Food & Drink

Which food market fits your style?

Picking your favorite grocery store is a very personal choice. We compared the look and feel of eight supermarket chains in Charlotte.
Picking your favorite grocery store is a very personal choice. We compared the look and feel of eight supermarket chains in Charlotte. AP

Picking a place to buy food is like those “choose your own adventure” books: Maybe you want a smaller market, because it has less ground to cover if you’re in a hurry or have mobility issues. Maybe you want a big store, with every product under the sun. Maybe you go for price, convenience or “it just feels right.” And maybe you skip stores altogether and opt for the fast-growing online shopping services from Post-It to Amazon.

If you’re searching for your market home in Charlotte, here’s what you’ll find.

Aldi. Charlotte-area stories are being remodeled one by one, making them brighter and better organized. But Aldi still keeps things stripped down: No bags (bring your own or buy them), and carts you rent for a quarter (you get it back when you return it, but it saves the store money because employees don’t have to corral empty carts). While you usually won’t find familiar brands, and you’ll pay more when you do, you can find a version of most products. The produce section is better than you’d expect – because the prices are so low, most things turn over quickly. One mystery: Why do so many people skip the shelf at the front for bagging groceries and wait until they get to their cars?

Food Lion. The chain has always focused on being a straightforward, traditional grocery store, with a no-frills, lower-price focus. Prices aren’t as low as Aldi’s, but they’re usually competitive. While many of the stores are older and stick to suburbs, they’re clean and well-organized. Meat selections are usually competitive, with a lot of choices.

Harris Teeter. There are so many in the area, it’s hard to pick a “typical” one. Most go for a more upscale atmosphere, with robust deli and cheese counters, and many now feature a daily “meal to go.” (One customer deal we never knew about until now: If you sign up before your baby’s first birthday, you get a free 5-inch “smash” cake, suitable for baby to destroy and for you to Instagram.) Its ExpressLane program now has both pickup and delivery options (delivery isn’t available everywhere). It’s usually $4.95 per order, although you can get monthly and yearly unlimited subscriptions.

Publix. Similar to Harris Teeter in style, it’s also a favorite with coupon shoppers because you can combine coupons with buy-one/get-one specials. All that competitive pricing and bargain hunting means it skips shopper-loyalty cards. The chain rewards employees who go “above and beyond” for customers (they get a free chicken sandwich or half a sub in the deli), which usually makes for friendly shopping. The bakery is a standout, and the fried chicken and sub sandwiches have a cult following.

Which Charlotte grocery had the cheapest prices in the Observer’s survey? And how do they compare to 2014 costs? We looked at Harris Teeter, Food Lion, Walmart, Publix - and 5 more.

Target. Prices are competitive, and it’s awfully handy to get groceries where you get cleaning products and clothes. But it can have drawbacks: It’s hard to resist impulse buys (there’s a reason you have to walk all the way through the store to reach the groceries), and the space is limited. You may have to compromise on brands and skip some things altogether. Produce and fresh meat are particularly skimpy. The organization can be confusing unless you go regularly.

Trader Joe’s. Two tips: Never go when you’re hungry, and never go without a shopping list. Even with those friendly prices, a cart of impulse buys can add up quickly. (They let you sample anything, and you can return opened packages if you don’t like something. But who has that kind of time?) Most brands are specific to them, so you have to be flexible if you want staples. Dairy and meat sections are particularly useful for weekly grocery shoppers, but fresh produce sometimes has a short shelf life.

Walmart Super Center. A leader in the bargain shopping arena, prices are not much higher than Aldi’s. As at Target, food aisles are smaller and you may not find every flavor or brand. But the setup is clear, convenient and easy to use. Be careful when you check out: Those bag carousels can make it easy to miss one of your bags.

Whole Foods. People either love it or mock it, but it’s part of the landscape. Prices are falling now that Amazon has bought the company. They also offer good coupon programs online, you can get news on specials by following your closest store on social media, and the bulk grains and spices can be good deals. As with Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods has a “try anything” policy. One of our favorite finds: The cheese-remnant basket, where you can get end pieces of larger wheels for a few dollars. (And yeah, we’re suckers for riding down that cart ramp at the South Park store’s underground parking.)

Anna Douglas and Katherine Peralta contributed to this story.

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis