MONEY Shopping

Why We Spend So Many of Our Dollars at Dollar Stores

99 cent sign
joeysworld.com—Alamy

And why the $8.5 billion Dollar Tree–Family Dollar deal is probably a sign that the dollar store's heyday is coming to an end

The dollar store has been one of the great success stories of the recession era, with chains such as Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, and Dollar General posting record sales figures, broad expansions, and soaring stock prices over the past half-dozen or so years. Now that Dollar Tree is purchasing Family Dollar for $8.5 billion, it appears as if the era of rampant dollar store growth is plateauing, even while many household finances remain pinched and dollar store shopping continues to be popular.

How did we get to the point where such a colossal merger would make sense? Here’s a look back at the recent evolution of the dollar store, with a particular focus on why many shoppers have come to view them as handy neighborhood general stores—and not just for cheap stuff.

The Great Recession destroyed shopper budgets. In the late ’00s, the housing bubble burst, the stock market crashed, and the jobs market took an ugly turn. All of the factors combined meant that the free-spending habits developed by consumers in the preceding years would have to be broken and replaced by new strategies to live cheaply. The much-heralded demise of conspicuous consumption spelled trouble for products like GM’s Hummer, but it also meant boom times for low-price retailers—dollar stores especially.

With little money to spend, especially if they’d cut up their credit cards as many had in a move to a cash-only existence, consumers stretched what few dollars they had at dollar stores. Consequently, dollar stores flourished. Dollar General doubled its store locations in the first decade of the millennium, for instance. According to one study, by 2011 there were more dollar stores than drugstores in the U.S.

Dollar stores pushed one-stop shopping. Shrinking American household budgets helped the rise of dollar stores. So did the broad campaign by dollar stores to push beyond the idea that they were good only for junky throwaway trinkets, off-brand canned goods, and anything else that had grown stale on the shelves of mainstream stores.

Among the goods shoppers started seeing more of at dollar stores are groceries, home decorating items, and even beer and wine. In some cases, dollar store offerings have been celebrated as surprisingly chic: A New York Times columnist wrote about his adventures decorating his apartment with dollar store purchases, while the 99-Cent Chef developed a following based on recipes that use ingredients purchased only at 99¢ Only stores. According to one survey from 2010, 18% of shoppers said that they were buying food and drinks for holiday parties at dollar stores.

Chances are, they were also buying wrapping paper and some stocking stuffers at dollar stores too. And that’s the point. When a shopper can buy fresh bread, produce, a gallon of milk, birthday cards, laundry detergent, shampoo, Christmas presents, and maybe a few bottles of cheap Chardonnay at the dollar store, there’s less need to hit the supermarket, liquor store, drugstore, or big box retailer. Dollar stores have been actively promoting themselves as one-stop shopping options with almost anything you need to buy—and with more locations and a smaller, easier, more manageable layout than, say, the nearest Walmart.

They’re not as cheap as you think. While there are undoubtedly some great bargains at dollar stores, shopping experts also advise against the purchasing of certain items there. Like, say, electronics and pots and pans. If you’re surprised that dollar stores even have such items, bear in mind that oftentimes, not everything in a dollar store is priced at $1. Dollar Tree has stuck to $1 pricing for everything in its stores, but Family Dollar and Dollar General don’t bother abiding by the $1 price rule. Among other items, the Dollar General website lists a Craig Android tablet for $78 more than $1.

Dollar stores employ the age-old strategy of drawing shoppers in with bargains and hoping that they grab some other (non-bargain) goods while they’re at it. A Family Dollar spokesperson told the New York Times columnist mentioned above that low-priced cleaning supplies were “almost like the gateway product” for dollar store shoppers. “It starts with cleaning goods,” he said, “and ends up with a bedspread.”

Or perhaps a tablet, or a bottle of wine—which will also cost more than a buck ($2.99 and up, usually, when available.) Shopping centers have been embracing dollar stores in their slight turn upscale because they’re able to attract slightly better-off clientele. But budget-conscious consumers must be careful: In many cases, dollar stores charger higher prices per unit than what’s to be found at Walmart, Target, or a warehouse club such as Costco. It’s just that dollar stores seem like bargains because the items are low quality or they come in exceptionally small sizes. Just last week, a controversy was stirred up when Dollar General offered a special on diapers in “all counts and sizes” that Walmart and Target failed to match, even though they have price matching policies. Why? Because Walmart and Target offer diapers in far bigger sizes than what’s available at dollar stores.

Speaking of Walmart and Target, they’ve slowly been rolling out a counteroffensive to dollar stores by way of smaller retail locations, often in the densely populated urban hubs where dollar stores are ubiquitous. Supermarkets have entered the battle too, with stores that are half the size of the usual grocery shop. The smaller size means these stores can easily fit in a strip mall or city block, making them a lot more convenient and practical for millions of shoppers.

So now we have a situation in which dollar stores do what Walmart and Target do best by stocking groceries, electronics, and a little bit of everything, and Walmart, Target, and grocery chains do what dollar stores do best by offering small, convenient locations (and more of them) and many bargain-priced goods. The retail lines are blurring. Every player wants to be the convenient, one-stop shopping destination for shoppers, and it has gotten much tougher for a dollar store or any retailer to stand out. When it’s hard to differentiate yourself in the marketplace, and it’s hard to grow, it’s probably time to combine with someone in the same boat to help you compete. That’s what seems to be happening with Dollar Tree’s purchase of Family Dollar.

MONEY Workplace

Meet America’s Most Beloved CEO—Too Bad He Just Got Fired

120723_FF_MarketBasket_1
AP

After the wealthy CEO of a supermarket chain was fired, thousands of workers walked off the job in protest—some getting fired themselves. What's up with that?

Workers understandably tend to go on strike or protest for selfish reasons—more pay, better benefits, improved working conditions. Over the last week in New England, however, thousands of employees at Market Basket, a supermarket chain with 71 stores in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, have been sticking their necks out (and in some cases putting their jobs on the line) in support of Arthur T. Demoulas, who was the company CEO until he was fired in June.

Rallies pushing for “Arthur T.” to be given his job back were held at the Market Basket headquarters in Tewksbury, Mass., on Friday and Monday, drawing upwards of 5,000 protestors. Meanwhile, the shelves of many Market Basket locations have gone barren, as there are too few employees still on the job to stock them. At least eight employees were fired over the weekend related to the protests.

“I have no regrets—I would do it all over again, and I leave the company I love with my head held high in the knowledge that there wasn’t a single thing more that I could have done,” said Tom Trainor, a Market Basket district manager who was one of the leaders of the protest, and who was fired, according to Boston Magazine. “I knew the risk but I also knew that I was fighting for something much bigger than myself. I was fighting for my family, for Arthur T. Demoulas, a man that I have tremendous respect, loyalty, and admiration for.”

In an era overrun with CEO hate and 1% bashing, such comments—and the actions of all those who have put their jobs in jeopardy—are nothing short of astonishing. When CEOs are in the news nowadays, it’s often because of things like their astronomical pay packages, or that they’ve insensitively laid off thousands of employees in a memo.

The backstory of how Arthur T. Demoulas was ousted in June, alongside a pair of other experienced high-level executives for the family-owned company, is a complicated tale. The CEO was fired by a board led, believe it or not, by his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas. Apparently the family has been feuding about control of the business for years, with the battles for power including tactics that seem like they would only be found in fiction—fake identities, secretly taped meetings, and more.

Amid the struggles for control, it’s overwhelmingly clear where employee loyalty lies. Arthur T. was known for treating employees, who were not unionized, particularly well, with good benefits and above-average pay. More important, he was renowned as something exceptionally rare in high-power executive ranks: He’s just a good guy. During the rallies, employees spoke often about Arthur T. always having time for his workers, including frequent attendance at their family weddings and funerals.

“He’s George Bailey,” Trainor explained to the Washington Post, comparing Arthur T. Demoulas to the beloved savings-and-loan manager played by Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. “He cares more about people than he does about money.”

