How to shop at Whole Foods without breaking the bank?
April 27, 2013 7:27 PM   Subscribe

We are moving into an apartment on top of a Whole Foods so I would like to do most of my grocery shopping there (I use Amazon Prime for stuff you can get in bulk, cleaning products, etc). Does anyone have any protips for saving money there? Their coupon weekly seems pretty anemic and it doesn't seem like they often have really compelling sales.

We stay away from the pre-prepared products and the bill still manages to be scary. FWIW our diet is mostly fresh meat & veg, not a lot of baked goods or frozen foods. Meat in particular frightens me... the stuff in the butcher's area seems SO expensive. For example, I like to buy flank steak for stir fry and what they had was $20 per pound! Am I doing it wrong or is this just how it's gonna be?
posted by annekate to Shopping (38 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, it's expensive. I prefer to eat less meat and buy it there because it's more humanely raised. And I do buy a lot of canned beans and the store brand is fine. Some of the WF stores give free tours that emphasize how to save money there. You might ask if yours does that.

Honestly, we buy a few select things from WF and the rest from a chain grocer.
posted by michellenoel at 7:33 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would add that I guess that is why they have the nickname "Whole Paycheck".
posted by michellenoel at 7:34 PM on April 27, 2013 [11 favorites]

That's why they call it Whole Paycheck. And it seems like only a certain selection of their meats are the kind of organic/sustainable stuff you could justify paying that much for. They are fairly good, in the veg department, (and in my experience, which is sporadic) at having items that are actually ripe, which means you could shop that for daily produce and only buy exactly as much as you need. Their prices and quality on bulk-bin grains/legumes and spices seem pretty good, again if you're only buying what you're sure you'll use before it gets old. Their 365-brand stuff, canned and oils and sauces etc, are good and pretty competitively priced.

I don't think I could live solely off WF - we are also primarily meat and produce eaters (a split of fresh and frozen), and while I'd love for everything we eat to be the happiest meat on the planet, I have to stock up at Costco or the regular grocery store.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:35 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Before I read the "more inside" I was going to explain about how it's not that bad if you don't buy any meat or cheese. I only buy vegan things there, and if you stick to the 365 store brand it really isn't bad at all. If you're looking for meat, though, you're almost better off going to a local farmer's market than trying to buy at Whole Foods.
posted by something something at 7:36 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and they do carry cookware that occasionally goes on nice sales. I have picked up some discontinued-color Le Creuset for a good deal, and a couple of nice knives. If I could hit up a WF weekly to watch for that stuff, I would.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:38 PM on April 27, 2013

Our solution? Our freezer. We would buy a lot of whatever was on sale at the time and stock up. It's easy to do if you live adjacent and can monitor the store for what's on sale. If you're a carnivore, you can also pick up their whole cooked chickens just before they close; they're super-discounted and cheaper than roasting a chicken on your own. Great for lunches, to put in soups, whatever. (I know there's a couple of other things they put on sale in the last hour of the day but the chicken is the only one I'm positive about.)
posted by rednikki at 7:44 PM on April 27, 2013

It says you are in San Francisco, is it possible there are other local, free range/organic butcher shops with cheaper prices for cuts of meat? You may have to call for prices though.
posted by Crystalinne at 7:44 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

The store brand products are not terribly priced, and I second the price saving tours they give. They post them on the community board that's normally located in the dining area.
posted by lownote at 7:47 PM on April 27, 2013

I'm not a price-sensitive grocery shopper but I have to say that Whole Foods is very expensive and, frankly, over priced. Living above a Whole Foods store and shopping there frequently will indubitably put a big dent in your pocketbook. And although they have lots of good products, their products are not always the best. For example, I'm not a big fan of their fresh fruit. In Orange County, California, I find the quality of the fresh fruit at Mother's Market is consistently superior to Whole Foods.
posted by Dansaman at 7:51 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some of the WF stores give free tours that emphasize how to save money there.

