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Is Supermarket Zone Pricing Ripping You Off?

As a reader of Consumer World and Mouse Print*, you are probably a savvier shopper than most. But did you know that some supermarket chains “zone price?” That means the shelf prices and advertised sale prices at its stores can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city, or region to region.

While many factors go into pricing decisions by supermarkets like rent and labor costs, the presence or absence of competition nearby is often the key to whether a particular store location has lower prices or not. The more competitive the area, the lower the prices, typically.

One exception, at least in my area just north of Boston, is Aldi. Aldi is a limited assortment supermarket, a fraction of the size of a conventional grocery store. They carry mostly store brands and are priced roughly at about 25% less than conventional supermarket store brands. If you’ve never shopped at Aldi or Lidl (a similar type store), give them a try.

But the Aldi near MrConsumer has significantly higher advertised prices for some items compared to other Aldi stores farther North. This is despite having a Stop & Shop (our largest conventional supermarket) in the same shopping plaza, as well as a Wegmans and two warehouse clubs (BJ’s and Costco) within half a mile, and two deep discount Market Baskets just a bit beyond that.

Here is a portion of this week’s circular for Massachusetts Aldi stores :

Aldi MA chips

But just 24 miles away, in Salem, New Hampshire, those very same items from their Aldi circular are much cheaper:


Aldi NH chips

These New Hampshire prices are half to almost two-thirds less than the Medford, Massachusetts store. While most of the other advertised items are identically priced, these stark price differences can make local shoppers here feel like they are getting ripped off royally.

When MrConsumer raised the zone pricing issue with a top Aldi executive, he offered little hope that anything was about to change here, saying:

“We are always reviewing our prices to ensure we offer our shoppers the lowest prices possible. While ALDI prices do sometimes vary from city to city, we pride ourselves on having the lowest prices in town.”

Well, Aldi, you are not offering us YOUR lowest prices. What do we have to do here in Massachusetts, get a team in the Super Bowl in order to get a good deal on chips?

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13 thoughts on “Is Supermarket Zone Pricing Ripping You Off?”

  1. Why would one think the cost of doing business in Massachusetts is the same as NH. My guess (only, not supported} is that it costs a lot more – rent, taxes, wages – in MA? Clearly those costs will passed to their customers.

  2. I find that our Dollar Tree is cheaper on many items, especially snacks. Cheese Curls are $1 for 7 oz and Aldi’s is $1.79 for the same amount. The two stores are only 4 blocks apart. Also, our Aldi’s is fairly new (a little more than a year). Twice, about 6 months apart, they have gone through with the “30-cent markup pen”. So many items are now 30 cents higher, some 60 cents higher. Cheese Curls which started at $1.19 and are now $1.79. Buyer beware and pay attention to the prices.

  3. @Don Seems difficult to imagine that it is so much more expensive to operate there that they need to charge $1 more.

    I’m not from that area, but it seems based on the information provided that Aldi charges higher prices because that might be a more affluent area. I know my town the Costco is in the more affluent part of town and the presence of Market Baskets doesn’t preclude it being a nicer area. Of course, before being pointed out by Mr. Consumer that Aldi is a discount grocer, I always assumed Aldi was more like a Trader Joes, so people in my position would expect Aldi to be more expensive.

  4. Frankly, I don’t see a problem with this. As long as stores don’t lie about their prices, the consumer can decide where to buy an item based on price, convenience, location, etc. There doesn’t need to be an obvious reason for price differences. I’ve seen same brand gas stations a block away from each other with over 10 cent differences per gallon. I was told (second hand) that the more expensive one really just wanted a name brand (Exxon I think) associated with their repair shop. The only way to get it was to sell a certain amount of gas per month, so that’s what they did.

  5. I say price differences can happen between areas. This amount does seem major though.

    Would not travel that so called 24 miles to get the cheaper price as gas costs would be too much.

  6. @Richard Ginn, Most cars get upper 20’s to low 30’s mpg. 48 miles round trip would cost you maybe $3, $4 tops in gas. Just looking at the items reported in this article, You’d pretty much be there already, not taking into account multiple items, and other more costly ones. I’d say it would pay. Now, if you want to argue time and convenience, you’d have a bit of an argument. But moneywise, it can be less expensive to travel a little and save. Unless you drive a Sherman Tank

  7. Is the state tax for NH 0% and Mass 6.25% ? still does not justify the cost difference.

    Edgar replies: Scott, yes, those are the sales tax rates, but since it is collected from the consumer, it is not relevant to a store’s costs.

  8. First of all, regarding scubadiver’s comment about “renting” a shopping cart. You put a quarter in the slot when you take the cart, and you get the quarter back when you return the cart. This is not “renting”; it’s putting down a refundable deposit, and it saves Aldi from having to hire people to collect the carts from the parking lot. Everybody wins!

    Then, regarding pricing. I do 90% of my shopping at Aldi here in Wisconsin Rapids, WI. Prices and quality are very good, and I will continue to do most of my shopping there. However, I have noticed some price creep on certain items over the last few years. There are times when specials offered at other stores beat the Aldi price; that didn’t used to be the case. My guess is that the Aldi bean counters track data very carefully, and they know just exactly what they can charge and still keep you coming there, instead of going bargain-hunting elsewhere.

  9. @ scubadiver

    The Aldi stores I know have all kinds of “budget theater” going on, and the stunt with the shopping carts irks me too. Years ago the local store sold ONE quality item which was much less costly than the same thing in other stores, and I would go in for that. But as often as not I’d find myself behind a person (or people!) each with two heaped up carts. I’ve never seen two clerks working in that store. Come to think of it, not in any other I’ve been in either.

    The failure to offer any kind of sacks for the stuff I just bought was another thing which drove me away. Relatives tell me this has changed – if you happen to know the drill. Saving a few pennies just isn’t worth the bother so far as I’m concerned. Ditto for the “store cards” used at so many other places. If you use one of them OR pay by credit card, that store has an exact record of your purchases. I’d wager some of this data is sold to the health insurance comanies. And all this to get a dime off a gallon of gasoline? No thanks.

  10. More than once have I have found some Stop $ Shop flyer prices higher for my local South Shore MA store higher than say, some Boston area flyer prices. And if shown proof, Stoppy will honor the lower price. Shaws is another example, with prices for their store in tony Cohasset often being different than say, Dorchester.

  11. ALDI’s zone pricing seems to be statewide pricing. In California prices are the same in fairly affluent Rancho Cucamonga and in Calexico, biking distance to the southern border.

    Not surprisingly, prices seem to be the highest in both California and New York where business taxes are the highest among ALDI-occupied states.

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