That’s probably not something they teach in business school. Nonetheless, several academics have been monitoring the Market Basket situation, and they’ve noted that many lessons can be learned about how the controversy is playing out. Michael Roberto, a management professor at Rhode Island’s Bryant University, wrote that “every CEO should wish that his or her employees would stand up so forcefully for them even at great personal risk.”

The board that ousted Arthur T. and fired the employees leading protests, on the other hand, seems to have its priorities wrong, and seems tone deaf to how this plays with the public. “The Board has badly miscalculated by firing managers who objected to the CEO’s dismissal. It only added fuel to the fire,” noted Roberto. They also drastically underestimated the importance of maintaining company values and low employee turnover, Roberto wrote.

Market Basket’s current leadership has defended its actions in a few statements released to the media this week. “The individuals who were terminated took significant actions that harmed the company and therefore compromised Market Basket’s ability to be there for our customers,” read a statement from co-CEOs Felicia Thornton and James Gooch. A later statement urged employees to return to work, according to the Boston Herald:

“We strongly encourage all associates to return their focus to Market Basket’s customers, their needs and expectations,” co-CEOs Felicia Thornton and James Gooch said in a statement. “We understand the strain and emotion facing Market Basket associates. … We are committed to earning the trust and acceptance of our associates and Market Basket’s customers and hope that our associates will judge us not on our promises, but on our actions as we move forward.”

Nonetheless, the situation appears to be damaging Market Basket’s relationship with employees and customers alike, who naturally sympathize with their middle-class peers who have walked off the job to support a beloved good-guy CEO. And one who, Boston columnists have noted, has made sure over the years that groceries are fresh, of good quality, and priced low. As of Wednesday, the Save Market Basket Facebook page, in support of Arthur T., had close to 60,000 Likes, more than double the total one week ago.

“The employees and the customers — they see themselves as the organization,” Daniel Korschum, a marketing professor at Drexel University, explained to the Washington Post. And they therefore feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for Market Basket. “The board and the new CEOs are seen as the outsider. It’s the exact opposite of what you usually see.”

Risking one’s job to save that of your boss, rather than going about your business or even pumping your fist when a high-paid CEO gets canned—that’s also the exact opposite of what we expect to see. But under the current circumstances at Market Basket, things make more sense.

“It’s been a very difficult time for the hard-working associates of the company this past few weeks,” Arthur T. Demoulas said on Monday, after remaining mostly quiet regarding the protests, according to the Boston Globe. He called for the company to rehire the employees who were fired, immediately. “I love these people very much.”

Another rally in support of Arthur T. Demoulas is planned for Friday, again at the company headquarters in Tewksbury, Mass.

MONEY My Money Story

LISTEN: I Got Paid to Iron Shirts While a Stranger Watched

My Money Story is a biweekly podcast. We tell one person's story of overcoming an obstacle (big or small) to achieve a dream - or simply pay the rent.

Julie Staadecker was 20-years-old, studying at Boston University and broke. To make some extra cash, she would pick up odd jobs — like catering or moving furniture. One day she stumbled across a job asking for a shirt iron-er, which turned out to be the most bizarre odd job she’s ever had.

Music: “Try This On For Size,” by Brian Wayy and “Hipnotyzed,” by Kojo Linder

MONEY Budgeting

3 Ways to Inflation-Proof Your Life

140710_HO_Inflation_1
Jason Hindley

The official inflation rate is low, but your personal CPI may be high. Keep it grounded with these moves.

Since the Great Recession, inflation has been unusually low, inching along at well below the 3% historical average. And over the past 12 months, the consumer price index has clocked in at a ho-hum 2.1%. But you are not the U.S. economy, and the costs of being you haven’t stagnated.

In some cases, that’s a good thing. If you’re in the market for a new TV or computer, for instance, you’ll pay dramatically less than you would have five years ago (see chart, below). Yet during the same period, prices of many of the biggest and most common expenses families pay, from child care and health care to key grocery items, have shot up. Meanwhile, in real terms, salaries are stuck in molas­ses, so consumers have roughly the same income as they did before Lehman Brothers collapsed.

Use these moves to keep price increases from eroding your paycheck.