Every store is supposed to offer this tour. Stop by the customer service desk and ask for it. Fair warning, though, even their best prices are not normally going to beat a chain grocery and/or the farmer's market in season. Many of their products are exactly the same label as what I buy in my chain grocery - for half the price. Definitely figure out which products and brands only they sell, because those are the only things worth buying there. I go to WF for a few particular things that only they have - certain frozen organic vegetables, certain cheeses, humanely raised meats (but even then, a lot of other supermarket chains carry the same brands).

I will say that the 365 olive oil is quite a good deal and hard to match at a chain grocery, especially because you're probably not really getting good olive oil with most grocery brands.
posted by Miko at 7:52 PM on April 27, 2013

I'm vegan (most of the time) and do a lot of shopping at WF in Seattle.

I find their prices on bulk foods to be very good, and like that I can buy only what I need. I also like that they clearly mark where their produce is sourced from so I can buy local as much as possible.

Additionally, their store brand (360) is competitive (in my opinion).
posted by dotgirl at 7:53 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Whole Foods near me runs one day Friday specials that are pretty good - for example, 12 mangos for $10, half off all deli meats, or 20% off all beer. They're usually advertised the week before either on signs at the cash register or on a sandwich board outside the store.

But I agree with everyone else - for prices on fresh produce, you'll definitely do better at a farmer's market.
posted by asphericalcow at 7:54 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Our WF does a One-Day Sale every Friday. It's just one item, very steeply discounted. Sometimes it's something you couldn't care less about, like 2 dozen tulips for $3, but frequently they offer particular cuts of meat/fish/poultry at 60-70% discount. Stock up and freeze. On edit, jinx!
posted by apparently at 7:58 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Their meat will not compare to a chain grocery store because they only sell the better quality, and therefore more expensive, meat. They have decent prices for organic/free range/grass fed products compared to other comparable stores.

For the veg, they generally have the best prices on locally grown, conventional products that are in season. So know what's in season and buy that.

I have seen good prices on their frozen chicken, sometimes they have good prices on fresh/frozen fish. Bulk foods are competitive. Their peanut butter is delish and decently priced. Around labor day and memorial day (I think), they run a "grill" special -- buy X amount of meat, get Y dollars off (I think it's $50 and $10), so that's a good time to stock up.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:58 PM on April 27, 2013

Get a job there? Just this week our local store offered a day of 40% off for employees. I should take this advice myself.

And if that won't work, here are some of my tips:

Our local WF has a weekly Friday special, often meat or fish or fruit. This is a good opportunity to stock up. Do you have a freezer?

Depending on your local grocery competition: healthy types of foods like bulk beans and nuts and nutritional yeast and chia seeds and natural peanut butter and organic jelly, frozen butternut squash (yes, cheaper by the lb than fresh) are cheaper (way cheaper) at Whole Foods than my local grocery store (Giant Eagle, far from the best) and amazon. And I love the ground grass-fed beef and when you buy more than 3 lbs from the meat counter you get .50 off per lb (make sure to ask!) though that makes it 6.49/lb it is worth it to me. And actually the last two times we bought beef from somewhere else (once Costco and once Trader Joe's) it got thrown in the garbage because it tasted off compared to the WF beef.

I agree that the store brand is very competitive, especially apples to apples. Most are organic, all are non GMO.

Produce: I only buy what is on sale or what I know is a good price. My local grocery store (LGS) is as expensive most of the time for produce as WF. For example: my WF has cheaper pre-cleaned bags of organic baby spinach than LGS. WF is not more expensive than the local fancy farmer's markets but it is more expensive than driving to the small hole-in-the-wall markets or Asian markets (that is what the store-sign says so don't fuss with me on the naming of the stores!).

Quick meal: hot food bar (yum!) is the same price as the nasty fried and greasy hot food bar at LGS. So when I need a quick fix I get a (mostly protein) yummy meal from the food bar and it is cheaper and better than my fast restaurant options.

Bottom line: I find that if price is my highest priority I have lists for Costco, Aldi (all organic spinach, spring mix, apples, non-organic avocados), Target grocery section, Asian market for veggies and Asian staples, Trader Joes. However, I like to grocery shop, I am within close to all of these stores, and have the time so you have to choose your priorities: price, quality, time.
posted by RoadScholar at 8:01 PM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Their meat will not compare to a chain grocery store because they only sell the better quality,

To be specific, I am noting that brand for brand, you can find the same cuts of Niman Ranch, Bell and Evans, and other national organic/humane brands in the regular supermarket as well as WF, and they are cheaper at the regular supermarket. There are meats you can get at WF that are unavailable at the regular supermarket, and many meats at the regular supermarket that would not meet WF standards, but it is possible to find meat of an equal quality from the exact same vendors, for less, at a regular supermarket.
posted by Miko at 8:13 PM on April 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Basically you want to shop the edge of the store -- produce, dairy, meats, etc. -- and only go into the middle of the store for specific must have items or for their bulk grains. What gets expensive at WF are the packaged foods.
posted by spunweb at 8:22 PM on April 27, 2013

Weirdly, in Minneapolis Whole Foods' produce prices are often comparable to Target's. Pretty much everything else is obscenely expensive.
posted by creativenothing at 8:45 PM on April 27, 2013

I used to work at Whole Foods and still shop there regularly for the seafood and humanely raised dairy and eggs. Stick to the store brand (365) stuff or name brands if they are on sale. Go easy on the packaged foods (cookies, crackers, etc.) Bulk foods are generally fine, as long as it's not organic nuts or something.

I only buy produce there if it is on sale or I'm desperate. Otherwise, I go to a produce market (not farmer's market, I mean dedicated produce market), a regular grocery store, or an ethnic grocery.

I go to Trader Joe's for cereal, junk food, and booze.
posted by fozzie_bear at 8:45 PM on April 27, 2013

I also came in to suggest getting a job there. Employees and their spouses/domestic partners get 20% off anything in store. Plus, there's always some sort of free food/free coffee for staff going on, especially if you have the sort of position that requires you to attend a lot of meetings or interviews..
posted by esmerelda_jenkins at 8:50 PM on April 27, 2013

I was vegan for a year and a half and I shopped mostly their salad bar. I went with a pad and wrote down most prices of things and then just eyeball-compare with supermarket and trader joes. I didn't buy meat but even the grains can get expensive. One little secret is that the food at the deli is also pre packaged in the cold section for a much better price. I don't particularly like frozen food and have a normal/small freezer but I do alot of frozen fruit and smoothies. I also got a " vacuum sealer" off Craigslist. It is okay but could use it more. Gl. You're paying for quality, it's up to you.
posted by femmme at 8:50 PM on April 27, 2013

Check out the recipes on their website. The budget friendly ones are reasonable IMO.
posted by kat518 at 8:53 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you live on top of the thing, buy what you want to eat that day. Use the bag they gave you to put your trash in. Don't over buy and you will not have a lot of left overs to throw out. I can say this from experience; I did an experiment where I went to Publix and bought a week's worth of food. Then I shopped each day at WF for specifically what my family wanted to eat that day. I ended up saving about $21 dollars a week by only buying what I needed. On top of it all, I got better quality meats and fish and didn't have a bunch of left overs rotting in my fridge.
posted by bkeene12 at 9:00 PM on April 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

This is totally random, but if yours has bacon on the hot bar in the morning, it is CRAZY cheap because it is sold by the pound once prepared.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 9:13 PM on April 27, 2013 [7 favorites]

I don't know if it means anything to you, but Whole Foods has apparently been on the Fortune 100 list of best places to work for sixteen years. I hope that's where the extra cost comes from.
posted by aniola at 9:32 PM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

If your household diet involves funky, less-common grains, oils, and other gourmet items, buying them at Whole Foods can actually be more cost effective than getting them from the regular grocery store. Bob's Red Mill stuff, for instance, seems to run $1-5 a package cheaper at Whole Foods than at our local QFC. Ditto grapeseed and macadamia nut oils. I'm guessing that this is because Whole Foods moves more of these kinds of products than the more mainstream chains, so they buy in greater volume and get better discounts from the wholesalers.

