A Tale of Two Supermarkets

It was the best of stores, it was the worst of stores….well, nothing is that simple. New Westminster residents, like folks all over, develop a preference for grocery stores. Those of us habituated to the 6th Ave. Safeway in the Royal City Center have had our choice expanded as the Save on Foods has recentlyRead More

It was the best of stores, it was the worst of stores….well, nothing is that simple.

The new Save On Foods in New West, just before the official opening. Photo: Jocelyn Tomkinson
The new Save On Foods in New West, just before the official opening. Photo: Jocelyn Tomkinson
New Westminster residents, like folks all over, develop a preference for grocery stores. Those of us habituated to the 6th Ave. Safeway in the Royal City Center have had our choice expanded as the Save on Foods has recently opened in New Westminster Center, on 6th st. Like anything, our individual choices will be based on a number of factors including location, layout, staff, selection and price. While it is impossible to say one is the best of stores and one is the worst of stores, your author has gum-shoed around the two uptown establishments to get the skinny on your neighbourhood grocers.

Leaving aside pricing differences, I will start with my impressions. Initial impressions of the new Save on Foods store on 6th St are mixed. The store is small and tightly packed. It feels crowded even when there are few shoppers. The merchandisers have made good use of every inch of space and it is well organized. The parking lot is smallish and the spaces are very close together. I can imagine that on a busy day a driver would have to be patient as the parking and departing cars carefully negotiated the narrow spaces. The store itself is very well lit, the staff are few but helpful, the checkouts feature a self check-out option, a feature I have seen in other stores that always seems to take longer than a professional cashier. I will test those another time. The carts are all new and they behave themselves. The kiddie carts are at the customer service desk and are shaped like a space shuttle. It should be noted that the kiddie carts can not be taken down to the parkade as they are not suited to the escalator-ramp. A parent parked in the underground lot will have to transfer the groceries to a standard cart or use carry out service. One thing that stood out in this store was the bulk foods section. There is a very wide assortment of goods to choose from here, easily double the choice at Safeway. It is well organized, clearly signed and it features easy to use dispensers, including coffee beans, nuts, staples, candies, cereals, etc.

I can’t quite remember if this was a “Food Barn” store or “Super Valu” but in my childhood, I remember the same space being used for grocery store purposes. Like the mini-golf and the old Westminster Mall shopping mall before it, the space seemed bigger then. Now, the building has undergone the latest in a series of renovations, making this building one of the most often re-used structures in the city. It was rebuilt to LEED standards; the first platinum rating in the province but I wonder if any of that environmental ethic was passed on to the choice of produce coolers, refrigeration units and other electricity guzzling retail furniture. Overall, despite the crowded feeling, I found the shopping experience pleasant.

For the Safeway store, tucked in the western end of the Royal City Center on 6th Ave across from the Library, my experiences there are familiar as they are to many New Westminster citizens. The parking lot is large and offers more space to move around but always seems busy. The store itself is less well lit but it is much bigger and spread out. It is always buzzing with customers and it is hard to go through the store without one or more of the numerous staff asking if they can help. The cashiers are so familiar, you know which ones to avoid and which ones might remember your two-year-old’s name. It is a pretty easy shop with few surprises. It features a full pharmacy and florist and the bakery seems a bit more capable. While I buy all of my meat from Pete at the Queen’s Park Meat Market on 2nd st, Safeway seems to always have butchers on duty cutting and packaging meat and fish.

Like the new Save on Foods, longtime residents are familiar with having a grocery store in this part of town as it is roughly in the same position as the Woodward’s Food Floor. Customers at Safeway can trundle their carts right out into the parking lot or the sidewalk with no additional stairs, ramps or escalators. The store offers two rather dilapidated kiddie carts.

For the price comparison, I used the Official Tenth to the Fraser Sample Grocery List. This is my best guess at the products that are most relevant for my family and the average New Westminsterite. While I will try to compare regular prices as much as possible, much of the selection is on sale at any given time. Where relevant I have included additional sale pricing info. Prices as of Aug 2, 2009.

It is difficult to find a true pattern here. With some exceptions, staples may be cheaper at Safeway and all of the extras cheaper at Save on Foods. Price is not everything of course and the minor differences in prices may even themselves out in a full grocery cart.

A note about both grocery stores: why do they have to display magazines with disgusting headlines at kiddie eye level at the cashiers? We have no choice but to see them. Our kids have no choice but to see them. It is invariably a Cosmopolitan magazine cover that shouts “How to be an Orgasm Whisperer” or “100 sex moves to make him beg”. Now bikini models are one thing but can you imagine your four year old, just learning to read asking “daddy, what is a bad girl sex trick?” I am always compelled to cover them or the most offensive covers  in any store that displays this text at the front cashiers. I agree that this is a bizarre tactic but  I encourage all of you to do the same. Protecting the brains of 4 year olds is not a religious goal as anyone that knows me will attest. I just think it is the right thing to do.

