How To Shop at Whole Foods

Recently, a friend of mine who is new to Pittsburgh paid his first visit to Whole Foods. His comment on the experience was:

This is the place to shop if you enjoy paying a 50-100% markup over traditional supermarket prices so that you can feel good about how much you are doing for the native tribesmen of Mek-a-lek-a-ding-dong. Aside from that, they do have a good selection of international and esoteric foods.

I’ve heard this expressed by others, too. A common nickname for the chain around here is “Whole Paycheck.” I have a complex and conflicted relationship with Whole Foods, so I thought I would share some of my thoughts on the place. In the process, perhaps some of my tips will help you shop there without paying 100% markup over Giant Eagle.

I feel like I should offer a disclaimer, in advance: you might read this article and think that I don’t like Whole Foods very much. Nothing could be further from the truth. I like the excellent selection of just about everything. I like that their produce is always fresh, and that their staff is helpful, and the great selection of organics. I like that their very presence in Pittsburgh has forced Giant Eagle to try to improve in certain ways. The only reason I have such strong opinions about what is or is not “worth it” at Whole Foods is because when I go there, I feel like the proverbial kid in a candy store, because I want to buy everything. But that conflicts with my cheapskate gene, and so I have to develop value strategies to maintain my sanity. If you’re anything like me, you buy more or less the same things each time you go into a supermarket. So you end up spending around the same amount of money every time you shop in the same market. I’ve distilled this down to a formula I think of as the “ceteris paribus price-per-item.” Think of it this way: except for some packaged goods and produce, the store has nearly complete control over the minimum quantity of whatever item it is they will sell you. In my experience, it’s helpful to think that grocery stores have a target price per abstract item that you will pay, regardless of what the actual price of any given real item is. So the first thing to do is to figure out the target price per abstract item. As an example, Giant Eagle has a ceteris paribus price per item of about $3.50. Obviously, 3 pounds of filet mignon don’t cost the same as a pack of gum, but the technique works surprisingly well: count the number of items in your shopping cart. Multiply by $3.50. That’s how much you’ll be spending when you hit the checkout line, if you’re not actively trying to be a smart (or at least cheap) shopper. Using this technique, I’ve never been off by more than about 3%.

I thought of this calculation because of a trick my dad has. He uses a similar technique in nice restaurants. The accuracy of the results is uncanny. Murray’s Law states that the per-person price of a meal (including wine and dessert) will be twice the cost of the most expensive entree on the menu. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t order the most expensive entree. The formula still works.

The ceteris paribus price per item at Whole Foods is about $7. So my friend’s estimate of the markup is about right.

So first, you need to decide what it is that you’re shopping at a given store for. You can go in to Whole Foods and just buy a pack of (organic, free- range) gum, and “only” spend $2.50 instead of $7. Life is full of tradeoffs. If you’re insistent that the only way you can have a quality of life that satisfies you is to do all your shopping at Whole Foods, and don’t want to sacrifice any indulgences, then there’s not much I can do to help you. But you can get pretty far by being flexible and recognizing what is and isn’t a good value at Whole Foods, and either avoiding the expensive items altogether, or obtaining them elsewhere, for less.

Basically, there are only two types of things you should be buying at Whole Foods:

There actually are a few good deals at Whole Foods if you know what to look for. Arugula, the best green in the universe, is usually only about $1.50/pound there (Giant Eagle sells it in little plastic jewelboxes for something like $5 for 6 ounces. I am not kidding.) In the produce aisles as you walk in, keep an eye open for specials. During the summer, they often use berries as loss leaders. Other fruits and vegetables are frequently put on sale. Organic milk prices are comparable to Giant Eagle – usually a little cheaper, in fact, as long as you avoid the glass bottles. Likewise with heavy cream and some of the yogurt products.

The meat department is worth checking for bargains – the specials are fewer and further between than in produce, but you can often find odd things in the cold case at clearance prices. Basically, there’s something on sale every week, but you can never be sure what it is. So try not to get your heart set on anything before arriving and taking a look at what they’re trying to unload that week.

You’d think the “bulk foods” aisle would be a place you could really clean up, but you have to be careful. Some of the items often cost more in bulk form than those packaged on the shelves just down the lane. Double check. Or better yet, go to the East End Food Co-op for that stuff, instead. Everything will be cheaper and fresher.

The loss leaders aside, most of the things in Whole Foods cost about the same or more than what you’d see at Giant Eagle. The goal of the store is to convince you of one of two things: that it’s worth the price in convenience to pay twice as much for the same stuff you can get elsewhere, or that the things you’ll find at Whole Foods are staggeringly unique and therefore are “justified” as a little extravagance. After all, you’re worth it, right?

Well, no. Probably, you’re not. Anyone who is willing to pay $19/pound for Roquefort Abeille when the same cheese is available just about anywhere else for $11/pound is definitely not worth a little extravagance.

The cheese counter is probably the biggest danger in the entire store. It provides a very wide variety of fresh cheeses, and the staff is super-helpful. There’s an occasional “bargain,” but at the Whole Foods cheese counter “bargain” tends to mean “only pay $1/pound more than you’d pay at Penn Mac, instead of $5/pound more.” The main difference between the meat counter and the cheese counter is that the meat counter is selling some products – particularly the dry aged meat, and some of the organics – that you really, honestly can’t get anywhere else in town. There are few things at the cheese counter at Whole Foods that you absolutely, positively can’t get at Penn Mac, McGinness Sisters, or one of the various cheese wholesalers in the region. If you absolutely must have whatever item they’ve got there that you can’t find anywhere else, go ahead and help yourself, but the only difference between the Mimolette at Whole Foods and that in the Strip is the $7/pound price gap.

The meat counter has many unique, expensive items – such as the aforementioned dry aged steaks and various organics – that you can’t get (in person) anywhere else in Pittsburgh. So splurging on those on occasion seems reasonable to me, although whether they’re worth the premium is a question you can only answer for yourself. The meat counter also has a lot of run of the mill junk that is just the same as what you’d find anywhere else, only it costs twice as much (such as the ridiculous yuppie sausages for $6/pound). And there’s usually always something on sale that is cheap enough that I can use it to make stock without feeling guilty.

I have friends who swear by the fish counter because they find Benkowitz’s hours inconvenient. This is a shame, since Whole Foods' fish costs twice as much and is only half as good.

In summary: keep your eyes open for items on sale. Know what things cost at other area stores, only buy items that are not stupidly overpriced, and don’t get tricked into thinking that Whole Foods is the sole supplier for something that’s actually widely available.

The best way to know what’s available in Pittsburgh, of course, is to shop in the Strip District.

If you apply the tips in this article carefully, you should be able to save enough cash to buy at least 2 or 3 Xbox games each year. Shopping is about keeping your priorities straight.

Buon appetito!