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Desperately seeking savings

Jeanne McGovern
Deals at Wal-Mart Supercenter. Do they outweigh the cost, time and hassle of driving from Aspen? Aspen Times photo/Mark Fox.
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It’s expensive to live in Aspen. We all know that. So, like many other Aspenites, I’m always in search of a way to save a buck. You know the drill: Fly out of DIA rather than Aspen; buy clothes online rather than at our local boutiques; and now, with the opening of a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Rifle, travel way downvalley for everything from clothes and groceries to haircuts and a lube job.Of course what seems like a cost-saver isn’t always the case. I no longer – or very rarely – drive to Denver to fly somewhere. I’ve found it just doesn’t make sense. Between the cost of gas, the time in the car, food, parking, a hotel if it’s an early morning flight and so on, it’s often a wash. Bring my two small children along for the journey and it can be a downright nightmare.

Still, desperate times call for desperate measures. So with small offseason paychecks taking their toll on the checking account, I decided to investigate.Is it really cheaper to shop at the super Wally than our neighborhood City Market? The bottom-line answer is yes. I bought $240.67 worth of groceries in Aspen; virtually the same shopping list ran me a little more than $210 at the Wal-Mart Supercenter, with many things offered in larger quantities for an equal or lesser price. Extras – two pillows, sunglasses for my kids, a six-pack of batteries and a watering can, among other things – added up to $30.36 at Wally World; the bill for these items in Aspen (at Carl’s and the Miner’s Building) would be $59.22. But there’s more to this exercise than meets the eye. Let the games begin”Are we there yet?” asks my 5-year-old daughter, Hannah. This is the sixth time she’s said it since we left Aspen at 10 a.m. It’s now 11:14 and the Wal-Mart Supercenter is within sight; we’ve traveled 68 miles. Her 2-year-old brother, Zachary, has mowed through a bag of Goldfish crackers and a box of raisins, and is begging for M&Ms.The Rifle Wal-Mart Supercenter, located just off Interstate 70, is indeed super – or supersized, at least. It’s huge, 155,000 square feet. Opened in October 2003, it’s one of more than three dozen “supercenters” in Colorado. Housed within its walls is a basic Wal-Mart store, a grocery store, garden center, pharmacy, one-hour photo shop, vision center, portrait studio, tire and lube services, a Cost Cutters hair salon and a Subway sandwich shop that is currently under construction. Again, it’s huge (and having visited two other Wal-Mart Supercenters in the past six months, I can tell you this one is actually on the small side).

“These large stores, our supercenters, have our general merchandise and then a grocery department, as well as other customer-oriented services,” said Wal-Mart spokesman Marty Heires. “They help us offer one-stop shopping to our customers.”We get a doublewide cart (it’s not the one that looks like a car, though, which has Hannah in a bit of a tiff) and head in. And, as usual at these types of places, I get a little consumer crazy. So much stuff, so many deals … how can we live without? My kids get similarly psyched. Maybe it’s the fluorescent lights, or all of those yellow smiley faces on the “roll back” signs.”We each get one toy, right?” Hannah reminds me. It was a bribe to gear them up for a day of shopping. “Yes, one toy. Just one. Don’t even think of asking for anything else,” I fire back, my resolve already fading.First stop, baby supplies. We need diapers, wipes, sippy cups, T-shirts, summer shoes. Being family-friendly is something Wal-Mart does really well.”A lot of our customers are families trying to stretch their discretionary spending dollars,” said Heires. “They find they can do that at a Wal-Mart, because they can find low prices on everything they need.”

Of course, en route to the shoe department I spy the garden center. Knowing it’s not yet time for planting doesn’t stop me from careening through the aisles. A watering can – that’s what we need! I put one in the cart. Hannah spies the kid-sized ones on the adjacent shelf.”Oh, Mom, Zachary and I each need a watering can. We can all water together … it’d be fun,” she implores.What the heck, throw ’em in. What’s another $7.96?”But this doesn’t count as my toy,” she declares.Let the games begin.We carry on through the paper products, cleaning supplies and camping gear, quickly filling up the oversized cart. The kids are beginning to lose it. Zachary is crying; Hannah is restless. It’s just before noon and we haven’t even made it to the groceries.