And yeah, definitely look at their store brand. I've definitely been pleased with its pricing and quality.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 10:01 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I live just a few blocks away from a Whole Foods in SF.

To be blunt, my family finds better buys on most staples, including fresh meats and vegetables, to be just a few miles away in Daly City down 280. If you don't mind slumming it, grab a City Car Share or Zipcar in the parking lot of the Whole Foods below your complex -- even at $10/hour for the car rental. Head down to the Lucky on Mission in Daly City or the Safeway at Westlake, the Targets right outside the city in Colma or Daly City, or the Costco down in South SF. If you're feeling daring, Pacific Super or 99 Ranch. You'll find groceries for a whole lot less. It's all far less elegant than Whole Foods, and it's a few miles drive away, but everything's a whole lot cheaper.
posted by eschatfische at 10:16 PM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Bulk spices and bulk loose tea are SO MUCH cheaper than buying prepackaged, plus fresher and better quality. Not all stores have them, but I highly recommend them - especially spices - if they do.
posted by insectosaurus at 8:05 AM on April 28, 2013

I am dubious of your basic premise, especially as you apparently live in SF. That said, if you at least want to do your REGULAR shopping at WF, then here is my advice, based on unfortunate experience:

1) Every few weeks or month, go to a regular grocery store and buy a ton of less-expensive staples. You need to make space in your apartment to store these things.

2) At WF, don't buy red meat except once in a blue moon. It's just too expensive. Sometimes there is a fish "special," but be sure to cook the fish that very night as fish specials can be because the fish is old....

3) Don't buy organic fruit and veg, or, if you must, pick your battles. E.g., you can probably wash the pesticides off apples pretty easily, but broccoli is harder. So buy organic broccoli but not apples. Don't buy non-standard (for the median WF shopper in your part of the US) produce -- e.g., probably skip the cherimoya, which will likely be more expensive, unless there is a special. On the other hand, buy produce which is on sale, and plan your menus around that.
posted by Nx at 9:30 AM on April 28, 2013

Some things that I find WF prices competitively (in terms of value/$ for similar quality items):

- lamb shoulder chop
- pork chop (on sale)
- sausage

Fish (USA only, Canadian value is not as good):
- dover sole
- whole salmon in season
Mussels, clams, and rainbow trout are sold either at parity or trivially more than other retailers. Sometimes they have annual sales on in-season fish such as albacore tuna or whole halibut, these are reasonable deals

- pre-washed greens, large box
- bananas
- kale/swiss chard on sale
- sale prices on produce such as avocado, oranges, mangos, pears. Those consistently come down cheaper, occasional seasonal sales will be good too (sometimes I see asparagus, green bean, nugget potato, stone fruit, squash, pumpkin, pomegranate come down to competitive price)

- Greek full fat yogurt
- regular milk (if it is more than regular grocery, it is only trivially more)
- free-run eggs (USA only)

- canned beans
- canned tomatoes (USA only)
- 365 brand frozen veg (USA only)
- if you do not make your own, low sodium stocks/high quality box soup on sale
- 365 brand crackers
- olive oil
- basic balsamic/cider vinegars
- non-HFCS ketchup, mustard, proper sauerkraut
- 1.5lb bags of 365 brand coffee
- 365 brand peanut butter

- Local craft buns/baguette/breads come in same or better as local bakery source for comparable item

- couscous
- quinoa
- french green lentil (which I find is just not readily available elsewhere)
posted by crazycanuck at 9:43 AM on April 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

When I shop at Whole Foods I tend to spend far more than planned because they have so many tempting treats that I impulsively buy -- fancy chocolate, crackers, smoked salmon, prepared salads, that sort of thing.

