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Forget ‘Whole Paycheck’—This Grocery Chain Now Beats Many Competitors’ Prices

Whole Foods is shedding its expensive image with cheaper produce and core items.
Sep 12, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

“Whole Paycheck” may be a thing of the past.

The less-than-loving nickname for Whole Foods has been around for at least a decade, but thanks to some changes at the grocery store it may no longer apply.

If you’re asking incredulously, “On what planet is Whole Foods the cheaper option?” you’re echoing the exact question posed recently by WNYC’s Brian Lehrer. He dug into the matter of dropping prices after Bloomberg News reported that a basket of 97 items cost less at Whole Foods than at Manhattan grocery chains Gristede’s, Fresh Direct, Food Emporium, and D’Agostino.

It’s not magical thinking on the part of shoppers, nor is it only happening in New York.

In an effort to compete with chains such as Walmart and Kroger, which are elbowing their way into the kitchen for a piece of the very-much-in-demand organic pie, Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey said the chain is lowering its prices, particularly on produce. “For a long time Whole Foods had the field to ourselves, pretty much. That was nice, but we don’t any longer,” he said on an earnings call with investors. “So we’re adapting to the reality of the marketplace.”

Translation: Get ready to go wild in the track-lit bounty that is the produce section, the tunnel of plastic tubes in the bulk food aisle, and the hypnotizing gleam of the dairy case.

Cheapism recently found 25 items at a Seattle Whole Foods that were cheaper than those at the local Safeway. Those findings were quickly echoed in a report from Kiplinger’s that identified a list of products cheaper (or the same price) at Whole Foods than at a number of competitors, including Walmart and Trader Joe’s. Many of those items are the same ones Bloomberg highlighted, including milk. Whole Foods’ prices vary by store, but the similar price findings suggest that the bargain items listed by both sites are likely to be budget-friendly additions to your shopping list (see below).

Here are a few other tips for shopping on the cheap at Whole Foods:

Sign up for the email newsletter. Local specials and news (party in the rooftop garden!) are delivered to your inbox, meaning you can plan how you want to incorporate organic red grapes into a weekly meal plan before you get to the grocery store. (You’re also entered to win a $50 gift card when you sign up, so there’s that.)

Shop the sales. Check out old-fashioned print-and-clip coupons and The Whole Deal, available online and in stores. (There’s a Canadian edition too.) Recent specials included $2 off wild-caught frozen fish fillets or steaks and $1 off trail mix.

Shop your values (where you can afford it). Pole-caught tuna might always be more expensive than conventional net-caught tuna (sigh), but if sustainable seafood, organic chard, and cage-free eggs are important to you—and your budget allows it—Whole Foods is the place where these items are regularly a relative bargain and frequently go on sale. At the Brooklyn store, pole-caught tuna was recently on sale for two for $4. It makes sense: As Slate explains, there’s no reason to expect a conventional grocery store to have a price advantage on the kind of products that are Whole Foods’ specialty. This is where Whole Foods store brands 365 Everyday Value and 365 Everyday Value Organic can really shine.

What to add to your cart:

Organic milk
Shredded mozzarella
Cream cheese
Organic frozen vegetables When blogger Lisa Johnson shopped exclusively from Whole Foods using the USDA’s “thrifty” food budget of $16.31 per day for her family of three, she relied heavily on frozen veggies: “We wouldn’t have made it, frankly, without them.”
Sweeteners Check out the prices on light brown sugar and organic powdered sugar, as well as maple syrup and organic raw agave nectar.
Organic chicken broth
Organic coconut oil
Olive oil
Grains Not all grains at Whole Foods are cheap, but check the prices on organic quinoa, buckwheat, and jasmine rice.
Peanut butter
Organic popcorn
Roasted whole nuts The bulk bins don’t necessarily mean bargains (look alive, shelled pistachios), but check out the prices on almonds and cashews.
Energy bars