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.

32 thoughts on “Shop Closer to Home

  1. Aaron Berger

    It also bears mentioning that, at least for me, shopping in superstores takes me much longer than shopping at neighborhood groceries. I live roughly equidistant from a big box grocery, a neighborhood supermarket, and a co-op. I almost always choose the two smaller stores, because it takes me much longer to navigate the bewildering array of products and aisles at the big box. Maybe if I shopped there more regularly it wouldn’t be as challenging, but I don’t need to evaluate 15 kinds of peanut butter. Let me choose creamy or crunchy, natural or processed.

  2. Nicole

    As previous posters have said, you can’t put a price on stress. Going to Walmart/Target/Cub for groceries is stressful. The stores are big. The parking lots are big.

    Shopping local is a no-brainer for groceries. Minneapolis is home to such great co-op grocery stores. I do have to cut back in other parts of my spending, but I will never budget for groceries. I want to choose based on quality rather than bottom line. I do understand not everyone has that option.

    Beyond groceries, while a local hardware store, local corner shop, etc., might be more expensive for goods compared to Home Depot, Target or Wal-mart, or other national chain. After all the data breaches in the last 12 months (both seeing it in the news and having both my card and my husband’s card data stolen at Home Depot), shopping smaller, locally-owned stores is worth paying a little more compared to the hassle of getting new cards, and resetting all of our bills, etc.

  3. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    I’m genuinely curious to see a good, local price comparison of a wide variety of groceries at a broad range of grocers. I’m thinking a superette like Dokkens or Cup Foods, a small grocer like Oxendales, a regional grocer like Rainbow or Cub, an upscale grocer or two like Lunds and Kowalski’s, and then the big box stores like Target and Walmart (maybe throw in a member store like Costco for good measure).

    I have little doubt that the prices will go down in the general order I laid out, but I’m curious by how much. Maybe the number is different on a per-trip basis (the basics like milk & bread) vs an annual basis (stocking up on toilet paper, canned goods, some frozen meat, whatever might make sense a few trips a year to a large store).

    My wife works at Target, so with the employee discount stacked on the store credit card discount, it makes sense for us to drive the 12 mile round trip to the Edina SuperTarget for bigger grocery runs vs walking or biking 3/4 mile up to the Uptown Cub or Lund’s. Take that away and we’ll be shopping much closer to home 100% of the time instead.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      Scale is the thing I definitely left out of this quick and dirty analysis. You can buy a lot more stuff driving to a big store than you can walking/biking to a closer one, and if you buy enough lower-cost stuff, the savings can certainly overtake the travel costs.

      1. Stacy

        Adam, thanks for pointing this out. For a family of 4 or 6, they will be buying a lot more items than the 8 you sampled. They would save a significant amount of money by driving to a larger store.

        These same families would also benefit from having all their shopping needs met at one location rather than making several smaller trips (with kids in tow?).

        There’s a reason big box stores exist.

        1. Jeff

          Agree that there are times when we, as a family of five, need to make a “Target run.” But by-and-large, we can get groceries at the Kowalskis (or Whole Foods when the new location opens) which is closer, a more enjoyable shopping experience, and has much higher quality produce (not to mention is always adequately stocked compared to Midway Target). My guess is that once our 2 year old is out of diapers, we might not see Target for a long time.

    2. Rosa

      when our budget was tighter, I kept a price book. Aldi, Cub, Rainbow, Seward Coop, and Las Americas. The answer was that it varied a LOT by item. Even taking off the table things that just aren’t carried at all stores, and things where the cheapest option is lower quality than we’re willing to eat, it varies really widely. Each store has some things for the cheapest price. I ended up shopping twice a week and rotating around.

      That said, I think most people gravitate to the store that’s cheapest on their own personal staples. Which vary a lot by people’s eating habits and family makeup. And if you shop at the same place over time your eating habits will be formed by what that store offers regularly.

      And time is valuable. Now that our budget is not so tight, I don’t keep a price book, because my time is also worth something.

  4. Emily Metcalfe

    This summer I did most of my grocery shopping (and other shopping) by walking. With a toddler and baby, I was limited to what I could pack on the stroller, so it was a challenge to shop for my family of 6. Most of my grocery shopping was at Target Midway or Kowalski’s, both of which are a nice walk from my home. My observations:

    Target is cheaper. For many families, the savings will be hundreds of dollars over the course of a year. Also, I get the RedCard discount and often buy in bulk to get the gift card offers.

    I found myself ordering large items from or Amazon. Diapers, wipes, even big boxes of cereal. They are hard to carry home. My husband questioned whether walking really is the environmentally sound choice considering the amount of packaging material that showed up at our house.

    Kowalski’s is a much more enjoyable shopping experience. I would rather go there any day.

    The great thing about living close to stuff is that any time I needed something, I could usually find it within walking distance of my house. (That’s why Grand Ave is great!) And once you shift to the mindset that you don’t want to drive to buy stuff, you become much more aware of the retailers in your own neighborhood.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      You touched on another point I didn’t manage to get in to the post. Yes, when you stop driving past stuff to get to stuff that’s farther away, you’d be amazed at what you can get on foot, at least in a neighborhood that’s close to stuff.

      Even if you don’t care whether it’s greener, it’s less stressful, more enjoyable and an easy way to make your life more active.

  5. Joe

    The long term effects really skew towards shopping local as well. You could shop at Wal-Mart and send $20 to Bentonville, AR, never to be seen again. On the flip side, you could walk to your friendly local co-op and spend $25, which will be reinvested in your neighborhood. The real trickle down economy is in your backyard!

  6. Peter Bajurny

    I prefer the best of all worlds, walking to my local Aldi. Rock bottom prices and it’s a 5-10 minute detour on my walk home.

  7. Monte Castleman

    A few comments:

    A couple of dollars doesn’t sound like much, but that’s not much of a “basket”. Add up a week, month, or years worth of groceries, and it really adds up.

    What if I’m driving by the Walmart anyway? I do so once a week or so on the way to my mother and stepfather’s house. The cost of pulling into the parking lot is essentially zero.

    There’s time- Even if I had a bicycle basket (which I don’t) I couldn’t fit much for groceries in, so I’d be making multiple trips a week, instead of one every week or so. If I was a hard-core bicycler and rode in the winter (which I don’t), there’d be time spend bundling up too; a thin leather jacket with no hat, gloves, etc is enough for the dash from my heated house to my heated car.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      Monte, the conclusion was intentionally stated quite narrowly. If you’re already in the vicinity of where you shop, obviously, you’re shopping close to you (even if that’s not home).

      And yeah, it’s a pathetic basket, in part because of what was on offer at Walmart.

      1. Monte Castleman

        Well, the article said repeatedly “close to home” so you’ll have to forgive me if I misinterpreted it. But I get the point that the economics might make no sense if you drive all over creation trying so save a few dimes here and there and I agree with the point (and know people like do drive all over, including both my father and stepfather). Believe it or not I really do find it tiring driving from store to store, going to Walmart is more to consolidate some grocery and non-grocery trips rather than trying to save a few dollars over Target (which the one near me has a pathetic grocery selection), or Cub.

  8. Dana DeMasterDanaD

    I have been doing a lot of thinking on this subject lately. We are moving from Hamline-Midway to West 7th. There are a lot of reasons for this move, but one of the factors in deciding on West 7th was the proximity to my children’s school. It is a K-12 school so we will be spending a lot of time going back and forth between home and school. It is also close to our grocery store (Mississippi Market) and my work in downtown Saint Paul. We have one car and mainly get around by bicycle and sometimes transit, so proximity is really important.

    There are lots of places we go, however, that are no school, work, and groceries. Although we do a lot of local shopping, there are some things we prefer to get at big box stores – toilet paper, cat litter, Legos (a household staple), vegetable oil, and socks are the first that come to mind. Living in Midway we have access to not only Target, but Herberger’s, TJ Maxx, and Cub. I have made an emergency run to Herberger’s for twill uniform trousers for my son when he suddenly outgrew all his pants overnight!

    Although the Midway big box area is miserable and unaesthetic, it is so useful. We were hard pressed to think of other areas in the Cities that were both urban AND have a big selection of big box stores. The only others we could think of were The Quarry in NE Mpls and Lake/Hiawatha.

    West 7th feels isolated in this regard. Everything is up hill. Up big hills. Two children on a cargo bike with a Target run on Robert Street? I don’t know if that’s going to happen.

    I don’t know if I have a point other than:
    1) The premium on items like toilet paper is big enough that we prefer to go to the big box stores. They also have a bigger selection.
    2) Big box stores in urban neighborhoods are rare, particularly lots of big boxes in one area which makes it easier to combine trips.
    3) We are going to have to learn to plan ahead to minimize trips because we’re not buying toilet paper at Mississippi Market.
    4) I doubt most people take into account the full cost of driving a car to a suburban Costco, but, man….it’s like consumerist heave.

    1. John Holton

      one word: e-bike. Just one more bike for the quiver.

      I met a perfectly coifed realtor biking on the way home today. I’m a pretty fast cyclist and it was impossible for me to keep up with him while he effortlessly accelerated out of each stop sign. This opens the door to so many peoples excuses for why they don’t bike (bad knees, sweaty, too many hills, too slow)

      I used to live in Cathedral Hill and there is no better area to argue for an e-assisted bike, particularly if you are frequently saddled with cargo and children.

    2. Emily Metcalfe

      You make such a good point about Midway! One of the big reasons we chose Lex-Ham to live in was proximity both to Grand Ave shopping and Midway shopping. It is a huge benefit to many people living in St Paul and Mpls to have Target and Walmart accessible by walking or Green Line. Especially for those who live in neighborhoods where there is no local grocery store, pharmacy, or other retailers.

      For toilet paper, seriously They deliver fast and free shipping with Red Card.

    3. Rosa

      I <3 Hi Lake.

      That said – i'm ridiculously ignorant of St Paul geography. Is there a transit option that would make it easier? Or a timing one, where you could do the shopping without the kids?

      Sometimes, you just have to wait for the kids to get bigger or something else to change, to do what you really want. I completely changed my shopping habits when we moved from walking everywhere with a stroller (kiddo's head was too small for a helmet for like a year) and then again when he was in the trailer, then again when we switched to the cargo bike, and now again because he's on his own bike. It's a whole different calculus of what seems safe, achievable, and efficient.

    4. KM

      You should perhaps try Cooper’s on W 7th for groceries (there is one next to the Liquor Barrel and one in Sibley Plaza). I should too actually, because I always pass by but have only gone in maybe a few times.

  9. eric

    I always consider convenience over what I perceive to be pretty small price differences. That is why for most of my daily-type grocery trips (and pharmacy, post office, beer, etc) I walk. Food co-op 1 block from my house, Lunds 5-6 blocks from my house. It’s nice. Can even take a tyke in a bike trailer and make a decent sized buy at Lunds. It’s a pleasant and largely stress-free experience.

    But that same desire for convenience and minimal-stress experience is why we always will make weekly or bi-weekly target/costco trips. It’s just so nice to re-stock our home all at one place with all of that stuff. Not as pleasant of an experience of course, but it is very pleasant to know that we are totally set for the week on diapers, paper towels, toilet paper, diet coke, etc. Things I want nothing to do with carrying home and things that my family of 5 goes through very fast.

    We tried the Target delivery service a week or two back. That could potentially be a game-changer for us but not sure having someone make a target run for us in an auto (for only $4 by the way!) is really what we are going for here on

  10. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

    My thoughts here are pretty skewed by having had a single person household for years (now two people) but I’ve always been pretty perplexed by the idea that people (in particular my peers) are really comparison shopping for groceries (or anything?) that much. Because they’re doing it! Or so they tell me.

    The economics are different with a family of five, but the idea of going to three grocery stores to get different items (not to mention non-food items at other stores) just sounds exhausting–time is money too, right? Everyone’s always talking about how busy they are, but I mean if you’re really driving to another city to save six dollars on weekly grocery run #3 on a regular basis, that might be part of why you’re so busy all the time?

    1. Monte Castleman

      I think there’s a certain type of person that gets a lot of satisfaction out of saving a quarter on an item at store B as opposed to store A; a couple of dimes at store C as opposed to B. But they think the produce is better at store A. My parents are that type of person. Without taking into account the gas money or the value of their time. It really wasn’t low prices that caused me to switch from Cub to Walmart, it was convenience. I found I was making trips for groceries, and trips to Walmart, so when they started carrying groceries, I could save a trip and get light bulbs, socks, a new three-ring binder, or whatever during the same trip at the same store. Also they bag your groceries.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      I’m mindful of the privilege inherent in not caring about a few cents per item, but also suspect that some people who think they are saying are only doing so on a direct cash basis and failing to appreciate the true cost of their travel and time.

      And yeah, my perspective is single person, the two people too. What others are saying in these comments makes a lot of sense for other situations too.

    3. Emily Metcalfe

      By walking to local stores, I also get exercise for myself and my toddler, who walks impressive distances for a 2 year old. I spend quality time outside with my kids as we stop by the park on our way. It is multi tasking without the stress of multi tasking. And I don’t have to drive to a gym then either.

  11. David MarkleDavid Markle

    You’re lucky if you have a reasonably full-scale grocery near your residence.

    I do save considerable money by making a monthly trip to St. Louis Park in order to get certain supplies at Costco.

  12. David MarkleDavid Markle

    And then there’s the problem of salad greens at inner city Cub stores looking like they’ve been dragged down the street.

  13. John Holton

    I was introduced to another site today which dovetails humorously with Adam’s well researched analysis –

    Be warned if you click on this link – you may lose your whole evening to head nodding and laughing…..

    “….Yet these intra-city trips are commonplace. When I see a car ease into a parking spot, I always run to assist the driver with getting out into their wheelchair, but I am stunned to find that they usually have working legs after all! People drive to the school to pick up and drop off kids. To the grocery store. To the restaurants. To the gym. To each other’s houses. Back and forth on Main Street to show off. Every road sees plenty of cars and personal trucks, some of them in dangerous numbers. And inside, every vehicle is equipped with a La-Z-boy recliner, upon which a tragic clown sits, pushing the soft-touch pedals, turning the power-assisted wheel, and talking on some sort of Clownophone.”

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