I don't mind this, as I shop there so rarely, but if I were doing most of my shopping I would plan meals and make a shopping list before going in, then stick to it.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:00 AM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Like others have mentioned, spices, specialty grains, granola from the bulk bins, soup stock, and yogurt are cheaper at Whole Foods than elsewhere. The spices are markedly, markedly so.

The store-brand canned beans is competitive with beans in normal stores.

The deli meat counter is slightly more expensive (a dollar per pound for the cheapest turkey breast), but it keeps for much longer/is well-packaged so that juice doesn't go all over the refrigerator.

The meat in the butcher display looks expensive if you're used to the artificially-low prices for factory meat at chain grocery stores, but isn't bad for non-factory meat. We think of the meat prices as a way for nice cuts of meat to be treats. If you ask behind the counter, they sometimes have super-cheap, high-quality bones for soup stock.
posted by joyceanmachine at 10:56 AM on April 28, 2013

I shop at Whole Foods and go to the bulk bins for a lot of things, their produce is usually high quality so I don't mind paying for it but if you mostly buy what is on sale I've found the prices to be pretty reasonable anyway, and then other organic or specialty things are usually decently priced at Whole Foods compared to regular grocery stores. For example I like a certain brand of sardines that is sold at Whole Foods, so I buy them there or on amazon.

Basically anything you would otherwise buy at a health food type store I've found to be good to purchase at Whole Foods. Since I shop a lot at health food stores anyway, Whole Foods doesn't seem crazy expensive to me.

Also the store brand items are good.

Also agreed about the meat prices - I don't eat that much meat to begin with but I tend to buy better quality meat and don't mind paying more for it.

I also think of food shopping as getting what I pay for, because in America everyone tends to think that more is better, and so to cater to that we get giant quantities of crappy food. So paying more for food isn't a bad thing in my opinion.
posted by fromageball at 3:11 PM on April 28, 2013

Also, find a good non-wankery grocery store somewhere in town that you can visit once every couple of months for either non-organic supplies (you say you get cleaning supplies from Amazon, but maybe "normal" shampoo et al is still preferable to the salt rubs of Whole Foods) or stuff to which you have brand loyalty or other preference for (Cheerios, anyone?) -- heck, even the recycled toilet paper is cheaper and better at our local SuperFresh than at Whole Foods, so it's worth piling that up from time to time. And things like canned tomatoes aren't worth the mark-up.
posted by acm at 8:15 AM on April 29, 2013

Also, decide in advance where your line is on "fancier" version of things -- I go nuts for heirloom tomatoes, but I could go broke if that's the only kind I got, so I save those for treats and get the regular hydroponic (or whatever) ones for most cooking needs. You could fall into a black hole of cheese love in a similar way, but there are cheap shrink-wrapped cheddars there too. Be strong!
posted by acm at 8:17 AM on April 29, 2013

I was shocked to discover that gallons of (non-organic) milk end up way cheaper at WF than at Walmart, even. And if you buy four gallons at a time, you get 10% off. Not that you will need four gallons of milk, but I have three little boys, so that's not weird for us.
posted by pyjammy at 12:14 PM on April 29, 2013

I shop exclusively at Whole Foods and at local farmer's market - -mostly because I value humanely raised meat, and I'm too lazy to go to multiple stores.

My biggest tip is don't go with a list -- buy what is on sale in terms of meat/fish/produce. I think they are competitively priced on canned goods.

As for produce -- they are pretty on par with my farmer's market, my splurge is $4.99 pastured chickens but I get several meals and stock from them. I find the market slightly cheaper, but they are often frozen which is inconvenient if I plan on cooking that day.

For 2 people who eat all 3 meals from home I spend about $150 a week including dog food, some cleaning products, and a fair amount of wine.
posted by hrj at 12:53 PM on April 29, 2013
posted by aniola at 4:32 PM on November 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

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