The Cheapest Groceries Online: Wal-Mart vs. Amazon

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Food prices rose 4.2 percent over the past year – and the USDA expects them to continue rising right into 2012.

If you aren’t already grocery-shopping online, maybe it’s time to try it out. Or to at least compare what you pay for pantry staples at your local store to what they cost online. As Consumer Reports recently put it…

Shopping online for household essentials saves time and might save money, depending on local prices. It might be especially appealing if you are homebound, have young children, live in a rural area, or live in a city without a car. To find out if you’ll save money, use your latest grocery receipt and comparison-shop online.

Consumer Reports already did a little comparison-shopping of their own. For their September issue, they ordered the same 10 items from Amazon.com, Walmart.com, and Alice.com, where you can often buy directly from manufacturers.

Not only did Wal-Mart win, it beat Amazon by $51. And that’s without using coupons at Wal-Mart (which doesn’t accept them online) and with a $25 “promotion” and $24 “super saver” discount from Amazon…

Site Cost
Walmart.com $121
Alice.com $146
Amazon.com $172

Those prices include shipping, including $60 to ship four items that were bought from third-party sellers on Amazon. Tax was excluded since it varies by state.

If you’re still unsure whether to try online grocery shopping yourself, weigh the pros and cons against your lifestyle and your budget. Here are a few from Consumer Reports, plus a few from me…

Pros

  • Faster and easier browsing. Instead of hunting down an employee to help you find that one last item, you can just enter it into the search field and even limit the search to a certain brand or price range.
  • Better selection. “You have access to thousands of products online, from national brands to gourmet and organic items we didn’t see in the grocery store,” Consumer Reports says.
  • Faster checkout. “And there are no racks of candy to tempt you while you wait,” they add.
  • No bagging or carrying. Not only do you not have to bag your groceries or wait while a clerk does, you don’t have to wheel them to your car, pack them into the trunk, or lug them into the house. They’ll be delivered right to your door.
  • Save gas. If you pay a flat fee for Internet access, e-grocery shopping won’t cost you anything extra, whereas every trip to your local grocery store will add to your gas expense.
  • Save time. And you know what they say about time and money.

Cons

  • You might not find every item you need on one site. That’s often true of brick-and-mortar stores too, though.
  • You might have to buy more than you need. “For example, you might have to buy 12 cans of chicken noodle soup on Amazon.com,” Consumer Reports says. But I don’t consider this much of a downside unless you don’t have space for the extra cans. Buying in bulk lowers the price per can, and it’s not like a canned good will spoil if you don’t eat it right away.
  • You can’t get everything online. I suppose it’s possible to ship milk without it spoiling, but it’s probably more expensive than it’s worth.
  • Returns could be harder. Wal-Mart will allow you to return anything you buy online to a local store or by mail within 90 days, but some sites may require you to pack the return up and pay to send it back. Amazon doesn’t take back groceries or personal care items at all. Always check the return policy first.
  • Shipping time. You could wait more than a week for your purchase to arrive, so meal-plan ahead if you shop online.
  • Shipping costs. Here’s what Consumer Reports found: With Wal-Mart, “Standard shipping is free for some items but not for others.” With Alice, “Free shipping for six items or more.” With Amazon, “Even though shipping is free for orders of $25 and up, it can get pricey for products from independent vendors. Paying $79 a year for Amazon Prime entitles you to free two-day shipping, but that doesn’t apply to products from third-party sellers.”

Where do you shop when you buy your groceries online?

Karla Bowsher runs the Deals page; writes “Daily Deals” posts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; and shares consumer wisdom every Thursday. If you have a comment, suggestion, or question, leave a comment or contact her at karla@moneytalksnews.com.

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