Lastly, these are not the only two stores in New Westminster. There are a number of smaller operations, produce marts, butchers etc. Wal-Mart sells groceries in Queensborough, McBride Safeway, IGA at 10th and Columbia and many shop outside the city for the lower prices at Price Smart Foods on Marine and (much cheaper) Super Store on Lougheed near Maillardville.

Like me, you may do much of your shopping at the Farmers Market and in locally oriented businesses. Whatever the case, tell us about your best grocery deals and how you navigate the food-retail labyrinth. We would love to know. If there is keen interest, Tenth to the Fraser could make a regular series on the subject. Perhaps a price savvy customer base may result in lower prices. Use the comment button below to register your experiences.

Will Tomkinson

Will Tomkinson is a really valued member of the Tenth to the Fraser community. Interested in joining our pool of writers? Please see these submission guidelines.


  1. The kiddie carts are cooler at Safeway, but safer at Save On, in my judgement. I like having the kids up at eye level – Wesley is always trying to climb out of the car-carts at Safeway.

    I didn't have the same impression that Save On was cramped. I prefer the atmosphere there to Safeway. It seems brighter and cleaner. All the staff was really nice, and I liked that the deli wrapped up the sausage rolls I chose in waxed paper instead of plastic (I appreciate those little touches).

    Save On also wins for me for another small reason: they carry Island Farms yogurt and ice cream – by far my favourite brand. I only wish they had a bigger selection of flavours. I see the Vanilla Plus yogurt in lots of stores, but it's the regular yogurt I prefer, and it's surprisingly hard to come by.

  2. I was actually quite disappointed in the prices – I thought they would give Safeway a run for the money, but they won't. After one full grocery shop there and a couple of small shops using the self – serve check out – that frustrated the heck out of me, but was totally enjoyable for my 10 year old who receieved instuction on how to do it from one of the staff – I will be back at safeway and only going to save-on if I notice a good sale or need something from the bulk section that I can't get at Galloways. And, Dave is right – I see it as more comparable to IGA where I also only shop for sales and a few speciality items that I can only get there.

  3. Too funny, I just blogged about my recent visit to the new SOF (jilljs.blogspot.com) …To sum up, I won't be rushing back. Too crowded, especially with three kids in tow.

  4. I guess you have to conclude that everyone has their preferences for supermarkets – maybe there’s a gender preference that they are catering to, because I too prefer the smaller, better laid out markets with those sort of old-fashioned touches – offering waxed paper over styrofoam on your meat, having a large bulk section (I love the Save-on bulk section when I lived on Lougheed near brentwood across from the SOF there). SOF also ha the best yogurt selection of the mainstream markets.

    While I’ve never been to the new SOF in NW except for to take a picture of the new sign, I know it’s one of its new “market format” stores – going away from the Superstore quality of its old stores and into a more gourmet niche – a sort of budget Whole Foods. – for me, the produce selection and the yogurt selection do it every time. Even the PriceSmart (budget SOF), the nearest shop to my house has better selection and a cleaner store than either Superstore or Safeway. It’s a happy middle ground for me.

    *Note: the New 6th and 6th SOF is in the old SuperValu location that closed in the late 80’s. It was then a Bingo parlour for awhile. The Food Barn was the previous tenant where the McBride Safeway is now, kiddie corner to the JI. And this is how you know I’m a New Westminster geek.

  5. Save On Foods prices aren’t that cheap. As a matter of fact, I would say they compete more with IGA than they do with Safeway. Not too mention Safeway’s Customer Appreciation Day, where if your smart and good with coupons (like someone I know) you can save a tonne of cash on groceries. I used to laugh at this person and all their coupons, until I saw how much money you actually save on that day. Also Safeway is very senior saavy and friendly. They will assist seniors in getting around the store and still deliver for seniors as well.

    Superstore is ok, but the store never seems actually clean. IGA is for those who like the finer things in life when it comes to groceries. I’m surprised they don’t check to see if you have a platinum card before allowing you to enter. Walmart… never in a million years will I shop there. Various and sundry reasons, namely a hatred for the way they conduct business and along with superstore have completely destroyed the grocery sector jobs.

