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All Contents © 2019The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Bob Niedt, Online Editor
| October 30, 2018
Whole Foods and Aldi have traditionally rested on opposite ends of the supermarket spectrum. The former known for being upscale and expensive; the latter, no frills and cheap. But times are changing.
Since being bought by Amazon last year, Whole Foods has been trimming prices on many staples at its 472 U.S. stores and offering exclusive discounts to Amazon Prime members. Meanwhile, Aldi has been sprucing up many of its 1,800 existing stores in 35 states -- with an emphasis on brighter, wider aisles and fresher, healthier offerings -- even as it rolls out 700 new stores by 2022.
In the past, Aldi would handily beat Whole Foods on price. But with all the changes happening at both chains, we decided to put today’s prices to the test. We shopped a new Aldi store in Northern Virginia as well as a nearby Whole Foods to compare regular (non-sale) prices on 50 grocery staples, focusing mostly on organics and mostly on store brands: Aldi’s SimplyNature and Whole Foods’ 365 Everyday Value. Here’s what we found in our apples-to-apples comparisons (and yes, we even compared apples).
I’ve reported on Aldi since the 1990s. Back in the day, produce wasn’t the grocer’s strong suit. Stores typically sold unrefrigerated fruits and vegetables (more on veggies later) straight from the cardboard boxes they shipped in. Americans weren’t accustomed to the bare-bones marketing that the frugal German retailer pioneered after World War II, but the low prices made up for the sometimes-suspect quality. Fast-forward to today, and Aldi’s new and newly remodeled locations feature refrigerated produce cases on the sales floor.
Of course, Whole Foods has long been known for its bountiful produce displays – especially organics. Here’s how the two stacked up in our recent price comparisons:
Like fresh fruits, Whole Foods’ fresh vegetables have the reputation for being higher quality (and higher priced) than Aldi’s vegetables. But Burt P. Flickinger III, a supermarket industry expert who is managing director of Strategic Resource Group, says today’s reality is less clear-cut.
According to Flickinger, the quality of popular, fast-selling produce is actually quite good at Aldi because Aldi’s lower prices mean the inventory turns over faster that at Whole Foods, where produce prices tend to be higher across the board. In other words, popular produce doesn’t spend as long on Aldi’s shelves as it does at Whole Foods. However, Flickinger adds that Whole Foods tends to win the quality battle on slower-selling produce:
We stayed organic in our comparison of three canned goods, and we focused on Aldi’s SimplyNature store brand and Whole Foods’ 365 Everyday Value store brand:
We weren’t looking for fresh, high-end, store-made, chef-created pastas and sauces here. Just the regular boxed dry pasta and gravy from a jar. The only requisite was organic:
Fresh fish and meats, typically tagged with “natural,” “pasture-raised,” “cage-free” or some other it’s-all-OK-with-the-animals modifier, have been a trademark of Whole Foods for decades. Aldi is going after a piece of that action on the discount end. It recently announced that it will increase its selection of fresh foods, including ready-to-cook and organic fresh meats, by 40% by early 2019:
Aldi has always had killer prices on eggs and dairy products. Last year we saw conventional milk selling for $1.49 a gallon and eggs going for just 39 cents a dozen. Aldi’s milk and egg prices were higher at our recent check but still lower than Whole Foods’ prices:
One of the most surprising finds on this comparison-shopping venture was the price of spices. If you’ve ever had to restock a spice pantry or pick up an obscure spice for a recipe, you know how stinging the cost can be to a shopping budget. It’s less so at Aldi – and we’re talking organics, too.
“I've talked to five-star restaurant chefs stocking up at Aldi stores,” says Flickinger. “The chefs say for jams, many spices and cooking ingredients, Aldi has exceptionally good quality, while being a low-price leader with B.J.'s Wholesale Club and Lidl.”
Starchy foods including rice and grains offer inexpensive ways to stretch meal budgets. Both Aldi and Whole Foods stock organic versions from which to choose:
This is one area where we were able to compare national brands toe-to-toe at Aldi and Whole Foods. If you’re in the market for any national brands, remember that Whole Foods will accept manufacturer coupons (Aldi won’t):
If you like the carbs, you can spend less – sometimes a lot less, depending on your bread preference – at Aldi:
We didn’t find any organic versions of pizza or chicken nuggets in our research trips to Aldi and Whole Foods — we looked — but here’s the best we could come up with for comparison sake:
Despite Whole Foods’ rep for natural and healthy fare, we did check out a few salty snacks. Both chains carry their own knockoffs of some national brands such as Wheat Thins and Ritz. The major difference, other than price, was that Aldi’s knockoffs aren’t labeled as organic while Whole Foods’ knockoffs are. It’s your choice whether it’s worth paying significantly more for the organic versions:
We didn’t have flowers on our original shopping list, but after spotting roses for sale in both stores we decided to add them. A supermarket floral arrangement is affordable and serves well as a last-minute gift. While Aldi’s roses weren’t long-stemmed like the ones at Whole Foods, they’d do in a pinch, though we’re willing to admit long-stem roses say “romance” a bit more loudly than a rose bouquet. The flowers at both stores appeared to the eyes (and nose) to be fresh:
The total bill for the 50 items on our shopping list added up to $136.98 at Aldi; it was $205.66 at Whole Foods – a difference of nearly $69. In some cases the difference was pennies per item, but in others it was dollars. It adds up. Flickinger, the retail consultant, says his research shows that a family of five can save perhaps between $3,500 and $5,500 a year by shopping for groceries at Aldi over Whole Foods.
What you will actually end up paying at checkout depends on a host of factors including how carefully you shop and, in the case of Whole Foods, whether you’re an Amazon Prime member. Remember, the prices we quote are everyday, non-sale prices, but both chains run weekly sales on select items. Keep up on sales by signing up for email alerts or downloading the retailers’ mobile apps. Our prices also don’t reflect the additional savings at Whole Foods offered to Prime members, who receive exclusive discounts on select items as well as an additional 10% off sale items. Just be sure to factor in the $119-a-year cost to join Amazon Prime. Aldi doesn’t have a customer loyalty program.