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With inflation soaring, where are the best grocery deals?

Riverside Press-Enterprise logo Riverside Press-Enterprise 10/3/2022 Kevin Smith, The Press-Enterprise

If you’re like most grocery shoppers, you pay attention to prices.

Whether it’s 10% off on bananas, 20% off on tuna fish or a 2-for-1 deal on frozen TV dinners, we’re there — particularly amid the current wave of inflation.

If you want to save big, it pays to shop where prices are consistently cheaper, according to a new report from online price tracker TradingPedia.

To illustrate the price gap, TradingPedia created a virtual shopping cart with 37 typical grocery items like meat and seafood, dairy products and eggs, fruits and vegetables, canned foods, snacks and beverages.

With all brands and product volumes exactly the same, the totals show Walmart shoppers would pay $187.22 for all of those items — $23.68 less than at Albertsons and $17.69 less than at Target.

Shoppers at those stores will still pay more than they would at Aldi, Costco and Grocery Outlet — Southern California’s low-price grocery leaders — but TradingPedia’s comparisons help to illustrate differing food prices.

And when those virtual cart prices are pushed out to include eight yearly visits, that $23.68 in savings at Walmart turns into nearly $190.

“Driven by falling fuel prices and tightening policies introduced recently by the Federal Reserve, inflation is finally slowing down in the U.S.,” the report said. “However, grocery prices in the U.S. remain sky-high.”

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show food-at-home prices — which includes grocery store and supermarket food purchases — were 13.5% higher in August than a year earlier. Industry experts expect grocery prices will remain high for some time.

“Food prices aren’t going to come down later this year or even early next year,” said Burt Flickinger III, managing director for the retail consulting firm Strategic Resource Group. “With a worldwide drought going on, prices probably won’t come down until the summer of 2023.”

Individual price differences may seem small. But taken in total, they add up quickly.

A pound of strawberries at Walmart cost $2.98, according to the report, while Target prices them at $3.19 and Albertsons at $3.99.

Bigger gaps were found for a 12-pack box of Orville Redenbacher’s Movie Theater Butter popcorn. Target wins there, priced at $5.99, followed by Walmart ($6.36) and Albertsons ($8.99).

Flickinger said TradingPedia’s research doesn’t take into account Albertsons’ buy-one, get-one-free deals, which are frequent throughout its stores. “They have the most powerful promotions in the supermarket sector,” he said.

Flickinger added that many consumers have an excess inventory of some foods because they were in short supply during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, so they overly stocked up on those items when they later became available.

“We’re also seeing people turn away from national brands because there is so much price gouging going on,” he said. “They’re buying more store brands and private-label products. Those can be 15% to 50% lower than the national brands.” 

In April, the Smart & Final grocery chain was fined $175,000 for hiking the price of its premium eggs by as much as 25%, even though its supply costs hadn’t increased.

“Today, the company will pay a price for those actions,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta said, in announcing the action. Bonta said the company took advantage of customers from March through June of 2020 when they were scrambling to find essential items during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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It should also be added that consumers have increasingly widened their grocery shopping routines to include several stores. As a result, a shopper might buy their milk and bread from Walmart, their produce from Albertsons and their potato chips and salad dressing from Aldi, for example.

California consumers who are struggling with food prices will soon get some relief. In less than two weeks, the state plans to begin issuing a Middle Class Tax Refund directly to residents.

California residents who filed their 2020 taxes on time and earned less than $250,001 individually, or $500,000 as a couple filing jointly, qualify for the refunds, which range from $200 to $1,050.

The size of the refund depends on a recipient’s income, filing status and number of dependents.

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