Local store pride. Did I mention I got this bag for FREE?

Local store pride. Did I mention I got this bag for FREE?

So far, I’ve gotten a rather enthusiastic response to the first two installments of this series.  In Part One, I told you all about how behaving like an insider will help you learn about and respond to Whole Foods’ sales and price breaks quickly, so you can get the best value for your money.  In Part Two, we covered a little bit about how shopping wisely in high-ticket areas like the butcher shop at Whole Foods stores can help you buy quality products without ruining your grocery budget for the week.  In both cases, readers have commented, shared, and started conversations on Facebook and Twitter about their favorite tips, and how they like to keep the costs down when shopping at their own stores.

But as with anything, there have been skeptics, and some people have asked me whether or not it’s REALLY possible to do all your shopping at Whole Foods without having to spend more money than you might at a national chain.  My answer is that yes, it’s certainly possible; but also, that an item-by-item analysis might show that there are some things you might not want to buy at Whole Foods if you can help it, while many, many other items are probably surprisingly more affordable than you might think.  What many shoppers who are intimidated by the “Whole Paychecks” line of thinking may not be taking into account is the issue of supply and demand.  In regular old national chain grocery stores, often products that are labeled as “organic,” “natural,” “hormone-free,” etc. are marked up more than is necessary — simply because shoppers at those stores are not overwhelmingly demanding those products on the whole, and those who do want them will either seek them elsewhere, or gladly pay the premium for them.  But at Whole Foods, the entire store is devoted to those products.  Simple competition dictates that if you want your product to sell well in a Whole Foods store, you’ll want to make sure that it’s priced competitively.  And because the shoppers are savvy and want to build a lifestyle around the kinds of products and brands Whole Foods offers, naturally, the stores are smart to make it affordable to do so.  If, that is, you know how to shop wisely.  Which is where I come in.

TONIGHT’S TIPS: When in Whole Foods…

1. Love the store brands.
People get so used to thinking of Whole Foods as “Whole Paychecks” that they scoff when I tell them the store brand there is just as affordable, if not MORE affordable, than the store-brand “natural” and “organic” items at large conventional grocery chains.  But in fact, the 365 product line is really cost-effective.  I particularly like the pricing on things like jarred spices, pantry staples like flours, and dairy.  365 organic milk is more than a dollar less per gallon than the next-cheapest organic milk brand, and a 10 oz. log of 365 goat cheese (a staple in our house!) costs only a dollar more than the 4 oz. log from the next competitor.  I can’t find most of those prices at big name chain grocery stores – not on organic products, at least, and often not even on name-brand conventional products.

2. Appreciate the frozen foods aisle.
Yes, fresh produce is wonderful.  But out-of-season fresh produce (and let’s face it – in New England, six months out of the year, almost EVERYTHING is out of season) is expensive and not even that good, generally.  Fruit, in particular, is astronomical – and don’t even get me started on the Dirty Dozen!   The best bet I’ve found for consistently high-quality, low-cost organic fruit, and some vegetables, is to buy the 365 frozen items.  We always have bags of organic berries, mango, and peaches in our freezer.  They’re great for lunchboxes and smoothies, and can even be used in some baking.  When I can’t use local and seasonal produce, I don’t mind saving a few bucks on frozen goods.

3. Know what NOT to buy.
Not everything’s a deal – obviously, prepared foods and gourmet items are pretty pricey, but there are also other things at Whole Foods that I can get more cheaply elsewhere.  Cooking oils are a good example; I can get olive oil and coconut oil at Trader Joe’s for a few dollars less than at Whole Foods, and since I can stock up on those items, it makes good sense to take a bit of a Trader Joe’s pilgrimage once a month or every six weeks to replenish my supply.  There are also some nuts and nut butters that are worth the savings at TJ’s.  However, it’s worth noting that none of this represents an astronomical savings; if you haven’t got a Trader Joe’s or another source of good quality, low-priced staples, then you’ll do just fine at Whole Foods, as long as you choose the lower-budget brands.

4. Don’t stare directly into the light.
Otherwise known as “don’t drink the Kool-Aid” or “don’t try all the samples,” this one is really about sticking with your list.  Whole Foods stores are gorgeous – the first time I ever entered one, at the age of 23, I was star-struck and couldn’t help feeling that I needed to learn to cook ALL THE PRODUCE.  Immediately.  And try all the gourmet cookies.  And all the brands of cereal.  And….
Don’t do it!  This is how people end up spending oodles of money at Whole Foods (or anywhere else, for that matter).  If you’re not a regular WF shopper, it’s especially important that you make a detailed list and stick to it.  If this is really hard for you, set a budget for your list, put that money in an envelope, and stick it in your purse or pocket.  When it’s gone, it’s gone.
If you’re more the type of person who’ll long to try something and be sad if you leave without straying even a little bit, then pre-determine an “impulse item” budget of maybe $5 or $10 and use it to buy that ONE thing you just have to try.  But that’s it.  And if you are a regular WF shopper, breathe.  Know that the items will be there next week.  Set yourself a goal – if you can come in under your grocery budget two weeks in a row, you can buy that $15/lb cheddar you’ve been dying to try.
By the way, if you ARE eyeing that $15/lb cheddar, here’s a bonus tip: You can ask the staff to cut you a piece of any one of their specialty cheeses – any size.  What I typically do if I’m going to buy a reasonably pricey cheese (like a good Parmigiano-Reggiano) is tell them exactly how much money I want to pay for my cheese, and they will cut me a chunk that corresponds to my budget.  Everybody’s happy that way.  They’re also generous with samples – not just in the cheese department, but in most areas of the store – so if you’re hesitant about a splurge, you can always ask to try before you buy.

Phew.  We’ve covered a lot of ground so far, and I still have a few more tips to go!  I’m taking off for the weekend, but check back early next week to see what I have to say about changing your own habits and mentality to make a Whole Foods shopping lifestyle — or even just a “whole foods” lifestyle — more attainable on a budget.