16 Mar 2010

Grocery Wars – Harris Teeter vs. Safeway

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The recent announcement of an Aldi grocery store coming to Hechinger Mall sparked a, shall we say, robust discussion on Frozen Tropics of the relative merits of various grocery stores. Grocery store wars are nothing new on neighborhood blogs and listserves, and it’s easy to understand why.

Nothing is nearer or dearer to our heart (perhaps literally) than what we eat. Food is (probably) the largest consumable item in your budget, it’s one of our most consistently embarked upon activities, is a source of great pleasure and often of equally great damage. Whether you’re a devout foodie savoring the experience, or microwaving a Hot Pocket before passing out, eating is a common activity that we all approach differently.

So it’s no surprise that we hold strong opinions on neighborhood grocery stores. Options that have been here for decades are held up as examples that “livable, walkable communities” are not just a new and trendy way of life. Newly arrived grocery stores are held up as signs that a neighborhood has arrived, that large retailers have invested in the notion that our little corner of the world is worth courting. Those of us in Hill East have seen this discussion go on for some time, as our old stalwart Safeway at the intersection of 14th Street, D Street, and Kentucky, SE has recently been challenged by a brand spanking new Harris Teeter a few blocks away on Potomac and Pennsylvania Avenues.

Instantly, a whole set of stereotypes and value judgments grew up around both stores. Harris Teeter was “high end,” which I personally found laughable having grown up in North Carolina, where the Teeter was simply another option. Safeway, challenged by the new upstart, refurbished their store and upgraded their product lines. However, years of being the only game in town left lingering aftertastes in people’s mouths, for good or ill. This being DC, race got caught up in it as well, with many of my older African American neighbors quizzing me “why are all you white people so excited by Harris Teeter coming.” Of course today, a casual glimpse at either check out line shows a racially diverse crowd in each, giving the lie to stories of a racial divide between the two.

The debate continues unabated however, with both sides having their advocates. You can buy hard liquor at Safeway. Yes, but the separate liquor store is a pain if you just want beer or wine. Harris Teeter has that misting thing to make all that fancy produce look nice. Yeah, well that just makes it rot all the quicker. Harris Teeter costs more. Well that’s what you get for higher quality (excepting for the rotting produce).

Most of these arguments have no solution. Either you value metro proximity or you don’t. You want to buy vodka at the grocery store or not. If I want my Canada Dry Bitter Lemon, I’m going to Safeway. If I want my Coleman’s Mustard, I’m heading to Harris Teeter. But is Harris Teeter really more expensive? Sure my bill went up when I switched over, but is that because the individual items are pricier, or because I’m impulse buying artisan cheeses and craft beers? Item by item, does Harris Teeter really cost more?

To check, I compiled a list of staples that seem to end up on my grocery list each week. While admittedly arbitrary, I sought to be as inclusive as possible, soliciting input from other friends. I compiled the list before I left home, not wanting to be swayed by any specials or unusually low prices. Except for commodities with relatively no quality difference (like ground beef and milk), I avoided store brands. Which explains why the wretched Pace Picante Salsa is on my list, instead of Harris Teeter’s much better Cilantro Salsa. Focusing on brand name items, I went with the ones I like, deferring to my culinary overlord when I had no preference. I also did not use my club cards, using only the list price. I tended to focus on processed items, as they are more standard, so fresh produce is underrepresented. I also visited both stores on the same day, to try and even out seasonal costs.

The results? The biggest difference was for beer and wine, with Safeway being considerably more expensive. $7 of the difference comes from the twelve pack of Sam Adams and a bottle of wine, so if you want to cut out the booze, it brings it a lot closer. Having gone to two grocery stores in one day with kids, this wasn’t an option for me. Most products came in within a few cents of each other, with apples, Barilla spaghetti, Purdue chicken breasts, Juicy Juice, whole milk (non-organic), and yellow onions coming in at exactly the same price. For 32 items, the price difference was $8.75, or only $1.75 without alcohol. The winner? Harris Teeter by a can of tuna ($112.53 vs. $121.28). Full results are available here.

And finally, any experiment is only useful if it can be replicated. How about you guys? Any direct comparisons you want to throw in the comments?

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25 responses to “Grocery Wars – Harris Teeter vs. Safeway”

  1. EL says:

    I think you’ve really got to take the club cards into account. That savings is relevant. I have both a Harris Teeter VIC card and a Safeway card, and I am pretty sure the Safeway savings are more significant. But I’ve never done an empirical test like yours.

  2. monkeyrotica says:

    That Teeter is one of the few places that still carries 30-can cubes of Miller High Life for $12. Take the Corona Challenge: pour both into identical pint glasses with a squirt of lime and salt around the rim. I’ll guarantee you can’t tell the difference or DOUBLE your vomit back.

  3. DamienC says:

    For me it’s just a matter of proximity. Harris Teeter is only two short blocks away versus the four blocks (and crossing Penn Ave) to Safeway. Thus, I’ve not stepped foot inside the Safeway once since the Teet opened. If we’re missing something for brunch I can run to the Teet and back before the coffee is finished brewing. Plus I find the seafood counter at Harris Teeter to be better.

