha v. Whole Foods, on red peppers… a rate of $1.01 v $1.64 (roughly 63% more) yet the price differential outcome was more than three times greater (2.49 vs 8.87). That’s VERY significant on an index of $100 (via ~6% of odd skewing from one item alone).

Seems like Whole Foods must carry the largest of produce…as it is incorrectly skewed (disclosure: I know no employees of Whole Foods, nor own any equity in said enterprise ;-)

When I standardized this list based on weight rates (especially all the produce).... they all came closer in price. In fact the standard deviation fell over 40%!! Whole Foods improving significantly.

Taking the finance hat off now!

Sue… love TJ’s as well.

Good catch. I’ve updated the analysis and uploaded my new spreadsheet.  The net is that New Leaf and Whole Food are much closer to Safeway now.

Kudos, Barry.. that’s about where I wound up as well. Still, a 20% variance will make one ask the value/quality of service and selection.
Just noticing the Cheerios .. a national, if not global “commodity” with a stddev of .34. Among other name brands… too funny.

My guess is everyone is going to go “ga-ga” over New Leaf HMB…. given the underlying principles, but hopefully most will see through the Mother Earth lenses and be able to reason within the value, or lack thereof. But I doubt it.

Sonoma is similar to hmb. The population is similar to HMB and they serve a 30-mile radius.  They have a gourmet organic store and a slave way (Safeway).  Everybody still goes to Safeway for the over 30% off manufacturer sponsored weekly savings in the form of a 2 for one etc.  Their buying power even dwarfs Trader Joes in this area. You can actually live on the 2 for ones at Safeway if you try.  It is mostly limited to dry goods (non fresh products) like cheerios but we all need some Windex at 50% off once in a while. 

From there is a personal choice usually where the individual will choose whether they will pay retail at their locally owned gourmet store to support their locally owned cause and healthy nature. 

Watch out Quick and Easy is coming to Pacifica Linda mar in a year.  Tesco the English grocer is having financial problems on their launch but they are committed to Pacifica.  You can see the lease hold improvements right now in where pac athletic club use to be.  It will be a small quick in and out Safeway with slightly higher quality.  It will be quite convient and not a big threat to food town Pacifica farmers market or new leaf. 

We were very lucky to get new leaf with their Santa Cruz ideals.  Economically sending supply trucks up highway one fifty miles up the coast from Santa Cruz compared to lunardi’s molly stones or piazza (locally owned stores) truckling stuff over the undependable 92 kept those markets away and lucky for us new leaf is a far superior concept with slightly lower prices.  It will succeed and make economical sense for them even in recessionary times.