Opinion: How much can you save shopping around for groceries?

We all know food costs are spiralling, but how much can you really save if you shop around?

I don’t go comparison shopping as much as I should. I tend to stick to one supermarket for name-brand packaged items such as cereals, tea and coffee, while regularly visiting a smaller grocery store for fresh produce such as meat, fruit and vegetables.

I suspect that’s just how grocery stores like it. I may load up on their specially discounted items, but then I overpay for other items on my shopping list.

Recently, I drew up a grocery list of 20 common items and did some serious shopping around in Ottawa for the best deals. I visited eight stores: a Real Canadian Superstore (part of the Loblaws group), a Walmart, a Sobeys, a Metro, a Farm Boy, a FreshCo, a Your Independent Grocer and a Costco. The last of those is a club that requires members to pay a little more than $1 a week as a membership fee for the privilege of shopping there.

What did I find? Just what you would expect: it pays to shop around! But you may be surprised, as I was, to find out exactly how much.

Taking the lowest price for each of the 20 items on my list, the bill came to $113.69. At the highest prices I found for each of those 20 items, the bill would have been $216.72.

That is a difference of more than $100, or savings of close to 50 per cent. No one could realistically hope to achieve savings of that magnitude on their entire shopping basket by shopping around. But I found several examples where food items of similar or identical quality cost twice as much in one store as in another.

No one can claim with certainty that prices of one supermarket chain are lower overall than its competitors. There are too many variables, not just in quality but in the quantities in which packaged items are sold.

For what it’s worth, the Real Canadian Superstore I visited in Kanata and the FreshCo store in Bells Corners came out best. Each of these two stores had the lowest price for five items on my shopping list. Walmart was next with three.

Costco, of which I am a member, has a limited product line, and did not stock many of the items on my shopping list.

FreshCo, which is part of the Sobeys group, has a slogan that says: “Find a lower price; we’ll beat it.” Asked what that means, a store manager told me: “We’ll beat it by one cent.”

Striploin steak was an item for which FreshCo was significantly cheaper than any of the other stores when I checked. It was selling the steak for about $13 a kilogram. That included a special in-store discount of $3 on each pre-packaged cut of steak. Each package weighed about one-third of a kilogram. So, I bought three packages weighing a total of about one kilogram and saved $9 off the regular price.

Maple syrup was the item for which I found the greatest price disparity. Costco was selling our regional delicacy for $12.49 a litre. Some other stores, selling the syrup in smaller sizes, had prices that worked out to more than $30 a litre.