Organic foods don't have to be a luxury, but they aren't always cheaper in stores that typically offer a discount.
It's been roughly four years since Walmart began pushing organic food at its U.S. stores. The discount store has attempted to lure more customers by increasing its organic offerings and taking a more upmarket approach to food in general.
In short, it wanted its grocery department to be a less-expensive Whole Foods.
What it didn't expect was Whole Foods becoming an organic Walmart. Last year, Amazon bought Whole Foods for more than $13 billion and vowed that lower prices would follow. They did, for Amazon Prime members, but consumer advocates say they've seen little downward pressure on Whole Foods prices.
But before you make your uncle's lame “Whole Paycheck” joke about the store's pricing, just consider what a supposed “discount” chain like Walmart charges for organic goods. While consumer advocates put more than 100 items in their Whole Foods basket and compare prices by year, we picked 12 staples and browsed the aisles at both Whole Foods and Walmart. If you think you're always getting a better deal at Walmart, you may want to check our receipt.
- Walmart: Adams Organic Creamery Butter, $4.28 for 16 ounces
- Whole Foods: 365 Everyday Value Organic Unsweetened, $3.99 for 16 ounces
This is one of the biggest problems we've encountered with Walmart's organic section: Not a lot of cheaper store-brand items compared to Whole Foods' vast 365 Everyday Value offerings. In this case, a jar of Adams costs roughly 27 cents an ounce compared to 25 for Whole Foods' cheapest organic offering.
SHARP CHEDDAR CHEESE
- Walmart: Great Value Organic Sharp Cheddar, $2.37 for 6 ounces
- Whole Foods: 365 Everyday Value Organic Sharp Cheddar, $3.99 for 8 ounces
This is one of those categories that made Whole Foods popular in the first place: Snacky, high-end foods you want more often than you need. In this case, however, Walmart comes out 10 cents less per ounce than its Whole Foods competitor. If you've got cravings, Walmart may be the better choice for protecting your budget.
That said, if your munching impulses skew healthier, Whole Foods' store-brand snack-sized carrots come in more than 28 cents per pound cheaper than Walmart's.
- Walmart: Marketside Organic Large Brown Eggs, $3.97 for 12
- Whole Foods: 365 Everyday Value Organic Large Brown Eggs, $3.99 for 12
This is what we saw more often than not: Whole Foods and Walmart offering near-equivalent pricing on the same products. Two cents isn't a whole lot of savings, especially when you're trying to argue that your competitor is out to steal your whole paycheck.
- Walmart: Humboldt Creamery Organic Mint Chip, $2.98 for 16 ounces
- Whole Foods: 365 Everyday Value Organic Mint Chip, $4.99 for 32 ounces
Humboldt is Walmart's most value-priced organic ice cream, and it's still nearly three cents per ounce more expensive than the Whole Foods version. In fact, a recent Walmart sale had to roll back the price of Humboldt pints to $2.48 just to reach parity with Whole Foods.
- Walmart: Seattle's Best 6th Avenue Bistro Dark Roast, $4.88 for 12 ounces
- Whole Foods: Bon Nuit French Roast, $10.99 for 24 ounces
Without question, Walmart's 41 cents per ounce is a better deal than Whole Foods' 46. That said, this is Walmart's lone organic offering, with Whole Foods fielding an entire line of house-brand coffees. In fact, the ground versions of Whole Foods' coffees cost between 35 and 40 cents per ounce, or less than Walmart's one Seattle's Best variety.
- Walmart: Great Value Organic 2% Reduced Fat, $3.88 for 64 ounces
- Whole Foods: 365 Everyday Value Organic 2% Reduced Fat, $3.49 for 64 ounces
It's a difference of less than a cent per ounce between the two, but it still works in Whole Foods' favor. Considering that milk is still nominally a staple, even with dairy consumption decreasing overall, those fractional cents can add up from week to week.
EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
- Walmart: Great Value Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil, $11.98 for 51 ounces
- Whole Foods: 365 Everyday Value Extra Virgin Olive Oil, $6.99 for 33.8 ounces
Those two sizes represent the largest and cheapest each store offered, and Walmart's 23 cents per ounce still worked out to more than Amazon's 21 cents an ounce. If you substituted this for butter a long time ago, buying it in the closest thing Walmart has to bulk isn't saving you any money over buying it at a fraction of the size at Whole Foods.
- Walmart: Marketside Organic Baby Spinach, $4.96 for 16 ounces
- Whole Foods: 365 Everyday Value Organic Baby Spinach, $4.99 for 16 ounces
When it comes to triple-washed salad spinach, the price difference is pretty much a wash, too. Although Whole Foods comes in far cheaper at the 5-ounce size ($1.99 compared to $3.46 at Walmart).
- Walmart: Great Value Organic Select Seeds Bread, $3.98 for 20 ounces
- Whole Foods: 365 Everyday Value Organic Multigrain Seed Bread, $3.79 for 20 ounces
That Walmart loaf is the only organic loaf it offers under its house brand. Whole Foods, meanwhile, offers several other options that all come in roughly 20 cents less per loaf than their Walmart counterpart.
- Walmart: Great Value Organic Spaghetti, $1.22 for 17.6 ounces
- Whole Foods: 365 Everyday Value Organic Spaghetti, $1.49 for 16 ounces
This is one of the cheapest items – organic or otherwise -- you'll find in any grocery store, and Walmart does edge out Whole Foods here by about a quarter.
- Walmart: Great Value Organic Marinara Pasta Sauce, $1.98 for 23.5 ounces
- Whole Foods: 365 Everyday Value Organic Marinara Pasta Sauce, $1.99 for 25 ounces
Again, Whole Foods is marginally less expensive here. Sure, it's by less than a tenth of a cent per ounce, but that's still a significant margin for an upscale, niche food store going up against a ubiquitous discount giant.
After that little shopping trip, we aren't sure if “Whole Paycheck” is the hoax it appears to be or if Walmart's organic groceries are just far pricier than its reputation suggests. However, it's clear that after Walmart's foray into organic and Amazon's Whole Foods shopping spree, the value of shopping Walmart over Whole Foods is more about perception than it is about price.
More by Jason Notte: