by Shawn Caza
Eight stores, 20 items. The mission: finding the cheapest organic groceries and bulk food from the Annex to Kensington Market. After scouting the shelves, I can confidently report that Karma Co-op comes out on top, with prices often significantly lower than other grocery and natural food stores in the area.
I picked a number of items that I purchase regularly at Karma, some of which I suspected were probably a good deal and some of which I had no idea how they would compare. My eating habits are strongly influenced by a preference for local, organic, and minimally packaged or bulk items. If a store carried only the conventional form of an item that was organic at Karma, I didn’t record a price. Beyond that, I tried my best to find the most comparable version of an item in each store. So if bulk dry black beans weren’t available, I recorded the store’s price on packaged dry black beans, but not on canned beans, as I deemed those to be significantly different. Fiesta Farm’s kale was not local and I wasn’t able to determine the origins of the produce at Essence of Life Organics, but I recorded these prices anyway. Karma was the only store to carry Ontario sunflower oil.
When I attempted a price check at a No Frills store, I was there long enough to realize it had almost no organic options before I was informed that security wanted me to leave as I didn’t appear to be shopping.
The greatest challenge at all the other stores was in trying to locate comparable items. If I couldn’t find a matching brand, I subjectively opted for the item I’d be most likely to buy in each store. This was almost always the cheaper of the options if there were multiple brand choices. In some stores, a product was available in a variety of container sizes. I tried to choose sizes that would be manageable to carry if I was travelling by bike or foot. This means if you have the capacity to transport large quantities of groceries, you can get prices that are closer to Karma on some things. For example, organic olive oil at Essence of Life is about the same price as Karma’s bulk olive oil if you buy the three-litre container.
I always recorded the regular price of an item in order to capture the typical price. As there were a few items that were on sale, I believe that other stores might be more likely to run sales, and in the long run this would probably result in a slightly lower cost than is reflected in the table.
The final challenge was to convert all items to a common unit. Going from pounds to kilograms was easy enough, but converting kilograms to litres required some weight and measurement tests or a visit to the website convert-to.com.
Visiting the different shops left me with a strong sense that Karma is a dynamic store, having more bulk options than the grocery stores and more grocery options than the bulk stores. This is evidenced in that only three of the seven stores had at least 70 per cent of the items on my list. I was also surprised to realize that the large grocery stores didn’t stock some of the produce items I thought would be fairly common. Further, in some cases a store would have an item but not necessarily in as many varieties as Karma. For example, many of the stores that carried L’Ancêtre cheddar did not have the mozzarella, and those that had bulk peanut butter did not necessarily provide both crunchy and smooth choices.
In the end, I was somewhat shocked to see how large the price differences are. Karma had the cheapest price on 75 per cent of the 20 items and wasn’t too far behind on the others. On average, Karma was 32.7 per cent cheaper, which is more than enough to cover Karma’s 10 per cent surcharge for percentage-rated members. For some members, I suspect what they might save on the cost of olive oil alone could easily cover their yearly membership fee. As a co-op, we may wish to continue to examine the competitiveness of our pricing on a wider spectrum of products, but it certainly appears as though there are some strong financial incentives for shopping at Karma.