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Comparing the Shopping Experience

Coupons, Sales, Loyalty Cards, and Rewards.

Stores try to make grocery shopping more enticing through coupons, weekly specials, savings cards, and, at some chains, discounts on fuel for the car. Kroger excels at all of the above.
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The Kroger Plus Card is a must-have even if you're an occasional visitor -- that's how we accrued savings of $6.95 on our virtual shopping cart. This loyalty card offers customers scores of discounts every week, and an associated mobile app lets you download coupons onto the card, which together makes for a pretty sophisticated setup compared with other cheap grocery chains.

Loyal Kroger shoppers can also earn Fuel Rewards. For every $1 spent on grocery shopping, customers get one fuel point; 100 fuel points are worth 10 cents off each gallon of gas at Kroger fuel stations and select Shell stations; 200 fuel points earn you 20 cents off each gallon of gas; 1,000 fuel points are good for a $1-per-gallon discount on one fuel purchase up to 35 gallons. In addition to savings with the Kroger Plus Card and Fuel Rewards, shoppers can redeem manufacturers' coupons.

Extra savings opportunities are far less generous at Walmart -- there is no preferred shopping card, for example -- but the discount chain runs occasional sales and honors manufacturers' coupons. Walmart also supports a straightforward price-matching policy. If you see an identical item in a competitor's ad for less than the Walmart price, the retailer will match that price at the register (of course, certain conditions and exclusions apply).

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Aldi offers weekly "special buys" on select products. The week we shopped, for example, the store brand orange juice was not yet on sale, but an online search revealed that it was slated for a 20-cent price cut the following week. Unlike the two other grocery stores we checked for cheap prices, Aldi does not accept coupons but its low-price business model is clearly evident in its no-frills approach. For example, to get a cart shoppers must insert a quarter, which is refunded when returned. Shoppers bag their own groceries with their own bags or buy them at checkout. Other cost-efficient oddities include accepting only cash or debit cards and maintaining comparatively limited store hours.

Product Selection.

Selection matters to some frugal shoppers, and for others a limited assortment is good enough. Loyal Aldi shoppers concede that the cheapest grocery store is a bit lacking in variety but insist that management pays attention to what people want. "There's no doubt that you cannot get everything at Aldi that you can at another grocery store," Hills said. "Not even close. But I have noticed that when something becomes popular, they carry it, and then carry more and more of it." Good examples include Greek yogurt and K-cups. Still, Aldi has no deli and a very narrow array of meats and seafood; other products often are available in only one brand and one size. These factors deter Christine Wickline, a mother of three, from shopping at Aldi. "I don't feel like Aldi is worth a trip because they don't have enough of the things we buy," she said. "And I need one-stop shopping."

Walmart stocks an exponentially wider inventory -- some Walmart Supercenters carry what seems like everything under the sun -- but the grocery department still lags Kroger. Where Kroger offers full deli, meat, and seafood counters, the Walmart locations we have visited offer only a deli. There is no freshly cut meat, although plenty of prepackaged options, but the selection of prepackaged seafood is smaller.

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Walmart and Kroger run neck-and-neck on dairy and non-perishable items, and both offer considerably more in the way of produce and organic produce than Aldi does. In fact, the most recent industry survey by the Organic Trade Association found that Walmart was the largest organic retailer in North America in 2011 and Kroger ranked third. Based on our grocery shopping expeditions, we concluded that our local Kroger and Walmart stores offered roughly the same amount of organic fruits and vegetables, although it was hard to know for sure. Walmart intersperses organic items with the regular produce whereas Kroger maintains several designated sections.

Customer Service.

Kroger holds the edge here with employees who went out of their way to accommodate this reporter's two young children, who had come along for the ride. One worker who was stocking the dairy department stopped and talked to the boys, then opened a box of Go-Gurt and handed each a snack (plus a stack of napkins). But Kroger critics exist. Reviews posted at Consumer Affairs, for example, critique the grocer for poor-quality meats, checkout prices that don't match shelf prices, and other assorted irritants.

While we didn't have the same interaction with employees at Aldi, the shopper we interviewed offered kind words on their behalf. He said they work very hard; by comparison, he added, employees at other grocery stores seem to move in slow motion.

Our prior reports on Walmart, which compared prices, quality, and shopping experience for non-grocery items, found that many consumers perceive Walmart as dirty, loud, crowded, and weak on customer service. We encountered similar views this time. Wagner, a Kroger partisan, groused about "checkout lines that are always way long" because so few registers are open. Grocery store reviews at Consumer Affairs batter Walmart more forcefully than Kroger, with complaints about poor-quality products, bad customer service, rude employees, and so on. Reviews at Pissed Consumer grumble about customer service at all three cheap grocery stores, although Walmart fares the worst.

Overall, our grocery shopping experience was good in all three stores.

by Raechel Conover (Google+ Profile)

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