Costs of Raising Junior

Strategy: Let Uncle Sam help. Diapers, summer camp, and orthodontia may be budget killers. But the biggest strain on parents comes from two expenses: child care (up from an average $87 a week in 1985, adjusted for inflation, to $148 now) and college (tuition and fees for state schools: up 27% in real terms since 2008).

Tax breaks can help you reduce those costs. Got children under 13? Sign up at work for a dependent-care flexible spending account to use pretax dollars to pay for up to $5,000 of child-care bills, says J.J. Burns, a Melville, N.Y., financial planner. That saves you up to $1,400 in the 28% bracket.

Your company doesn’t offer the FSA, or your costs exceed the limit? Claim the child-care tax credit on your 1040 for up to $3,000 in bills for one kid, $6,000 for two. A married couple filing jointly with adjusted gross income (AGI) over $43,000 can write off 20% of bills up to these amounts.

As for college, saving via your state’s 529 plan may put money back in your pocket, says Savingforcollege.com founder Joseph Hurley; check “What’s the Best 529 Plan for Me?” to see if that’s true for you. Contributions grow tax-free and are fully or partly deductible in 34 states and D.C. (withdrawals are tax-free in every state). Plus, once your child is in school, you may qualify for the American Opportunity Tax Credit on tuition and fees worth as much as $2,500 and a deduction of up to $2,500 on student-loan interest.

Everyday Expenses

Strategy: Find a cheaper substitute. If you grilled hamburgers this Fourth of July, then you already know about skyrocketing meat prices. And that’s not all: The prices of car insurance, butter, milk, and eggs have all risen at double or triple the CPI. For gas, make that sevenfold.

Solution? Substitute a lower-cost item or supplier that can fill the same need. Trade T-bones for chicken breasts—the price of which has tracked inflation the past five years. Reach for a glass of wine (down 2% over the past five years) instead of a bottle of beer (up 9%).Then take the strategy wider. Carpool to work or use public transit to save on gas. And shop around for a cheaper auto insurer.

Health Care Costs

Strategy: Comparison-shop. Workers’ contributions to health care premiums have climbed 26% in real terms since 2008, based on data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Prescription: Compare prices, which vary widely even in-network for doctors, services, and drugs. By logging on to your insurer’s web tool you can save thousands on MRI and CT scans, specialists, and physical therapy.

Also, to avoid big bills later, take advantage of free preventive care like physicals, which most plans must now offer, says Katy Votava, president of Goodcare.com, a health-plan consultancy. You can’t do much better than paying zero.

What's cheaper

MONEY Food & Drink

Your 4 Favorite Things to Eat & Drink Are Getting More Expensive

Stack of steaks
Karen To—Getty Images

It's as if the powers that be are conspiring against the Ron Swansons of the world: Prices for coffee, beef, bacon, and whiskey are all on the rise.

Man’s man Ron Swanson, the wonderfully mustachioed anti-government government worker on “Parks and Recreation,” played by Nick Offerman, is known for his love of meat, whiskey, and breakfast. The fictional Swanson—and anyone who can identify with the character’s taste—will certainly not love what’s happening to the prices of some of his beloved food and drinks.

Coffee
On Tuesday, Starbucks raised prices on some coffee drinks, and bags of Starbucks coffee sold in supermarkets will be more expensive soon too. Medium and large-size coffees saw prices hikes of 10¢ and 15¢, respectively, while a bag of Starbucks beans will be about $1 more in the near future.

Starbucks joins coffee giants such as J.M. Smuckers, maker of brands Folgers and Dunkin’ Donuts bagged coffee, and Kraft Food Groups (Maxwell House), as well as Dunkin’ Donuts stores themselves, which have all recently increased prices or announced plans to do so this summer. The price hikes are being blamed on a drought in Brazil that will reduce the global supply of coffee beans.

Bacon
In addition to coffee, the price of another staple on the American breakfast table is on the rise: beloved bacon. At the beginning of 2014, word started spreading of a pig virus that was decimating the pig population on North American farms—and that would likely cause a surge in bacon prices down the line.

