ALDI vs Publix: A New Times Hit Job Exposed

Last Activity: Mar 14th, 2011


Those of us who live in South Florida don't need to be told that there's nothing of value going on at New Times. New Times is to South Florida what the Village Voice is to New York: a rag of poorly researched blurbs read mostly by kids and other people who think that drilling a hole in their lip for a piece of metal is a good idea. In fact, they're owned by the same company as the Village Voice, so none of it is unexpected. I never read their regular news; my familiarity is with the Restaurant Blog, Clean Plate Charlie. Lately they've sunk to some new lows, largely because their only credible writer left town and they've hired a stable of hacks in an attempt to replace him. So far, no good.

One thing to understand is that Clean Plate Charlie is a Blog; this is not journalism. These are people who, for the most part, know little about the subjects they write about. One of their new hires had sent me a resume before they hired her; her entire body of writing work consisted of a blog called Liberal Wonk; it takes a lot of talent to bash politicians who disagree with you and to praise the genius of David Letterman. There's little evidence that she knows anything about food; but if you're willing to work for pennies and have some writing skills, you're exactly what they're looking for. What amazed me what that she actually thought that this blog of wacky rants was a selling point for getting hired.

The point is that they have literally nobody on staff who has any credibility so you don't expect to get much out of their writing; garbage in, garbage out as they say. The problem that I have is that OTHER people; that is people who don't live here and know better, may rely on what they read there. When some horrible restaurant wins one of their ridiculous reader polls, WE know to shrug it off with a chuckle. But some visitor, some tourist, may actually think it means something. They might act on the nonsense, and it may ruin their trip. What unscrupulous writers don't understand is that people may act on what they write. They may think they're just doing their job making up fantasy stories to fill their space; but they don't care that they're affecting people's lives. Some family may act on a bogus story and it ruins their day. Those things matter to me.

We expect people in the media to spin, because that's what the erosion of journalistic principles gives us in today's world. But when some hired-on-the-cheap blogger sets out to do a hit job on a good company; a reliable local business that provides needed products and services, jobs and gives back generously, then someone needs to step up.

Last Week Dori Zinn wrote a story titled "Breakfast at ALDI's: Way cheaper than their Publix Competitor". Before reading it, I thought it was a good idea. Informing the public about ways to save money is something that local publications should do, particularly in trying times. But after reading her story, it was clear that she didn't try to make a fair assessment of the contrast between the two stores. I'm calling it a "hit job" because it's clear that she set out to make a point, and that she cooked the data to exaggerate the point. It's irresponsible, classless and in my opinion, just plain dishonest. Publix is a good store; after having to deal with the gougers at Waldbaum's in New York, I appreciate a store that provides a lot of choices and good sale prices on a regular basis.

She calls her example an "experiment". Let's go back to school and remember how to conduct an experiment. First, you have a hypothesis. Then you establish a control, you gather data, and you come to a conclusion. The validity of the control will effect the validity of the conclusion. She made 2 major blunders. The first with scale; and the second was that she cooked the data to amplify the conclusion she wanted.

The hypothesis here is simple: You can save money by shopping at ALDI instead of Publix. On that we can agree.

When I first scanned the article I thought that she had actually shopped at ALDI's, and then compared prices at Publix. The first thing I noticed was the tax; she had applied 6% tax on the orders. Except you don't pay tax on food, so it was clear that she hadn't actually done any shopping. You don't need to shop to write an article like this, but from the tone of the article, where she referred to making a Sunday breakfast; it was disingenuous since there was no meal that was actually being made.

Next came the pricing, and the volume of stuff on her list. Maxwell House coffee, 34.5 oz. A pound of bacon. A quart of grape jelly. Buns, Bisquits, bagels, toast, sausage, cereal and pancakes. 10 pounds of Potatoes and 3 pounds of onions. This wasn't a shopping list for a meal; it was a shopping list for a week of meals. And the prices seemed high; those of us who shop at Publix know that with a list this long, there are likely 4 or 5 items on sale or BOGO. Dori used list prices for everything. She bought name brands. And she bought more than any family of 4 not named Butkis could eat. The control was just totally broken.

