Wednesday, January 04, 2006
Discount grocery alternatives
for the time-starved.
If you need groceries and are in a local discount store, your options have been getting better lately. Following the early lead of Kmart, stores including Wal-Mart, Target and Dollar General have given their food departments radical makeovers and now feature far more than the chips and sodas you remember.
Stopping just short of fresh produce and meats, these discounters have mini-supermarkets within their walls, offering time-starved shoppers an alternative to long supermarket lines and lightly-stocked convenience stores.
Your Retail Therapist has done an unscientific survey of the offerings at these "mini-supers." Here's what I found:
The scene: A pioneer in the category, Kmart's local stores have had convenience grocery sections for years.
The skinny: Unfortunately, time has not been kind to the "Pantry," as that section is called. A recent survey of the selections available at local stores showed many inconsistencies. While most locations were freshly stocked and clean, some were disheveled and highly unappealing.
Additionally, while all the stores stocked basics like milk, bread and coffee, some had extras like frozen foods and fairly extensive canned goods sections while others didn't. A lack of recognizable name brands is also an issue, as much of what's available is either store brand or off-brand merchandise.
Pricing could be better as well, as most of what was available could be found for cheaper at grocery, drug and discount stores.
The verdict: Neutral. Kmart's pantry is great for the occasional item you forgot at the supermarket, but not spectacular.
The scene: Convenient and well-priced, Dollar General has rolled out grocery coolers to virtually all of its local stores, as well as pumped up its grocery selection.
The skinny: First things first -- you won't recognize most of the grocery brands. Dollar General partners with some vendors to provide special sizes and versions of popular products, but the majority of what they offer is store brands, which range in quality from decent to truly awful, depending on what product you pick.
That said, the selection is more consistent than Kmart and tends to be better priced, if a bit limited. The basic items you'd expect are organized well, and unique items like pork fatback and an expanded selection of baking items are available. Checkout tends to be a breeze.
The verdict: Positive. Dollar General is a good alternative to convenience stores and supermarkets.
The scene: Target's grocery department is quirky, kitchen-clean and attractively arranged, just like the rest of the store.
The skinny: Target carries a full slate of national and store brands on a wide variety of grocery items. Prices are higher than Wal-Mart's but similar to local supermarkets.
What screws up Target's offerings is their penchant for uniqueness at the expense of complete selection. While hard-to-find items like organic veggie chips and imported sodas and chocolates are well-represented, the selection of basic grocery items can be frustratingly small. The grocery department's placement at the rear of the store makes it somewhat inconvenient as well.
The verdict: Positive, with reservations. If you're already shopping at Target, it's convenient, but unless you want something unique, it's not worth the trouble.
The scene: The Supercenter king is expanding its grocery selection at its remaining conventional discount stores, including the location on Franklin Road in Roanoke.
The skinny: Possibly the most shopable of the local mini-supers, Wal-Mart has nailed its selection down to what sells and stocks it to the hilt. The offerings are balanced between the national and store brands and priced the same as its Supercenters. A highlight is the extensive refrigerated section, which takes up an entire aisle. The grocery section is also conveniently placed near the registers and other complimentary merchandise.
The trade-offs for all this are the typical Wal-Mart gripes: Checkout can be tedious on the weekends, the section could be cleaner and more extensive, and if you're looking for anything special item-wise, you can pretty much forget it. It's the basics or nothing.
The verdict: Positive. I'd avoid the weekends unless I were already shopping at Wal-Mart, but the rest of the week, it's a great place to pick up what you need.