As any bacon lover who pays close attention to supermarket prices can attest, the increase is now in full effect. Industry publication Burger Business noted that the average retail price for a pound of bacon at the supermarket reached $6.05 recently, an 18.8% rise compared with May 2013.

Beef
Beef prices have been on a tear for months, largely as a result of a long drought and soaring demand. Thanks to a shrinking supply of cattle, according to Bloomberg News, ground beef prices are at a record high, after rising 76% since 2009.

Prices for all cuts of steak have been soaring as well, which has translated not only to higher grocery bills for shoppers, but pricier menus at steakhouses and fast food establishments. Chipotle, McDonald’s, and In-N-Out Burger have all hiked menu prices recently as a response to broader trends in the cattle industry.

Whiskey
After the reality of all of those price hikes sets in, you’re going to need a drink. Appropriately, it too will cost more in the near future if your drink of choice is whiskey.

A bourbon shortage and the merger of two global giants in whiskey are among the reasons that prices of the popular spirit are expected to head skyward, and soon.

MONEY Shopping

5 Ways to Trim Your Meat Budget During Barbecue Season

140527_EM_Grilling_1
Flamed grilled steaks on a barbecue Carlos Davila—Alamy

Smart, simple ways to keep the soaring price of beef from ruining your grilling season.

Just in time for prime barbecuing season, there’s been an across-the-board rise in meat prices. Many reasons have been cited for higher prices at the supermarket—lingering drought conditions tend to be blamed the most—but farm groups point to another culprit: you.

Strong consumer demand, especially for high-quality meats, is the primary reason, according to Bob Young, chief economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation. “Consumers are feeling better about themselves and their income situation and willing to pay up for good meat,” Young told The Atlantic recently. “I think that given the stronger demand, folks are going to find not quite the cut they want for the price they want. They might have to downmarket a bit.”

Here are five smart ways to cope without giving up your barbecue fix.

Buy in bulk. Maybe from the back of a truck. No matter if you’re at Costco, Walmart, or your local grocer, you’ll almost always pay a lower per-pound price for steaks, ground beef, and more by purchasing meats in larger packages—over 3 pounds, typically. Foodies and frugality gurus alike often recommend the strategy of buying a side of beef or an entire pig straight from a trusted farmer, though this isn’t always practical for folks who don’t have the freezer space or the desire to sharpen up their butcher’s skills.

One of the more odd and intriguing means of buying in bulk comes from a Washington-based company called Zaycon Foods, whose curious sales procedure—and terrific prices, under $2 a pound for chicken breasts—started attracting national attention more than a year ago. You won’t find the Zaycon brand at any store; instead, the company uses a no-middleman approach to business, in which customers place orders online and pick them up at a prearranged time from the back of a truck that’s waiting in, say, a church parking lot. The meat is never frozen; it’s taken from the farm and loaded onto the refrigerated trucks that wind up at pickup locations. “The products are as fresh as if you had your own farm, but without all the chores,” the Zaycon site explains. This is truly a buy-in-bulk operation, with huge packages you won’t see at the supermarket, or even Costco. An individual order of ground beef or chicken breasts is 40 pounds worth of meat.

The Seattle Times described the typical pickup scene: “The driver arrives at the designated parking lot, spreads out yellow parking cones to create a path for the customers’ cars, and hands off the boxes while checking names on an iPad.” Yet despite the quirkiness (or maybe partly because of it), Zaycon’s business has been thriving. At last check, Zaycon had roughly 1,300 drop-off locations in 48 states. Some 325,000 customers have signed up with the company around the country, up from just 84,000 registered users at the end of 2011.

Freeze now, eat later. It goes without saying that if you’re going to make use of Zaycon, or Costco’s meat section for that matter, owning a large freezer is in a must. Of course, smart grocery shoppers also stock up on meats for grilling when their favorite supermarket has a good sale, or there’s a great coupon circulating, rather than right before the July 4 weekend, when you’ll have to pay top dollar. Yet again, a good—and good-sized—freezer is in order, as is some basic knowledge about defrosting meat safely, without losing flavor.