  4. nogginquest says:

    Teets has underground parking and security guards. Safeway has neither. If you’re a potomac gardens thugster, where would you rather hang out? End of story

  5. Katie says:

    Safeway has a better spice selection. You can also have more options to buy bigger boxes of things (like cereal) when you’re buying for a family. Not huge boxes, just bigger. At Harris Teeter you can buy beer and wine on Sunday. At Harris Teeter it’s easier to accidentally buy organic produce, thus running up the cost. (I know, I’m a heretic!) Safeway has that whole, Sunday afternoon and you can’t buy any produce. If you want beautiful, special dinner deserts, go to Harris Teeter. If you want a good cookies for hanging out, go to Safeway.

    It sure is nice to have a little competition. Harris Teeter is closer, but we still do big shopping at Safeway.

  6. Sonny says:

    I’m happy with Harris Teeter. The Safeway is a dump with poorly stocked shelves, poor quality meats, and just terrible produce. The one advantage, however is the bakery at Safeway is lightyears beyond Teeters’ stale baguettes and hockey puck bagels.

  7. C in DC says:

    I like Safeway better because they tend to have more of the brands I’m looking for. A lot of stuff at HT is only HT brand.

    Having grown up in upstate NY, I find the hype about the Wegman’s around here (there’s one going up in Landover, you know) to be funny.

  8. ET says:

    I live closer to the Safeway but go to the HT.

    My one huge problem with Safeway has always been how they manage the milk. Way to often buying the regular mike at Safeway the date was that day or the next and it was not uncommon for the milk to go bad before the date on the carton. Some of that was fixed by buying the way more expensive organic. Milk is a staple. Milk is WIC. If you can’t manage that you can’t manage your supply chain. Now this may have been a problem with how this Safeway operates but still. I never appreciated that Safeway took so long to update. It’s like they were spitting on their customers because they felt it was a captive audience. Since the upgrade the atmosphere and quality have improved but I still don’t shop there much.

    And HT has Krispy Kreme.

  9. Michael McCamman says:

    Harris Teeter kills on the booze front. I’d go to Schneiders (even with the long walk) any day over liquor or wine at Safeway and the beer at the teet is ssssooo much cheaper than safeway, and has a better selection. However, I do most of my grocery shopping at Safeway but solely due to proximity. In my experience Teeter is the same price or even cheaper comparing item to item (50 cents on bread). Also, their prepared foods, including salad bar, crush safeway on quality. The thing is, my bill was always more at teeter because, as you point out, they upsell you. I don’t know how, but I always walked out with a fine cheese or amazing fish. I now only go for special occasions when I want to be upsold.

  10. CE says:

    I shop at both Safeway and Harris Teeter. I find the prices about the same, although I have not compared them item by item. I look for specials and use coupons, but only on items I would purchase anyway. I think Harris Teeter has the edge on quality of produce, but I find it best to learn the delivery schedule of each store and shop when the produce has been freshly delivered. I’m a bit of a foodie so I buy most of my produce, meat, poultry, and fish at specialty stores or farmers markets, where I definitely pay through the nose. I buy my wine and beer at Schneiders, which I find to be definitely a better value than either supermarket. (You pay for convenience.) My volunteer work takes me near Shoppers Food Warehouse, which I find cheaper than either Safeway or Harris Teeter. Could it be next to come to the Hill?

  11. Maria says:

    Let’s not lose sight of what truly matters: bacon is cheaper at Safeway.

  12. Mary says:

    I just did a test where I bought the same 10 items at Harris Teeter one week, costing me $30, and Safeway the next week, costing me $10. That’s because everything I bought at Safeway they claimed to be half price, and everything I bought at Harris Teeter was their full price. I used their savings cards at both stores.

  13. Mister says:

    Thank goodness Spring is springing! In season I feel like I make out like a bandit at E. Mrkt for produce, (factoring $ for quality) and HT’s for staples. I second the Schneider’s booze option. The only place selling produce more rotten than Safeway is Yes!

  14. RD says:

    Aldi – A OK, not one stop shopping, but good products at good price. I shop their MD Stores in Hyattsville & Langley Park. Having Aldi nearby… GREAT!!! FYI Aldi & Trader Joes owned by same family.
    Also shop the Latino Markets in Riverdale Park for cheap priced produce & meats from heaven. Prefer Safeway over Harri$ Teeter$ anyday.

  15. Kyra says:

    When HT didn’t have my favorite brand of frozen veggies (Hanover), I never went back. Maybe I should try again.

  16. Sameena says:

    I had high hopes for Harris Teeters–hoped they’d have more organic produce, more organic/healthier boxed items, more options for flavored chicken and turkey sausages, and more healthy prepared foods (i.e. all like what you can routinely get at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods). Nope. And I too feel like if I really maximize the club specials and mfrs’ coupons at Safeway, it’s cheaper than HT, but haven’t tried the head-to-head.
    Just wish someone at TJs or Whole Foods would realize there are enough crunchy granola folks (or just people who’d like less processed items) on Capitol Hill and nearby to keep one of those stores PACKED 24/7!

  17. Nwow says:

    Wow, I live near the AM Teet. I wish they had artisanal cheeses for me to get up-sold on over here. Cheese counter is the biggest disappointment and also money sink.

  18. Kate says:

    Note to cooks: Safeway no longer stocks small bottles of liquor. I went looking for some rum for a recipe and they no longer have bottles smaller than a quart. My house is literally in the middle of the two stores, and while my husband does the majority of the shopping, I go between the two depending on my mood. I know I’m going to spend more when I go to HT, simply because the lighting and merchandising is better and I’m not in such a hurry to “be done with it.” I also know I’ll check out faster, and generally the cashiers are friendlier. I can’t for the life of me understand why the management at Safeway doesn’t open more than 2 registers during the day.

  19. Andy says:

    I’m a Harris Teeter fan. I also went to school in NC and chuckle at the idea that it’s the posh place. More to the point, I find that their meat and dairy section is more dependable- Safeway often sells products that are past their due date or expire the day of purchase.

    I’ve also grown frustrated with the long wait at Safeway. I’m not willing to devote 2 hours to standing in line.

  20. Ms. D says:

    If you shop mostly what’s on sale (adjusting your menu to take account of specials is simply not that hard), Harris Teeter wins by a landslide. I did this a few weeks ago and walked out with crab legs for an entire week’s dinners, numerous cans of tuna to put on salads, my salad veggies, frozen pizzas for the weekend hangout, a gallon of milk, 18 eggs, some bbq sauce for future consumption, and two tubs of smart balance (also a long-term supply) for under $50. Combine that with the frozen chicken I still have from a sale about a month ago and I’m golden for almost 2 weeks. There are a few odds-and-ends I pick up at Safeway because they have fabulous sales on them regularly (like the block/bag cheese), and so those get taken into account and push the actual food consumed dollar figure just a little higher. It takes me about 30 minutes a week to comparison shop the ads on line and develop my menus, which is well worth eating that well on about $30 a week.

  21. mappo says:

    The Teet is too small, and they waste too much of their limited space on all that take out food. As a result, their selection and depth of stock is always sub-par. On the other hand, they stock my favorite brand of beer and Safeway doesn’t, and if it wasn’t for their arrival the Safeway would still be the shameful dump it was 5 years ago.

  22. IMGoph says:

    it will be interesting to see how well-stocked and diverse the options will be at the harris teeter that opens at the new york avenue station by the end of the year. it’s going to be over 50K sq. feet—much larger than the potomac ave. or adams morgan stores.

    personally, my vote (and dollars) have gone to harris teeter since they opened in DC. what does it for me? 3 things:

    1) the prices are comparable. sure, you can end up buying some expensive, fancy things at harris teeter, but that’s because they often aren’t available at safeway. exercise restraint, and you’ll be OK.

    2) cleanliness. this is directly affected by management. call me crazy, but when i’m buying stuff that i’m going to put directly into my body, i want it to be clean and safe, and i want the place where i am buying those things at to be the same. when i walk into any safeway or giant in DC, i find that the store is a mess. for some reason, management around here doesn’t really think that presentation matters. i also find that perishable items are left for hours in the magazine racks, for example, apparently because the management doesn’t find it a priority to get that pound of ground chuck out of the redbook rack. it’s disgusting. i don’t ever see that problem at harris teeter. how hard can it be to have one employee in charge of doing a sweep of the aisles every 15 minutes to make sure that items haven’t been left where they don’t belong? apparently, judging by how things go at safeway and giant, they must think it’s pretty damn hard.

    3) finally, friendliness. sure, i’ve had super-friendly cashiers at safeway and giant. but i’ve also had to interact with the most surly, unhelpful, unfriendly, unprofessional, slow, and uninterested employees in the universe at those stores. never the case at harris teeter. again, this goes back to management. and, i suspect part of it has to do with unionized v. non-unionized employees. check out the employees at trader joe’s and whole foods. also not unionized. i’m usually a union supporter, but in grocery stores, i seem to be against…

  23. Jean says:

    Thank you so much for this very useful post! I always wondered the differences – the spreadsheet is excellent!

  24. C says:

    Harris Teeter wins hands down. It’s cheaper item by item, has a better selection, and by far has better quality. Harris Teeter goes toe to toe with Wegmans and Whole Foods.

  25. JBDC says:

    I’m with Sameena –bring on the Trader Joe’s! I think with their savings card and shopping the sales, Safeway is cheaper. But their produce has been a huge and consistent disappointment for years. Maybe it’s even gotten worse over time., if that’s even possible. And I think their prices for the crappy produce are an insult. Same produce, only organic and MUCH better looking, is available at YES!. At Safeway the salad bar and “fresh” deli selections get crusty they go so long without being stirred or tended. I’ve sent photos to Safeway’s corporate offices and complained, but on it goes. I live closer to Safeway and tend to go there for milk or eggs, but I am now just making once every two weeks trips to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Sadly, I’ve given up on shopping contentedly in my own neighborhood’s grocery stores.

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