  6. Great article Will,
    With regards to your LEED comment, I asked a collegue of mine, a LEED AP, what the process is. I was informed that !SURPRISE!it depends. If the building was certified under the core and shell program, which delivers the building without tenants (Save on Foods) or owners in mind, then SOF’s heaters/coolers/freezers that keep our food safe are probably not accounted for.
    If the builder was aware of SOF’s heating/cooling requirements of the space then these needs will have been accounted for. That being said, we may never know which LEED points were obtained or how (when the energy modeling is done it compares to a baseline model, which I don’t know if grocery stores qualify as a baseline). That being said, LEED Platinum certified buildings typically have some VERY good things going for them.

  7. I was hoping to see more price competition from the new store too. It is a shame that the best prices require a drive.

  8. Price competition????? In the land where Gas stations sell gas at the exact same price and claim they're competiting with one another?? Surely you jest. Save On / Price Smart are fraudulent with their claims of how cheap they are. No one trembles with fear when a Save On opens up, especially Safeway. Fact is, they are not competitive, try as they might. On the other hand, had Walmart opened an uptown store, I guarantee you the business community would have howled in outrage, as they had to deal with that huge sucking sound of the Walmart Vacuum putting them all out of work. Just ask spagnol's in Queensborough.

    Groceries aren't always about "best price." Fact is cheapest isn't always the best quality. And cheap isn't always worth the drive to Queensborough, the fight of the traffic, the fight for a parking spot and the waging of war between shoppers at MalWart.

  9. True there Dave but a conveniently located Superstore would change things. I was just hoping that the proximity of the two stores would overcome the natural tendency to keep the prices high. We may see lower prices yet…

  10. I don't really hold my breath when waiting for lower prices on groceries, even with competitors across the street from one another. There's always an excuse for high prices. Being in the transportation industry, I know a bit about the grocery sector, particularly Loblaws and Overwaitea, and Safeway. Safeway for example, pays their drivers and warehouse people good money and benefits to get their goods to their stores. Actually their contracted distributor Summit Logistics pays that.

    The contracted carriers for overwaitea and Loblaws (superstore), particularly the one for superstore (Pro West trucking) don't enjoy those benefits as much. For a time, Overwaitea and Superstore were using the same company (different names but same owner and lousy pay) to do their deliveries, but I guess Jimmy got sick of having his groceries strewn over the highway, or the parking lot of various stores.

    The prices in grocery stores and retail in general also reflect the transport costs of getting those goods to market. Since the trucking industry was deregulated in the mid 80s retailers and grocers have enjoyed the cut throat competition and having rates circling the toilet. Sometimes they pass those savings onto their customers. In the case of overwaitea, they pocket it big time. With the price of diesel and also the price of equipment and maintenance never coming down, overall I wouldn't expect food prices to drop in New West or anywhere else for that fact. To me, food's the new gas in Canada. Any slight bit of news, up the prices go. Take garlic for example. 300 percent increase in the price of garlic. Why? One word, more profit for Weston and Pattison.

  11. There was one other thing that was a problem for me when we shopped at Save On: in the bulk aisle, the bins are top-heavy when empty. Our son pulled one down on his head by accident. The front of the bins has a self-contained display of what goes inside, which makes it hard to see when a bin is empty. Because bulk bins are usually secured, I didn't even think that was possible, so I wasn't worried about him reaching out to touch the bins. Wes was fine, just had a bit of a red mark on his face, but it's a warning for other parents of toddlers – don't let them touch those bins!

  12. I just stumbled across this website in a search for info on living in New West. Great blog!

    I went to the new SOF for the first time this weekend and I was actually quite pleased. I agree that the parking lot is pretty tight, but I typically walk to get my groceries (the perks of living near 6th & 6th) so it's not such a big deal for me. There are two main reasons that I will continue to shop here over Safeway: the produce and the abundance of BC products. I have become very disillusioned with the produce at Safeway. I find it's often wilted or rotting right there in the store, or it just plain looks unappetizing. The produce at SOF, on the other hand, is displayed very well and just seems fresher. Plus, it's a lot easier to find BC-grown produce at SOF. Maybe that's why it looks fresher, since it didn't have to travel thousands of miles to get to the store. I also like that SOF has Buy BC signs all over the place, labelling products that are made in our province to make it easier to make choices supporting local farmers and manufacturers.

  13. Melissa! Welcome to T2F! Nice to hear we are ranking well on google. 🙂

    I have to say I agree with you there, but we could be the lone outspoken SOF proponents here. I'm thinking that space has come up a lot as an issue among those with kids, as is safety (goodness – briana you need to talk to the manager about that accident! HUGE LAWSUIT waiting to happen…), and I have to admit that the SOFs I have experience with are not shoved in a tiny little outlet in tiny little NW. I find that the one I lived across from (at Willingdon and Lougheed, SOF at the time was the only game in town other than the Kin's in the mall for greens) and I found it always tidy, well-displayed (I agree Melissa about the much better presentation of SOF's products), and having a wider variety of products I enjoyed – yogurt being one.

    But – that being said, I haven't had to navigate with children and a cart in a small store. I was in the IGA down on Robson near the Vancouver Central Library, and WOW. Talk about small, I couldn't even turn around in the aisles. One person standing in the aisle meant that I had to back out to get around. They don't even have carts because there really isn't any room. If the NW SOF is like that, well, I might be less of a supporter.

    *regarding prices, I tend to think that since SOF has launched it's more budget-level PriceSmart, it has taken SOF brand higher-end as more comparable to Safeway. Before that point, SOF was the happy medium between Superstore and Safeway.

  14. In terms of the eye level entertainment at the checkout, perhaps comments to the store managers no matter what the chain may go someways in dealing with this issue (or more like those magazine issues.)

  15. One of the issues for us is how much of the produce sold in the store is grown in Canada. It is really frustrating when it is our local cherry or peach season and the only cherries and peaches in store are from the US.
    I actually noticed a flyer this week in one of our local papers that highlighted how much of their produce is from Canadian farms.
    This site has a good video that illustrates the impact of this. http://www.eatrealeatlocal.ca/

  16. Neil – good point. In light of my bro’s comments about a well-placed superstore, I would prefer that New West get a few more well-placed neighbourhood greengrocers. The fact that Will and Briana can’t walk up the street to a locally-run grocer to buy fresh fruit and veg is an issue of food security for those without vehicular travel.

    I live in east van and I can walk in any direction from my home and stumble upon a corner grocery with real food, fresh veg and fruit, dry goods, sometimes even meat. New West doesn’t have that, and I think it’s why locals get so ripped off by their chain supermarkets. Well – that or the fact that supermarkets set prices farther up the chain and it doesn’t matter what’s happening locally – barring a few weekly loss leaders, the prices are the same everywhere. At Superstore recently the “locally produced” cherries and blueberries are actually the loss leaders, put right at the entrance and advertised on the flyers to get people in the door and buying more expensive food from beyond our borders.

  17. Well, to be fair, we can in fact walk to buy veg – I wouldn't call lit an issue of food security. It's just a longer walk than we would prefer – and uphill! The selection is also limited. There are a few places on 12th that sell some groceries (corner store grocers) but the quality hasn't been very good, so far as I've seen. It's also an easy SkyTrain or bus ride from the WestEnd to many places to buy fresh fruit & veg, so it's not as bad as all that. It would, however, be far nicer to have a neighbourhood grocer on 12th or 20th with good-quality produce and staples like milk and bread.

    I've been thinking about our grocery habits a lot lately because we've been buying a lot of our produce from the Farmers Market each week. I'm sure in many cases we could get the food we buy cheaper at the big box store, but it wouldn't be as tasty or anywhere near as fun. On top of that, I am convinced that we're spending less on impulse purchases than at the big box store. We definitely indulge at the market – the meat pies are divine, and we also buy honey, candied nuts, pastries and pay twice as much for artisan bread as we would at the store. But when I think about what our grocery cart looks like after a supermarket shop, there's a lot in there that we don't really need – and that makes up the profit margin for the store: crackers, cookies, packaged snacks, etc. We don't buy a lot of this stuff (as compared to some of the other grocery carts I see at the checkout) but whereas at the Farmer's Market it's one or two quality indulgences, at the grocery store it's half a dozen mediocre impulse buys.

  18. I hope you will write about self-serve checkouts! I have mixed feelings about these. I feel that I am paying for a certain quality of service which meant I shouldn't have to check myself out of the store, then I have had a couple of down days where I didn't want to see anyone, and headed for the self-serve checkout. I have been in a rush to get a few items when there are line ups at the regular checkout. Mostly, though, I like seeing the familiar faces at the checkout, and don't want them to be replaced by a computer.

    My main beef with the self-serve checkout at Safeway is if you bring your own bags, you need an employee to override the system. If you put them down first, it will tell you that there is an unscanned item in the bagging area. I then tried to trick it by putting it down with the first item I scanned, but that didn't work either since the item plus the bag weighs more than the item itself!

    (Aside – My partner has some unkind words about Home Depot checkout – something about the self-serve checkout being more intelligent, but that is another story.)

    Oh, and about the magazines. Those headlines embarrass me even – but I guess as a parent, you see them in a different light.

    Briana – about the farmers market indulgences – that is a good way to look at it! Now I don't feel guilty about spending $5 for a small box of wild mushrooms – I might have spent that on potato chips if I went to the supermarket!

  19. i miss the variety and the ability to shop local at the Quay. cant wait for it to reopen. i will be heading up to Royal City Farmers market as soon as it opens. unless i am cooking something truly ethnic i would prefer something produced in BC

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