When a long-awaited Trader Joe's store opened Downtown at the end of February, it became the third grocery store in a mile along Front Street, joining WinCo Foods and another newcomer, Whole Foods Market.
A week later, Boise's Albertsons chain made national headlines when it announced a multibillion-dollar takeover of California's Safeway. As he introduced the merger plan to reporters on a conference call, Bob Miller, CEO of the Albertsons parent company, commented on how shopping has changed.
"In today's world, shoppers have more choices than ever, and there are lots of competitors out there who all want a share of a shopper's food budget, from local grocery stores to supercenters, gourmet stores, convenience stores, online retailers and home delivery options," Miller said.
That is true in Boise, where the number of businesses selling a pound of chicken breast — regular, "natural," free-range organic, free-range nonorganic, frozen or fresh — has grown significantly just in the past two years.
And shoppers now have different habits, Miller said: "Rather than one weekly visit to their local grocery store to stock up on everything they need, most customers now visit a variety of places, often multiple times a week, seeking out the best discounts, the freshest food, especially items that they splurge on, and the most diverse product offerings."
The Albertsons chain concluded that it needs to change, he said. The merger with Safeway will give the grocers enough buying power to lower prices, he said.
But what do shoppers pay now?
The Idaho Statesman did a survey during the past few weeks of prices at eight local grocery stores.
The survey of several items — chosen based in part on a national retail consultant's price-comparison categories — showed a wide variation in prices, even for the same brand names. Some stores didn't stock certain items, or they had larger or smaller versions of the same thing.
Michael Read, spokesman for WinCo, says people shouldn't take an unscientific price comparison too seriously.
"To take the WinCo Foods brand on an item and compare it to the private label on Whole Foods is a comparison, certainly, but is it valid?" he said.
WinCo and Wal-Mart chase each other's low prices on several of the items surveyed by the Statesman. That's because WinCo does weekly price checks on its competitors, just as "I think most of our competitors do," Read said. "Can you find an item at a competitor that may be lower priced? Yes, but we think typically if you do your family shopping (at WinCo) you'll have a lower price" as a whole, he said.
The introduction of new stores locally in the past couple years has not necessarily changed price dynamics, he said. Whole Foods and WinCo serve "a different market niche and primarily a different customer," with Whole Foods offering more organic and natural-foods products that "are typically a little higher priced," he said.
Trader Joe's, though, is "interesting," he said. It hasn't been open long enough for WinCo to have drawn any conclusions about how it will affect WinCo, but Read said it's a destination for people seeking specialty items and has more of a "treasure hunt" appeal to shoppers.
Almost every grocer had the lowest price for at least one item. A family searching for the lowest sticker prices for items on the Statesman's shopping list would spend 35 minutes in the car, driving 18.5 miles in a circuit to hit seven stores. The survey results are below:
Audrey Dutton: 377-6448, Twitter: @IDS_Audrey
Statesman reporter Zach Kyle contributed.