Master of the art of leftovers. Today’s grilled steak is tomorrow’s shabu-shabu. Sure, you could simply heat up the leftovers and eat, but where’s the fun in that? If done correctly, leftovers won’t taste like leftovers, and they can be stretched out and incorporated into several days’ worth of eating. To spice things up, consult SuperCook and enter the foods and ingredients you have handy to see what new dish you can make. For leftover grilled meats, Real Simple recommends sprinkling barbecue sauce, a marinade, or just water over what you have, then wrapping it in foil and warming over indirect heat for a few minutes. Plain old reheating can dry out the meat.

Don’t be snobby about cheap cuts. Ground beef that’s 90% lean will be more expensive than ground chuck that’s 70% or 80% lean. And guess what? The fattier stuff offers far superior taste in a burger. Whereas burgers made with lean ground beef tend to be dense and dry, a 70% lean burger will be juicy and tasty. As a bonus, a lot of the fat drips off in the grilling process. As for grilling steaks, consider less expensive cuts like the skirt and hanger steak over the pricier strip or ribeye. When seasoned and cooked wisely, the cheap cuts won’t taste cheap.

Embrace meatless Monday. It’s an easy way to save a little cash and get a little healthier: At least once a week—it doesn’t have to be a Monday—go meatless. You can still fire up the grill. The Meatless Monday movement offers plenty of suggestions for meals planned around grilled vegetables. Quinoa and white bean burgers anyone?

MONEY groceries

Your Grocery Store May Soon Be Cut in Half

140529_EM_GroceryStore_1
Bottled juice on supermarket shelves Spaces Images—Getty Images/Blend Images RM

Many grocers known for the gigantic mega-supercenter shopping experience are trying out store models shrunk down to the size of the old neighborhood market.

For decades, the average American supermarket’s size evolved similarly to the average American’s weight: It grew and grew. Lately, though, many grocers known for gigantic mega-supercenters are trying out store models shrunk down to the size of the old neighborhood market.

A few years back, the average size of a grocery store was measured at over 45,000 square feet, up from 35,000 square feet in the mid-’90s. The supersizing of supermarkets may have come to an end, however. The shrinking of grocery stores has been a noticeable trend in recent years. Chains such as Aldi and Trader Joe’s, which both operate stores typically under 20,000 square feet—and which both happen to be owned by the same German company—have been extremely successful, opening new locations left and right. Walmart, the ultimate big-box megachain, has stepped up efforts to expand its small store formats, especially in urban neighborhoods, to compete not only with local grocers but dollar stores as well.

Plenty of other big names in groceries are also now jumping on the small-store trend. The Orlando Business Journal reported that Publix, which runs supermarkets as big as 60,000 square feet, mostly in the South, is working on a store prototype in the neighborhood of 20,000 square feet. RetailWire noted that several other large—and typically large-sized—supermarket brands, including Kroger and Hy-Vee, are also launching or expanding mini-grocery stores.

Last fall, Kroger opened three 7,500-foot-square-sized stores operating under the name Turkey Hill Market in the Columbus, Ohio, area. The markets are a fraction of the size of the typical Kroger (67,000 square feet), and it’s being presented as a cross between a convenience store and a supermarket. Hy-Vee opened a 14,000-square-footer under the “Hy-Vee Mainstreet” concept in Iowa in mid-April.

Obviously, with dramatically smaller stores, some compromises must be made. “In one of [the larger] stores, we may have 40 kinds of hamburger helper, [in the smaller stores] we have ten,” explained Tim Stupka, assistant vice president of operations for Hy-Vee’s northern district. “Or, instead of having four different types and styles of bananas, we have two. We have pretty much everything those stores have, but we don’t have as many varieties.”

Such tweaks could hurt customer perceptions of their favorite grocer brands. One of the reasons that Publix, for instance, scores highly among consumer ratings is that it’s known for outstanding selection.

But for a variety of reasons, big grocery companies think it’s worth a shot to shift small. For one thing, whereas megastores typically require an undeveloped suburban location, smaller stores can fit almost anywhere, including densely populated cities, college towns, and even college campuses. Millennials, in particular, are more interested in living in such locations—and are more interested in quick-stop shopping, as opposed to the overwhelming, impersonal, time-consuming experience of roaming aisle after aisle of a ginormous megamart.

