Shop Closer to Home

I’m trying to get a new theme working, doing only posts with a thesis short enough include in a four word title. The good news is, you can stop reading now, because you already know what I’m going to say. For those of you not heeding my advice and plunging headlong into the next paragraph nontheless, I’ve been thinking about a corollary to my suggestion that people live closer to stuff: shop closer to home.

Everyone knows it’s super convenient and money-saving to hop in your car, jump on the freeway, zip on down the road (through the city center, naturally) to buy your stuff at the big box retailer on the edge of town, right?  Never mind whether in doing so you neatly avoid stores that could serve your needs far closer to home, the big box has big, and free, parking and lower prices, so it’s gotta be the smarter way to shop.

While this is not what I do (I mostly shop on foot or on my bike for daily/weekly stuff), I generally assume that I’m paying a premium to use the Lunds that’s a few blocks away instead of Walmart or whatever. That’s okay with me because I don’t have to drive, I can drop in whenever, and there’s no fighting traffic. I’m willing to make that trade-off.

But discussing it here on and elsewhere on the interwebs got me thinking, is it really cheaper to drive farther to the kind of store from which we expect super low prices? I thought I would check.

Canned soup at Walmart

Canned soup at Walmart

I went to the local Lunds (okay, you’re Lunds & Byerlys now, I get it, but I’ve been known to still call the downtown department store Dayton’s, so don’t hold your breath waiting for me to get it right), and looked for items I was reasonably certain I would also find at a Walmart (this required some guess-work as I’m not a regular Walmart shopper). I picked: a gallon of skim milk, loaf of whole wheat bread, loaf of cinnamon swirl bread, canned spinach, boxed macaroni and cheese, canned crushed tomatoes, canned chicken noodle soup, and a 12-pack of diet soda. With the exception of the milk and the spinach, where the same brand was not available in both stores, the comparison is of like-branded product. As to the spinach, Walmart had a name brand (which was actually cheaper), while L&B had a store brand.

Here’s how the prices compared:

Product L&B Price Walmart Price Difference
Gallon skim milk 2.79 2.89 -0.10
Whole wheat bread 3.39 2.98 0.41
Cinnamon swirl bread 3.99 2.98 1.01
Canned spinach 1.19 0.98 0.21
Mac & Cheese 1.39 1.28 0.11
Canned crushed tomatoes 2.69 1.68 1.01
Chicken noodle soup 1.99 1.58 0.41
Diet soda 12-pack 4.99 4.48 0.51
22.42 18.85 3.57

Turns out, for this basket of items, Walmart is indeed cheaper. At the cash register, I would have saved $3.57 by shopping at Walmart.

But that’s not the whole story. These trips cost me more than just what I hypothetically spent in the store. Transportation costs money in fuel and vehicle depreciation. It also costs time (opinions vary greatly as to how much time is worth and I won’t dwell on the externalities involved).

I went two blocks to get to Lunds using no gas. Technically, I stopped on my bike on the way home, so it didn’t really feel like I spent any time getting there, but for the sake of science, I timed it from bike parking to my garage. It took three minutes, including time spent unlocking my bike. Double that for a round trip of six minutes. I don’t know how to value the depreciation on my bike, but it’s probably pretty negligible given the brevity of the trip. My time? Priceless.

I fully intended to drive to the Midway Walmart and record my actual trip time. Then I got to contemplating when to go and decided that I didn’t want to spend my pre-Vikings game cycling time driving to Walmart, so I biked instead. Which means we’ll have to trust Google Maps, which says the round trip is 14.4 miles and would take 29 minutes in a car.  The current IRS mileage rate is 57.5 cents, which seems like a reasonable way to sum up the depreciation and variable costs of driving. That’s $8.28. Time? What’s 29 times infinity?

So, all in my basket of purchases cost me approximately $27.13, plus 29 minutes travel time at Walmart and $22.42 plus negligible bike depreciation and 6 minutes travel time at the closer Lunds.

Interesting, but still a little unsatisfying given the lack of bike depreciation and the opacity of the IRS number, so let’s tilt things a little in driving’s favor and look just at direct fuel costs. A reasonable estimate of my gas mileage for a trip like this, which is part city, part freeway, might be 20 mpg (maybe that’s even a little high), so a trip of 14.4 miles uses 72% of a gallon of gas. Gas prices in Minneapolis seem to be around $2.30 per gallon, so fuel alone is $1.66. Not enough to eat up the whole price differential, but non-trivial. And then there’s the time thing again.

Whether estimating the total cost of driving or just putting more value on time, for me, it does not make financial sense to drive to Walmart to purchase this basket of goods. Obviously, whether it makes sense for you in the real world is a different question. You may not live two blocks from the grocery store. You may live near a discount retailer. You probably aren’t purchasing this basket of goods. Nonetheless, if you have options closer to home, the difference in travel costs are hard to make up in lower prices. So, yeah, shop closer to home.

Finally, an addendum relating to not buying this basket of goods. I picked the closest Walmart, which was not a Walmart Super Center, which most definitely did not offer a comparable selection of groceries to L&B. I had intended to include at least some form of fresh fruit or vegetable in the basket, but there was no produce at all at this particular Walmart. If I wanted a Super Center, I’d need to drive another 4 miles each way ($4.60).

Adam Miller

About Adam Miller

Adam Miller works downtown and lives in South Minneapolis. He's an avid user of the city's bike paths, sidewalks and skyways. He's not entirely certain he knows what the word "urbanist" means.