Monday, June 30, 2008

Harrington Household Index (HHI)

My cupboards betray my xenophilia and lack of restraint grocery shopping -- little jars of cactus and baby corn remain barely touched. There's been serendipity too, the pickled garlic from Saudi Arabia (via the Caspian Bistro) and the mango kiwi preserves from Israel (via Kowalski's) created a little United Nations force in our kitchen. My daughter likes them. I need to learn how to use ingredients before my enthusiasm breaks my budget. Well, the U.N. has a funding problem too.

I haven't figured out how to review restaurants as a freelancer. Besides, I'm a cook. Fiddling around with food is my idea of fun. My cooking interests started when I found exciting dishes in restaurants. I'm terrible at following recipes, so I reverse engineer them at home. This has led me to hunt for interesting ingredients.

I'm not as carefree about picking up curious condiments in ethnic groceries as I was just a year ago. Ben Bernake isn't the only one haunted by the Consumer Price Index. Wheat and corn price increases have outpaced increases in oil. It's hit the grocery industry pretty hard, and the Harringtons.

As a grocery store tourist, I'm interested in what's unique, what's really good, what's available in a wide variety and what they don't have. Prices aren't my primary interest, but as noted, I'd be remiss if I didn't tip off readers to good or bad deals. I won't promise Consumer Reports, but a rough gauge on value.

The Consumer Price Index has thousands of items from urban locations. The Harrington Household Index is less ambitious. It has five. I settled on: a whole chicken, a bottle of canola oil, a bag of lettuce (any form of greens), a four pack of toilet paper and dish soap -- things I could find in most grocery stores. With these items you should be able to pull off a meal if you have a few things in your pantry and fridge. I also threw in a couple of non-food items you might need. This frees my time in stores so I can do what I want to: chat with the owners about kim chee or injera rather than sneak from aisle to aisle scribbling prices.

I knew my list would have shortcomings, e.g. not every store would have all five. Some stores had only economy sizes. Others had only rip-off "travel" or "convenience" sizes. Whole Foods' cheapest dish soap was an expensive, but "eco-smart" Seventh Generation -- don't expect to find Joy Ultra there. Oddly, the cheapest bag of lettuce I found was also at Whole Foods. And it was organic. The highest price for toilet paper I found was at the Star Market and Deli on Snelling. They advertise themselves as having "African, Middle Eastern and American" foods. Their $1.29/roll TP (1.29 x 4 = $5.16) was off the charts, but the same store sold one and a half pound bags of oregano for $8.99. SimonDelivers sells .2 oz. containers of oregano for $1.79. That works out to $214.80 for a pound and a half.

Kim's Oriental Market on Snelling near Hamline University further confirmed the folly of trying to measure all stores by the seemingly simple measure of price. This medium-sized and well-stocked store had only one item I was looking for -- Greens. No canola. No whole chicken. No TP. No dish soap (unless it was deceptively labeled in Korean). Apples to oranges. I'll limit my index to conventional grocers.

A more nuanced guide would contain more real food items (butter, spices, flour, milk). For the non-cook, a frozen pizza and perhaps my personal favorite, Marie Callendar's frozen chicken pot pies. Including the later two would have pushed Kowalski's toward the bottom of the list of affordable places. I call myself a cook, but the love of Marie Callendar's parent company, Con-Agra, bubbles up each time I pull one out of the microwave. . .

I visited four stores and SimonDelivers online that had all five components. I'll include a separate post of the agonizing detail. Although my objective was to establish an index to benchmark other stores, it's worth mentioning that the all-around winner on low prices turned out to be a small neighborhood market in the Highland area, Korte's.

Here are the official totals for each store, prices are adjusted in some instance to standardize size (chicken, oil, dish soap). I tacked $2 onto SimonDelivers. When we've ordered from them, the groceries were usually around $100, their $9.95 delivery charge amounts to a roughly 10% fee. You can argue convenience vs. price. I was measuring price. The average worked out to $19.34.

Whole Foods$20.42

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