Supermarket companies also like the idea of creating stores where the typical customer pops in several times a week, as opposed to the big-haul, once-a-week shopping visit. Hy-Vee has been opening bars and restaurants inside grocery stores with the idea that customers will visit more often, and linger longer.

All that said, there’s certainly no guarantee that a smaller store size will be a hit with consumers. The Fresh & Easy grocery chain was based on a neighborhood-quick-stop store size and it wound up as an epic flop.

TIME Web

Where to Get the Best Online Grocery Deals

I go out of my way to save a couple dollars when grocery shopping. I check weekly ads and download digital coupons onto my local supermarket’s app. I even use Ibotta to try and get a little bit of cash back after the sale. If you have the time, you can get some amazing deals.

Thankfully, there’s a way to get a great deal even if you don’t have the time: online grocery delivery services. Buying your groceries online can save you a trip to the store and, of course, save you money. Wondering which gives your family the best bang for your buck? Techlicious took a look at the four national grocery delivery services that offer the best prices and selection to find out.

Sam’s Club

Sam's Club
Sam’s Club

When I say “Sam’s Club,” the chain’s massive members-only stores likely come to mind. But like its competitor Costco, plenty of Sam’s Club’s wares are available online, too. Quantities are large and the savings are big, but what else would you expect? It’s a warehouse store.

The biggest downside to shopping at Sam’s Club is the $45 yearly membership fee you’ll need to fork over before you can start shopping. You’ll also need to pay shipping charges on many of your purchases, so be sure to factor that into your budget.

Sam’s Club and other warehouse stores are not the most elegant solution for getting your grocery shopping done online, but they are a solid option if you already hold a membership.

Amazon.com

Amazon

There are two solid options for doing your household grocery shopping at Amazon: the company’s long-running “Subscribe & Save” program and the new Amazon Prime Pantry grocery delivery service. Both offer terrific prices and low (or free) shipping costs.

Amazon Prime Pantry, launched just last month, allows you to ship up to 45 pounds of groceries (or up to four cubic feet) for a flat $5.99 shipping fee. You’ll find a wider selection of your favorite brands than you would at a place like Sam’s Club, and in more reasonable quantities, too. You’ll need a $99 yearly Amazon Prime membership to take advantage of the service, however.

The company’s Subscribe & Save option, meanwhile, allows you to set a regular delivery schedule for grocery items your family uses the most, like your favorite laundry detergent, diapers or snacks. Subscribing to an item typically entitles you to a 5% discount on it, with free shipping offered as well. And if you receive five or more subscription items on the same delivery day, Amazon bumps the savings up to a healthy 15%. You can subscribe in intervals of one to six months.

The only trick: Sometimes you can save more money by using Amazon Prime Pantry, and sometimes you can save more money with Subscribe & Save. It’s usually worth checking out both sides of Amazon to make sure you get the best deal.

MySupermarket.com

MySupermarket

MySupermarket.com is an incredibly powerful online grocery shopping price comparison site. It aggregates deals from Costco, Drugstore.com, Amazon, Soap.com, Walgreens, Diapers.com, Walmart and Target to tell you which stores offer the best prices on just the items you want to buy.

MySupermarket works like most other e-commerce sites – you simply fill your cart with items from your grocery list. When you’re done, the site will compare prices across its eight member stores to determine the least expensive way to structure the order, including taking into account the free two-day shipping you get if you subscribe to Amazon Prime. The site will even advise if you can save money by swapping out a different size or a different product, and offers free shipping on orders of $75 or more.

You pay MySupermarket.com directly, so there’s no need to complete separate checkout procedures for the different sites. It’s a surprisingly elegant solution for comparison shoppers, but be warned – in our research, it didn’t always find the absolute best price. And to take advantage of the Costco offers and Amazon Prime free shipping, you’ll need to enter your Costco and Amazon Prime membership information or subscribe.

The head-to-head comparison

To put these online grocery shopping sites to the test, we put together a brief shopping list of some common household items that a typical family might buy. We then compared unit prices across the above sites to see who is offering the best deals.

Online Grocery Services Compared — Prices as of May 14, 2014
Sam’s Club Amazon Pantry Amazon Subscribe & Save (5%) MySuperMarket.com
Charmin Ultra Soft
(price per roll)
$0.52 (36 rolls) $0.58 (12 rolls) $0.71 (40 rolls) $0.50 (36 rolls)
Dove Body Wash
(price per 24 ounce bottle)
$4.32 (pack of 3) $5.47 (single bottle) $4.97 (pack of 4) $5.49 (single bottle)
Nature Valley Sweet &
Salty granola bars
(price per bar)
$0.26 (box of 30) $0.49 (box of 6) $0.47 (6 boxes of 6) $0.83 (box of 16)

 

As you can see, there’s no one clear winner when shopping by price alone. MySupermarket.com comes out on top when shopping for Charmin toilet paper (but just barely), while Sam’s Club has the best price for Dove body wash and Nature Valley granola bars. Remember, though, you’ll pay more for shipping with Sam’s Club than the other options. And while Amazon Prime Pantry doesn’t offer the cheapest price for any of the items we checked, it does offer items in smaller quantities. That may be a better deal for smaller families who don’t need to buy 40 rolls of toilet paper at once.

Overall, my pick for favorite site goes to MySupermarket.com. There are no hefty membership fees, no subscriptions to manage, and shipping is free. You may pay more on certain individual items, but when you look at the grand total of a large order, you’re likely to save the most.

This article was written by Fox Van Allen and originally appeared on Techlicious.

More from Techlicious:

TIME Smart Spending

Your Grilling Season Budget Just Went Up in Smoke

106285825
Mike Lang—Getty Images/Flickr RF

It’s finally the time of year to break out the barbecue and cook outdoors. Now if only you could afford some steaks to toss on the grill.

This shouldn’t be coming as a surprise. Beef prices have been rising sharply since the beginning of the year, and the increases have come as a result of factors in play long before then. Thanks to long periods of drought, shrinking cattle herds, soaring feed prices, and high demand among consumers, analysts have been saying that beef prices will remain high for years to come.

So this week’s Associated Press headline indicating that beef prices in the U.S. have hit their highest levels in nearly three decades shouldn’t catch anyone off guard. Just how high are prices? USDA choice-grade beef reached $5.28 a pound in February, up from $4.19 a year prior and $3.97 in 2008, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Retail beef prices usually decrease after the winter holidays, hand in hand with a fall-off in demand after the period of New Year’s parties and Christmas gatherings is over. But that never really happened in early 2014. A Department of Agriculture reported released earlier this year indicated that average beef prices were up to $5.04 per pound, a record high that was quickly surpassed when the next Department of Agriculture study was published.

What’s a hungry home griller to do? Well, there’s always Meatless Monday. Long before the dramatic rise in beef prices, the concept of scaling back on meat consumption has been pushed as a way to improve one’s health and finances. Data cited by Bloomberg News indicates that Americans are eating less red meat than they have in the recent past. The USDA forecasts that Americans will eat an average of 101.7 pounds of red meat this year, compared to 104.4 pounds in 2013.

Even so, due to the exceptionally small number of cattle in the U.S., as well as growing demand for beef overseas, the supply-demand ratio has pushed prices higher—and likely, higher still down the road. Understandably enough, beef prices generally rise during “grilling season,” which peaks from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Penny-pinching experts always roll out essentially the same handful of tips for coping with higher meat prices. You can make do with cheaper cuts, for instance, or eat more pork, poultry, or yes, even vegetables. Buying in bulk—at a warehouse club like Costco, or perhaps via a service like Zaycon Foods, which sells meat wholesale in church parking lots and other prearranged locations—is a classic bit of advice.

In fact, not that this will do us much good now, but back in January, observers who were taking note of the trajectory of wholesale prices were advising people to stock up on beef and freeze what meat couldn’t be used in the short-term. Prices were high then, but forecasts indicated that they’d be higher later on. And now we know, the forecasts were correct.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser