Martha’s Vineyard grocery prices a mixed bag

Stop and Shop shelves beckon shoppers. — Photo by Michael Cummo

When it comes to grocery shopping, many Vineyarders prefer to shop at one particular store. Others, however, make the rounds to purchase certain brands and specialty foods or to take advantage of sale items. But no matter what aisles they shop, they find Island food prices to be a common topic of discussion.

Anecdotes abound about price differences among local grocery stores, and between local and mainland stores. To put some starch into those stories, The Times recently examined prices in grocery stores on Island and off. Visits were made on November 13 to the Stop & Shop and Shaw’s grocery stores in Falmouth. On-Island visits to Cronig’s Market in Vineyard Haven, Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs, and Stop & Shop’s Edgartown and Vineyard Haven stores followed on November 14.

The Times put together a shopping list of 20 food items a family might commonly purchase, culled from one used by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to determine monthly average food prices. The same brands and quantities were included to ensure “apples to apples” comparisons.

The chart reflects regular prices and does not take sale prices or the Our Island Club card into account. For example, although Stop & Shop’s regular prices for butter, flour, and sugar came in at the highest, those items were on sale for about half-price on November 14 with coupons or use of the store’s free shopper’s discount card. Cronig’s offers a 15 percent discount off groceries to members of Our Island Club, who pay an annual fee of $59 to $99, depending on the type of membership.

How prices check out

As the accompanying chart shows, the results were a mixed bag Island-wide. Prices were highest in the two Stop & Shop stores on 10 items and in Cronig’s on 8. Stop & Shop prices came in lower than Cronig’s on 6 items, and Cronig’s prices came in lower than Stop & Shop’s on 8 items. Reliable Market’s prices were lower than Stop & Shop’s on 14 items and lower than Cronig’s on 13.

Arnold’s bread and Cape Cod potato chips cost the same on-Island and off, as prices are set by the manufacturers and stamped on the packages.

Although most of the prices were the same in the Edgartown and Vineyard Haven Stop & Shop stores, there were a few discrepancies. For example, a pound of Land O’Lakes Butter was 21 cents higher and a dozen large brown eggs 50 cents lower in Vineyard Haven.

The Falmouth grocery stores won out with the lowest prices, compared to the four Island stores. Shaw’s had the lowest prices overall on 10 items and Stop & Shop on 7. The Falmouth Stop & Shop beat the Island Stop & Shop stores’ prices on 13 items.

Last week The Times emailed Annmarie Seldon, public relations manager for Stop & Shop’s New England Division, to ask what accounts for the pricing differences between the local Stop & Shops, and between the Island and Falmouth stores.

“To answer your question in general, the cost to do business on an island, prices are higher,” Ms. Seldon replied by email.

The “Island factor” includes transportation on the Steamship Authority (SSA), which costs approximately $500 per round trip for a tractor trailer truck to deliver groceries to the Island, according to an SSA spokesman. An average load for a tractor trailer would be about 22 tons, according to Greg Carroll, manager of Carroll’s trucking.

As for price variations between the two Island Stop & Shops, Ms. Seldon said, “Our specific pricing policies are proprietary information.”

Cost and convenience

While checking prices at Island grocery stores, The Times asked numerous shoppers the same question: Are you a regular shopper here, and if so, why? Many people said they preferred to keep their opinions to themselves and their names out of the paper to avoid getting an earful from others in the small Island community. Among those who did offer comments, convenience and prices were the key factors they said influence where they shop.

In the Vineyard Haven Stop & Shop, it took more than a half hour to find two shoppers willing to be quoted, out of 10 approached. Matthew Fielder of West Tisbury said although he lives closer to the two Cronig’s stores, he shops at Stop & Shop most of the time because he thinks the prices are lower overall.

Mr. Fielder said he understands that Island stores have to mark up prices because of transportation costs, but he thinks Cronig’s prices exceed that.

“The down and up-Island Cronig’s are pretty great, and I love their meat department, but I’d like to be able to get a pound and a half of Cabot cheese without having to take out a mortgage,” he said.

Mr. Fielder said although the discount Cronig’s offers to Our Island Club cardholders softens the blow somewhat, it isn’t enough.

“It’s definitely nice, but a two-liter bottle of soda, for example, is an extra dollar,” he said. “Even with the savings of 15 percent off, if you get a few bottles of soda a month, it adds up to the cost of a tank of gas after a while.”

Liz Luce of West Tisbury said she was shopping at the Vineyard Haven Stop & Shop because it happened to be on her way home.

“I prefer Cronig’s, but we can’t always afford it,” she said. “This store is convenient, and I do shop at Cronig’s, too. If I do a big shop, I try to go to the Edgartown Stop and Shop and pay attention to the flyers. Honestly, every chance I can, I head off to Market Basket or Trader Joe’s or places like that.”

For Jan Van Riper of Vineyard Haven, the down-Island Cronig’s has been her go-to store for more than 30 years.

“I shop at Cronig’s because I moved to the Island a stranger, and my mother-in-law had recommended it highly,” Ms. Van Riper said. “I started going there and I liked it, and I’ve been going there ever since. The ease of me getting there and parking is also a factor, because I can avoid traffic in downtown Vineyard Haven, especially in the summer.”

Evelyn Vertefeuille of Oak Bluffs said she almost always shops at Reliable Market, but does pick up sale items occasionally at Stop & Shop.

“I come to Reliable because I think the prices are great overall, it’s convenient to where my house is, and this is my number one grocery store,” Ms. Vertefeuille said. “The people are great; I love that it’s family-owned. In summer, it’s a little tough to park, but people wait in the lot, and when someone pulls out, someone else pulls in.”

Ben Biron of Edgartown said he especially likes shopping locally, at a non-chain store. “It’s family-owned and their prices are reasonable; those are probably my two biggest reasons for shopping here,” he said.

Stacey Smith, accompanied by her three-year-old daughter Annie at the Edgartown Stop & Shop, said she shops there because it is close to home and has a better selection than the Vineyard Haven store.

“The deals are awesome, and I love watching and seeing how much I save every time I come here,” she said. “I’ll think, wow, I saved about $40. You can make a game out of it.”

For Matthew Vanderhoop of Aquinnah, the decision on where to shop takes some careful consideration, since it involves a 40-mile round trip from his home.

“I take advantage of Stop & Shop’s shopping card discount and sale items, which makes it worth it to shop here,” he said of the Edgartown store.

Putting prices in perspective

Despite the higher food prices that Islanders pay, they and other Americans still spend less on groceries than consumers in any other country in the world, due in large part to U.S. agricultural productivity.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 6.7 percent of Americans’ household expenditures, or $2,394 per person, were for food in 2013. By comparison, the percentage of consumer expenditures on food was 9.3 percent in the United Kingdom, 9.5 percent in Canada, 15.7 percent in Brazil, 27.4 percent in Serbia, 37.3 in Belarus, and the highest in Nigeria, at 56.7 percent.

Grocery Price Comparison List
Vineyard HavenOak BluffsFalmouth
Apples, red delicious/lb. 1.891.690.99
Bacon (1 lb. Oscar Meyer)7.496.896.99
Bread, Arnold's 100% whole wheat4.494.494.49
Broccoli, crownsl/b.1.991.891.49
Butter (1 lb. Land of Lakes)5.495.694.99
Cheese, Kraft American 16 singles5.594.493.49
Chicken brsts boneless Perdue/lb.N/AN/A5.99
Coffee, Folger's classic roast 11.3 oz.5.594.595.49
Eggs, brown, dozen large3.393.292.19
Flour, Gold Medal 5 lb.2.892.792.29
Ground beef, 85% lean/lb.6.794.49 (87%)5.49
Ice Cream, Hood's 1.5 qt.4.394.294.49
Iceberg Lettuce (head)2.192.691.49
Lemons (price each)0.790.890.75
Milk, gallon 2%6.49 (Hood)4.49(Shurfine)4.19 (Hood)
Peanut Butter, Skippy 16.3 oz.2.992.992.99
Pork Chops, bone-in/lb.5.893.694.49
Potato Chips, Cape Cod __ oz. 3.793.793.79
Sugar, Domino's 4 lb.
Grocery Price Comparison List Continued
Stop & ShopStop & ShopStop & Shop
EdgartownVineyard HavenFalmouth
Apples, red delicious/lb.
Bacon (1 lb. Oscar Meyer)8.998.998.99
Bread, Arnold's 100% whole wheat4.494.494.49
Broccoli, crownsl/b.1.991.991.69
Butter (1 lb. Land of Lakes)5.585.794.99
Cheese, Kraft American 16 singles4.794.793.69
Chicken brsts boneless Perdue/lb.5.995.995.99
Coffee, Folger's classic roast 11.3 oz.5.795.793.49
Eggs, brown, dozen large3.893.392.69
Flour, Gold Medal 5 lb.
Ground beef, 85% lean/lb.5.49N/A0.99
Ice Cream, Hood's 1.5 qt.4.994.993.49
Iceberg Lettuce (head)2.992.991.49
Lemons (price each)0.990.990.99
Milk, gallon 2%5.39 (Garelick)5.39 (Garelick)4.29 (Hood)
Peanut Butter, Skippy 16.3 oz.3.693.693.39
Pork Chops, bone-in/lb.4.994.993.49
Potato Chips, Cape Cod __ oz. 3.793.793.79
Sugar, Domino's 4 lb.