The question has been around since someone first stamped a lump of metal with an off-center image of an emperor, goddess or other sacred cow and called it money: Where can people go to get the best deal for their hard-earned cash?
If it's groceries they're after, a group of business students at Kenai Peninsula College may be able to help.
The group of five students conducted a survey of supermarket prices and recently presented the results at their principles of marketing class meeting.
The group compared the prices of 161 items at Country Foods (IGA) in Kenai, Fred Meyer in Soldotna and the Safeway stores in Kenai and Soldotna.
Items of the same size and same brand were compared "apple to apple" and included both food and non-food items, ranging from Tillamook Medium Cheddar Cheese Baby Loaf to Vicks NyQuil Original six-ounce size to Ultra Clorox Bleach 48-ounce size.
The survey also included produce, meat and dairy products.
The students added up the prices a customer would pay at each store for the "total basket" of 161 items. The highest bills (rounded to the nearest dollar) were at Safeway, $474 at the Soldotna store and $467 at the Kenai store. Second place went to Country Foods at $434. Fred Meyer had the lowest bill at $404.
Before a consumer bases where they shop on the survey results, the students pointed out a few things to consider.
Although regular sale prices were included in the survey, Safeway Club card prices were not.
"We wanted the price for anyone who walked in off the street," said Kaarlo Wik, a student in the survey group.
Also, the store with the lowest "total basket" price on the items surveyed doesn't necessarily offer the best prices in every category.
Country Foods offered the lowest total price on the meat, dairy and produce items surveyed.
However, items like meat, dairy and produce are difficult to compare head to head because different stores often carry different brands, which may vary in quality.
The survey only considered price, not quality.
"It's hard to compare fruits and vegetables between stores," said Ray Zagorski, the class's instructor. "You can't really compare one supermarket's beef to another."
The survey also didn't consider other store characteristics, such as layout, decor, customer service and convenience of location, that a customer may consider when choosing where to shop.
"We didn't consider those factors," said Zagorski. "We just looked at price."
Survey team member Wik also pointed out that the study didn't take human nature into account.
"People are creatures of habit. If they're used to getting their bread on aisle nine of Carrs, they'll keep going there," he said.
Zagorski's marketing class has conducted the supermarket survey annually since 1990 and the outcome has been different almost every year.
"Results vary by year. Last year IGA came out as lowest," he said.
Zagorski emphasizes the survey is a student exercise and teaching tool. The results aren't intended to be conclusive.
"It's not a scientific study. It's a class project," he said.
The purpose of the project is to teach students principles they can apply to their own businesses.
Students in the survey group run custom knife making, upholstery and seafood processing businesses.
Group member Salley Stephens is strictly a student at present, but sees the class as an investment in her future.
"I ultimately want my own business. I really want to have a bowling alley," she said.
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