She compounded the issue by bogusly claiming that Aunt Mable's Buttermilk Pancake mix (the only one they sell) had the same ingredients as Aunt Jemima's. While this may seem like a minor thing, the statement set up a false premise that you're getting the same food for less at ALDI, which isn't the truth. Pancake mix is mostly flour, but the nutritional info is much different: Aunt Mable's has 2g of fat per serving and Aunt Jemima's has .5g. Aunt J's specifies the dry mix and prepared; Aunt Mable's doesn't say. But they don't match. They're not the same.

Aunt Jamima vs ALDI Aunt Mable

Aunt Jamima vs ALDI Aunt Mable

To compare apples to apples, you'd have to compare the Publix branded products to ALDI's brands, because they're both private labeled and you don't really know what you're getting. A major issue with ALDI is that you have to have no brand preference with the food you eat, because you don't know what brand you're buying. If you make the assumption that getting a branded item at a sale price is better than buying the unbranded item, then you can use as a control: ALDI vs the lowest priced item at Publix. Because you can't make the argument that anything you buy at ALDI is better than any given product at Publix.

So on my next trip to Publix (I go perhaps 3 times per week), I gathered some data. I found the best priced product on Dori's list. I would have been able to get everything for $23. less than she did. Half of the products listed are named brands. (Photo proof at the end of the article).
NOTE: My prices on the right. I did forget to adjust the coffee price based on the size difference, but at 4 cents per cup it's not worth redoing it.

So using my prices, and realizing that there is no tax on food, the difference in pricing is $18 for this basket of goods. But we still have a problem, because 34oz of coffee is 150 servings, and 10lbs of potatoes is 20 or more servings of home fries. A gallon of milk is 8 servings (and adults don't drink much milk, particularly if you're using coffee mate too).

There's also too much food. You're not going to make biscuits, toast, buns and bagels for the same meal. Her "conclusion", that she saved $43 on a Sunday Breakfast is completely wrong for the following reasons:

  1. She didn't account for the fact that after the meal, she'd have enough left over from her purchase to make many more meals
  2. She didn't "shop smart" at Publix.
  3. She included more items than anyone would make for a single meal

So let's plan a real meal for 4, and then break it down per serving. Let's pretend we have big kids, so they eat alot. And they drink coffee and not milk. Little kids don't eat enough for this meal. Since Dori forgot to buy syrup for the pancakes, I'm leaving them out.

A real meal:

A cinnamon Bun
2 egg cheese omelet
Home Fries
Bagel with Cream Cheese
Toast with Jelly
Butter and Oil for Cooking

Now that's a man-sized breakfast. For each item, I broke down the per serving cost from ALDI's prices and my prices.

ALDI vs Publix Breakfast Price Comparison

ALDI vs Publix Breakfast Price Comparison

So I can now state my conclusion, based on a solid control, that you could knock 1/3 of your cost off a big Sunday breakfast by shopping at Aldi. Dori came to the same conclusion, but her savings are off by a factor of 10. She claims that she can save $43 on a meal; my numbers say that the real savings are only $4.48 for the entire meal for 4.

And this makes a big difference. Aldi's is a very unpleasant shopping experience. It's like shopping at Big Lots for food. You can't get any of the brands you prefer. Service is rude and cold. And most of all, you don't really save nearly as much as she claims.

At $43. savings for a meal, it's much more compelling to consider perhaps making a change. At $1.10 per person, you have to look at your life, and decide if you want to live like someone on welfare; you have to decide if you work all week to make money just to put minimum nutrition on the table; rather than the products that your family actually prefers.

Now even though the stuff at Publix was more expensive, I'm confident that I'd like everything on this list, except for the OJ and the Ketchup. There aren't many mysteries. Canola oil and sugar are generic items. Smithfield bacon is good, as is Jimmy Dean sausage. I can save at Publix and probably not notice much difference from other brands. With Aldi's it's a total crapshoot.

And if you live in Fort Lauderdale, you have to decide if it's worth burning gas to go to Lauderdale Lakes or Deerfield Beach to save a few bucks. It's a much tougher sell when you use realistic numbers.

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