Shopping Around: In Search of Bargains

By CHRIS BURRELL

For the cost-conscious Island shopper, getting the lowest price at the grocery store often requires a nomadic approach.

"It's insane but you have to go to all three places," said Charlie Esposito of Vineyard Haven. "But we're going around to get the best deal. You have to eat and be able to afford to live here at the same time."

Mr. Esposito's tactics are not uncommon for some residents who simply can't bear the cost of groceries and decide to go hunting for relief.

"I go to Reliable a lot for the staples, but I come here for the oddball stuff," said Pam Butterick, a retired nurse from Oak Bluffs, who was loading groceries into her car last week at Cronig's Market in Vineyard Haven.

A survey conducted by the Gazette over the last month shows pricing at the Island's three main grocery stores can vary considerably depending on the product. In a market basket with 37 items, the register receipt proved what many Islanders already know: Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs is the cheapest of the three.

Of the 37 items, Reliable offered the lowest price on more than half the goods, and in some cases, the differences were significant.

Take a pint of Haagen Dazs ice cream, for example. At Cronig's, you'll pay $4.39 for the premium ice cream, while at Reliable, the price is a full $1.10 cheaper, or $3.29. That's a 33 per cent gap in prices between the two stores. A pint of the same ice cream cost $3.99 at Stop & Shop, the new grocer on the Island which took over the two A&P outlets in May.

Some Island shoppers were banking on Stop & Shop to bring the low prices they were known for on the Cape over to the Vineyard. But a spate of letters to the editor last spring criticized the new grocery chain for its high prices.

Stop & Shop managers told the Gazette in May that about 1,500 items in their stores were priced lower than the old A&P prices.

But last week, Lenny Polucci of Aquinnah wasn't convinced. An off-Island trip last week earned him the chore of going to the mainland Stop & Shop for 25 cans of frozen lemonade.

"It was 99 cents a can over there and $1.49 over here," he said as he walked through the Cronig's parking lot. "The savings helped offset my $70 boat ticket. Now, it's just $58."

Mr. Polucci makes no secret about wandering to different markets on the Vineyard. He said the meat prices at Cronig's are better now, but he prefers Stop & Shop for its fresh scallops and paper products.

Talking about the price of groceries is something of a Vineyard pasttime, a sure-fire way to get a lively conversation started. But those conversations aren't confined to the dining room; they also happen right in the store aisles.

Over at Cronig's last week, Marie Fisher of Oak Bluffs was out looking for a good steak to serve her husband for dinner. But after scanning the red meat cooler, she said, "He's getting pasta. We can go out to eat cheaper than that. It's unbelievable."

She held up one Porterhouse steak with a $16 price tag, shaking her head. Ms. Fisher and her friend then started trawling alongside the cooler, looking for other examples of outrageous prices. They shrieked when they eyed the leg of lamb - for $75.

Anecdotally, Reliable's loyal shoppers believe their store is now being raided by former A&P shoppers who have abandoned Stop & Shop. The Pachico family, who owns Reliable, can't confirm that's the case, but they did confirm a spike in business since May.

"Reliable's got the best prices but you can't park there," said her friend. "And the produce there isn't always fresh. That's why I'm here. You just have to go here and there."

"The checkouts are busier, and some of the shelves are emptied," said Ms. Butterick. "They can't keep up."

The Pachicos just smile at the suggestion. "It's July," said one Pachico who came from the behind the meat counter. "We're supposed to be busy."

There is little inflation to speak of compared to a similar Gazette survey conducted two years ago. For aluminum foil, butter and soup, the prices were unchanged.

In some cases, prices actually went down. Olive oil at Cronig's that cost $7.99 two years ago now sells for $6.89. The price for a half-gallon of milk at Cronigs also went from $2.19 to $1.69.

The price of avocados, peas and cookies went up slightly in that same time period.

On organic and so-called natural products, it was not possible to draw comparisons across the three markets since Reliable doesn't carry much of a selection in that category. But Stop & Shop appears to offer better prices when it comes to organic milk and natural ground beef.

At Cronig's, a half-gallon of Horizon brand organic milk sells for $4.29, compared to $3.59 at Stop & Shop. Ground beef under the Coleman brand costs $5.99 a pound at Cronig's and $4.09 a pound at Stop & Shop.

For the tourists and seasonal residents, the high grocery prices on the Island are just part of the package, the cost of vacation.

"Coming from suburban New Jersey, I'm used to insane prices," said Carol Tomason, who lives in Edgartown in summer. "But I sure do feel sorry for the people who live here."