Updated on 07.25.07

Is It Worth Higher Prices For A Quality Shopping Experience?

Trent Hamm

Where there's a helpful smile in every aisleI confess that I do not shop at the grocery store with the lowest prices on my staple goods. Yes, that’s right – I intentionally go to a different store that, if I buy all of my staples, will actually cost me a few dollars more than the cheapest place. If you’re interested, here’s a visual tour of the place where I sometimes shop.

Why do I choose this store, even though one nearby store has lower prices and another one has almost equal prices? The shopping experience. The store is always clean and presentable, very well organized, and there’s always a person on hand to help me find anything that I’m having difficulty with. I can also observe their meat preparation section. For me, this is well worth paying a few extra dollars on my shopping bill.

Is this justifiable? It’s hard to quantify whether the expense is truly justified, however. The largest difference is really the cleanliness, which does reflect my confidence in produce and meat purchased at the store. Many of the other products are shipped in from outside, are sealed, and aren’t really affected by the store itself. To me, the difference in service and cleanliness does make a difference in where I shop, and I would expect that a few dollars once a week to buy vegetables and other foods in a clean environment is something most readers would support.

On the other hand, I recently spent an hour in a very expensive shopping mall, where I visited a fragrance store. The store was immaculately clean, smelled heavenly, and had a wonderful sales staff, but I knew quite well that I could save a lot of money by buying my preferred cologne elsewhere. Sure enough, I checked at another store in the mall (Younkers) and they had the same exact product for half the price. To me, it’s completely silly to buy the product at the fragrance store.

So where’s the line in the sand? How can one determine whether the extra cost for better service, cleaner environments, and more aesthetic appeal is actually worth it? Obviously, paying a dollar or two more to buy food in a much cleaner environment makes sense, just as looking at other options for buying a fragrance instead of paying the high prices at a boutique makes sense. But how do we find that middle ground? Here’s the criteria I use:

Can I order this item online? This is a big factor. Many items – in fact, almost everything short of perishable food and liquids – can be ordered online and often at better prices than you can find at your local grocery store. I run almost every non-perishable purchase through some online checking before I go out and shop for it – and often it comes much cheaper that way.

Do I get personal enjoyment out of the experience of going there? For a few places, yes. I love browsing at Apple stores and at bookstores, but quite often I just jot down potential purchase ideas in a notebook and leave. If I happen to know a price is comparable, I am willing to buy from these stores. I often go to niche stores (like the fragrance place) to check out the samples and observe the items because it provides an environment where I can evaluate them without having to make a purchase.

Is there an added value from going to the store? For example, if I go to Sam’s Club to look for items, there are often tons of free food samples there, which often takes the place of lunch on Saturday for me. I’m also willing to stop in if they have a tremendous deal on a product that I want – I tend to research and hit Black Friday sales pretty hard, for example. Some people may put their pet political cause in here, in terms of not supporting some stores or products (like the anti-Wal Mart crowd). I certainly put cleanliness of consumables in this category, which is enough to justify my grocery shopping choices – cleaner food is a clear value.

In a nutshell, in some cases the quality of the shopping experience justifies paying a bit more, but most of the time there are so many options available to the consumer that they don’t have to pay significant amounts just for aesthetic appeal.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. Samantha says:

    I can relate to this. In one town, we have a Walmart across the street from a Target. Often we will choose to shop at Target over Walmart because the store is cleaner and easier to shop in even though we may pay a couple dollars more overall. If it is a large price differenct then we will go to walmart though.

  2. Monica says:

    In addition to going to stores that have a better shopping experience, I also *avoid* stores where I don’t enjoy the experience.

    For example, I don’t enjoy going to stores where they play annoying loud music, where you can never find an employee when you want one, where everything is way too bright and neon-y, where you have to wait in line for too long, where it is so ugly that it depresses me as soon as I walk in, where the employees are not helpful or knowledgeable, where they frequently make mistakes at the check-out, where I am treated as a potential thief the moment I walk in and told to leave my bag, where the layout is poor and non-intuitive, where there aren’t enough baskets available, where they always out of things that they are supposed to stock, where there is too little space to move so that I am always bumping into things, etc. Stores which have too many of these characteristics are stores I am going to try to avoid if I can.

    It all comes down to what kind of business I want to support with my money. Of course this includes other considerations besides the shopping experience: prices, ethics, environment, local, etc.

  3. Matt says:

    Personally I would rather pay a slightly higher price than get bad service in an unfriendly and dirty environment. I like the quality that the better shopping experience brings but I’m not willing to take it to the extreme (at least not until i have money to burn)

  4. Ben says:

    I can agree with the Hy-Vee experience. There are grocery stores around here (Omaha, NE) that are cheaper, but the cleanliness factor is a dealbreaker for me as well. I have a grocery store right down the street from me, one a few blocks away, and I bypass both to get to Hy-Vee.

    Hy-Vee also is a “larger” store, which means more items that I cannot find in the smaller, yet cheaper stores.

    Hy-Vee also has a pretty good website, where you can get your daily special prices or weekly, emailed to you. When I lived in Lincoln, NE, they even had the option of ordering everything online and driving by to pick it up.

    I agree with your reasoning for the grocery stores. As for everything else, shop where it’s cheapest. It’s similar to when video game stores in the mall where the “place to get games” although they were consistently $5 more expensive per game than all other retailers. Luckily, this practice has subsided.

  5. Javi0084 says:

    This is why I choose Target over Wal-Mart and many times Target has lower prices.

  6. rstlne says:

    In a similar way, I go to Target even though certain items could be cheaper at Walmart. However, there is another reason: the Target store happens to be much closer to home than Walmart (1/3 of the distance) so it is faster and easier to get to the former and that convenience is worth a few dollars.

    Fortunately though, the inexpensive supermarket where I make all my bulk store-brand purchases is not far from home.

  7. Bob Lemons says:

    If a store gives good service they deserve your business. If we don’t support good merchants then we can only expect giant,self-service stores in the future! I also believe it to be unethical to go to a store to get all touchy-feely with a product and then purchase online because it’s cheaper. Good service is very important to me and I know I will have to pay more for that service.

  8. DeAndrea says:


    The funny thing about those kind of stores is that they wouldn’t have to worry about theft and treat everyone like a criminal if they had better customer service.

  9. We intentionally go to Target for things or drive a little further to a cleaner, better stocked grocery store rather than going to WalMart or a dirtier, closer grocery store. My wife still saves money with coupons and I shop with a grocery list so between the two of us we do better than just shopping hungry and never using coupons :) I think that you’ll find most conscientious consumers will do the same – once the commenting dies off I’d love for a follow up post about people’s shopping habits.

  10. Gwen says:

    Your post is exactly why I stopped shopping at Super-WalMart almost entirely. If I need food and personal items (shampoo, conditioner, etc), I’ll suck it up and go to WM, b/c I can’t justify the additional expense by picking up those items at the normal grocery store (usually, it’s at least $2 per item and that can add up). But, for my normal grocery store stuff, I might pay an extra $5, but my sanity is still intact when I get out of the store. My wait in line is usually 5 minutes compared to the WM line of >15′. It’s so bad I once called the Store Manager FROM the line. So yes, paying a few extra bucks is worth my time and health.

  11. Lynnae (Being Frugal) says:

    I’m really fortunate. The least expensive grocery store in my area is really clean and has great service! I do have to bag my own groceries, but I don’t mind doing that.

  12. Mishal says:

    I also agree with this. I have a choice between HEB and Whole Foods, but I do most of my shopping at Whole Foods. Why? Because I try to buy fresh produce and whole foods has much higher quality produce that doesn’t rot as much as HEB. Often at the cheaper places I have to throw out stuff. Also if you stay at the low end of products, Whole Foods isn’t that much more than HEB. I can easily get a week’s worth of food at both places for not more than $5 to $10 difference in price.

  13. Brad says:

    What things is Target cheaper for? I haven’t seen any, except perhaps for the $2 sale price for 12-packs of Pepsi products that were on sale last week.

    I find WalMart quite reasonable. The lines are long at times, but then so were the ones at Target last time I was there. :)

    (I had been on a quest to find popcorn seasoning originally, so I visited several stores since their online site had some and I wanted to avoid shipping. They did not have it in the store though. :( )



  14. Louise says:

    @ Brad Brad Brad
    I’ve found the Targets and Wal-Marts that I’ve visited to be nearly identical in prices. If I must pick between the two, and I have the option of both, I always go with Target because of the pricing, better quality of products, better variety of products, and shopping experience. Plus, I don’t like how I feel trashy, poor, and evil whenever I leave a Wal-Mart.

  15. guinness416 says:

    Yeah, I choose local stores (especially those with proprietors from my country and my husband’s) over soulless big boxes all the time, and don’t regret it.

  16. Suchintya says:

    Where I come from, online shopping has just started. Recently I made a kill for an acquaintance by getting him a camera online at 36% discount to the purchase price in the retail store!

  17. vh says:

    Great topic, and a source of considerable controversy in these parts: my semi-demi-exboyfriend thinks I’m nuts for shopping in a high-toned grocery store or even Safeway instead of Albertson’s or Fry’s. Yet I’ve found that sometimes Snob City underprices Safeway (not all that hard to do).

    I avoid the two stores within walking distance of my home–an Albertson’s and a Fry’s–because I don’t feel safe there. Neither shopping center is very clean, and when you stand in line behind a guy who has several tears tatooed beneath an eye, it does tend to give you the willies. One of my neighbors was shot by a purse-snatcher at the Fry’s strip mall (where a year or two later a couple of baggers accidentally strangled a shoplifter), and two of my neighbors and I on separate occasions have actually been CHASED around the Albertson’s parking lot by a panhandler.

    Any day I’d rather drive three miles and pay a few extra bucks to Safeway for the privilege of not having to put up with those shenanigans.

    As for Wal-Mart vs Target…eek! Give me Tar-zhay any day! Also, has anyone noticed that Costco stores stock slightly different products according to the demographics of the area in which a given outlet is located? You get better service in the store in the upscale district, too….

  18. Mark A says:

    This inspired me to write my own post on the subject. It’s a value debate as far as I’m concerned.

  19. Callum says:

    While I agree that this approach saves money, personally, I have an ethical problem with shopping in a book store then going home to order the books on Amazon. Or likewise with any other products.

    Some stores charge more for products because they are more expensive stores. They have more expensive displays, higher paid staff, are cleaner, etc, etc. If everyone chose to use these places as catalogues and then shopped online, they would go out of business.

    So in my view, if you’re going to shop online you should do so. If you choose to go to a more expensive store you should at least *seriously consider* buying something there.

  20. Christine says:


    I think you described the store I can’t stand the most! I just had to go there to buy a vacuum and I had all the same problems. Nothing like the check out person not being able to process a coupon from their own store!

    I must say that I almost always choose Meijer for shopping. I like the fact the stores are new, clean and open 24 hours. I mostly buy loss leader items there and get the buy one – get two offers quite frequently.

  21. beloml says:


    Could you elaborate on researching and shopping Black Fridays at Sam’s? If you’ve posted on this before, I couldn’t find it on your site.

  22. Michelle says:

    I usually will shell out the extra dough to support our local farmers though direct farm purchases and shopping at Farmer’s Markets. By joining a CSA, you can avoid much of the chain store shopping experience (ick!), do some good for your community, and obtain a far superior product than you could a Wallyworld or Tar-zhay.

  23. Diana says:

    I agree with you on this one. I love shopping at our local Fresh Market which carries clean, organic, and all natural food/products. I know I will be paying more there, but I feel great shopping there. I don’t feel like I am in a huge, infinite space of “stuff”. I prefer shopping somewhere that you know someone took time to plan and present their products in a good manner. Yay for small grocery stores!

  24. Lori says:

    I agree. I don’t always shop there but I do shop at a higher end grocery store mainly to buy produce and when their meat is on sale for a good price. The lower end store’s produce is okay only if you are going to use it that day and the meat at the higher end store is good. Really good. If you have to keep the produce anytime at all, it goes bad and you have to throw it away. Plus, as you said, helpfull clerks, clean and organized store and it carries items that we use that aren’t carried at the lower end stores.

  25. Elaine says:

    I’m with Michelle, I get as much of my food as I can at farmer’s markets or locally owned places. I prefer to see my money supporting my own community. Also, I won’t shop somewhere that isn’t within walking or at least biking distance.

    Trent I’m surprised to see your emphasis on shopping online. You’ve written before about the value of your community. Taking most of your business elsewhere undermines that.

  26. m360 says:

    I would say Wal*Mart has the lowest prices on the staples I buy every month. Some products, like dannon yogurt, may be 4 cents less, but cereal can be 75 cents cheaper. Some products can save $1 or more. I try to memorize prices at different stores and compare them. One thing I consitantly find is that my dollar goes farther at Walmart. In fact, I couldn’t justify spending more at a cleaner but more exspensive store for items that are sealled. I will agree that buying produce is not so ideal @ WalMart, most of their stuff is rotten or goes bad quickly. I also save on cleaning products, shampoos, cat litter, etc. The store is adequatley clean, although I do find dust on the boxes sometimes. But it’s no different than the more exspensive chains. I also like the self check out lanes, although I think people should get a disscount for doing it themselves. I can’t agree that Target is as cheap or cheaper than Walmart though. Every store has a few items that are cheaper than their competitors but over all, nobody beats Walmart.

  27. m360 says:

    Buying products on-line does save a lot. If nothing else, you escape sales tax. Food is taxed in some states and some have a ‘junk food’ tax. On things like electronics, books, clothing, there is usually a good discount, some give free shipping over a certain amt. like $25 and no sales tax.

  28. lori says:

    I shop at the cheaper no frills store and I like it!

  29. Mitch says:

    Maybe it’s just my isolated upbringing, but I don’t know enough about the grocery chains listed by various commenters. (Fry’s? HEB?) If it’s not just me, could we like label things a bit? This would be my first pass at a list:

    low status:

    medium-low (what I think of as “normal”):
    Hy-Vee (store brand beef jerky!)
    Eagle Country Markets (may be out of business)
    Country Mart

    Wild Oats

    Whole Foods
    Richmond Center Schnucks

  30. Bill says:

    I go to grocery stores instead of Wal-Mart most of the time simply because they are closer (4 stores less than 1.5 miles away)

    Bulk once-a-month stuff comes from Sam’s during weekday business-only hours (no crowds)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *