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Resolved: Whole Foods isn't as expensive as people think it is

Posted by Rob Anderson  February 14, 2011 02:13 PM

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In the acrimonious debate over the coming of a Whole Foods to Jamaica Plain, it's practically an article of faith that the organic chain charges much higher prices than Hi-Lo Foods, the beloved local institution it will replace later this year.

Just one problem: It's not true.

In a survey of grocery stores across the city, I compared the cost of a variety of staple goods and found that the alleged expense of Whole Foods is something of an urban myth.

Comparable pasta, cereal, and soap products were all cheaper at Whole Foods than at Hi-Lo, and the store much vilified as "whole paycheck" had the cheapest milk of any store in the city.

Indeed, comparing the price of an entire basket of goods — which also included eggs, flour, and toilet paper — Whole Foods came out only 69 cents more expensive overall than Hi-Lo. And both stores were cheaper than Foodie's, a market servicing the diverse South End community.

I conducted my survey on a recent Monday morning. While almost all of the merchandise at Hi-Lo was marked half off, the original prices were in place on the items I've included here.

wf1.jpg

Two points of interest: Even if Whole Foods had some more expensive individual items, price fluctuations between stores tended to average themselves out. While a Whole Foods shopper may spend extra on toilet paper, for example, he could make up for it if he also buys dish soap, which tends to be cheaper there than at other stores. And something important for Jamaica Plain residents to keep in mind: Their neighborhood Stop & Shop has some of the best deals in town. If they don't like the price of dried red beans at the new Whole Foods, they will be able to find the cheapest ones around just a short 10 minute walk away.

The arrival of Whole Foods has occasioned much anguish over the changing face of the neighborhood. Jamaica Plain may indeed by losing low-income residents — but it won't be the prices at Whole Foods that pushes them out.

[Some points about methodology: When gathering prices, I did my best to pick similar products at each store, and went for the cheapest option, when available. If stores stocked different quantities of a product, I did the math to be sure I was comparing the same measurements of the same or similar products. Last, while there's no guarantee that the Jamaica Plains Whole Foods will have the exact same prices as the chain's other stores in the area, I did check the prices at three different Whole Foods — Beacon Hill, Cambridge, and Symphony — and the pricing was identical at each.]

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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