“Hannah, if you climb out of the cart one more time I’m going to put back the watering can,” I tell her. An elderly couple down the next aisle gives me a “that poor lady” look and I know it’s bad.The grocery department, which has its own entrance but is part of the main store, is extensive. There are refrigerator aisles, dry-food aisles, frozen foods, meat, produce, a bakery and a deli. Quite different than the regular Wal-Mart’s limited selection of snack foods and cold drinks.A bottled yogurt drink and bag of rice cakes placates the kids, leaving me free to shop. I have no problem filling the cart to overflowing with our standard grocery list – and in most instances, the prices were great: a gallon of whole milk, $3.82 vs. $4.99 in Aspen; eggs, .52 cents vs. $1.29; Tropicana orange juice, $2.48 vs. $3.79; a pound of Starbuck’s coffee, $6.78 vs. $8.79. Bread, on the other hand, was less expensive in Aspen, at $2.99 for a loaf of Orowheat stone-ground wheat bread versus $3.24. And a few other items couldn’t match the Value Card savings offered by City Market: Cascade dishwashing gel, $3.50 vs. $4.22; a three-box pack of Kleenex, $2.74 vs. $3.53; a DiGiorno four-cheese pizza, $5.49 vs. $5.98.Said City Market spokeswoman Rhonda Toland: “The Value Card is a way for us to offer additional savings to our loyal customers.” On the day I shopped at City Market – Wednesday, April 20 – I saved $27.74, or 10 percent of my total bill. Not bad.Another goal of City Market, according to Toland, is to “offer a good selection of items that appeal to a wide range of customers.” In Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley, said Toland, that includes stocking a variety of organic products.

The Rifle Wal-Mart Supercenter, on the other hand, carries no organic foods. It had a wide selection of products and brands, but for many Aspenites the lack of organics could be a problem.”We do carry organic items in some areas,” said Heier. “We are a store of the community, so we try to tailor our products to the people who shop there. If it’s in a strong ethnic area, for example, we’ll stock items the community wants to buy. The same with organic food.” Apparently the Rifle-area market has yet to demand such a change. We make our way to the checkout aisle, stopping on the way to get the kids their promised toys. Hannah picks a lip gloss and nail polish from the rows and rows of kid-centric cosmetics; Zachary gets some new sand toys. Another $7.10 down the drain.Thankfully, it’s mid-day Tuesday and there’s no line. Still, it’s already 1:03 p.m. And, having promised the kids lunch at McDonald’s (I mistakenly thought every Wal-Mart Supercenter included a Mickey D’s), we go to the Rifle fast-food restaurant and spend $12.31. It has one of those playlands that parents hate and kids adore, so there’s no driving through. We’re back on the road to Aspen by 1:45 p.m. The gas tank is full, and I’ve dropped another $16.71 on my shopping odyssey. But the kids are asleep within minutes and I drive home in peace.And so, just over five hours after we left Aspen, we’re back – unloading groceries and whole bunch of other stuff.

It is perhaps in the “other stuff” where a trip downvalley really pays off. While I saved only $30-something on the grocery portion of my Wal-Mart Supercenter bill, the savings on non-grocery items were really impressive. That’s the selling point of stores like this, where everything is under one roof and often available in bulk.”We work with our suppliers to get the best price, and then we pass that on to our customers,” said Heier.Take small propane canisters, which we needed for our camp stove. At Wal-Mart, they were $4.12 for a two-pack. The Miner’s Building in Aspen charges $4.99 for one. So-called “onesies,” the undershirts that little kids wear, were $9.88 for five in Rifle; they cost $4.10 apiece at Carl’s Pharmacy in Aspen. The Aspen City Market doesn’t even have them in stock.”This is one of Wal-Mart’s strengths … everything is there in one place,” said City Market’s Toland. “Our focus is on being grocers, so we are not into selling all those other things. This is especially true in Aspen, where we have limited space. We want to stick to what we feel we do best and leave those other items to other businesses.”In Aspen, that means Carl’s Pharmacy, the Miner’s Building, Ace Hardware, ShortSport and the like. And while it can be much more expensive to shop at these places than the Wal-Mart Supercenter, you have to weigh the convenience factor, gasoline, time, etc.Are you really going to drive to Rifle to save $2.82 on a barbecue grill brush? And what about a gift for the birthday party your kid is going to Saturday, which you forgot about until Friday night? A Beautiful Bride Barbie Doll is $24.95 at Carl’s, $15.44 at Wal-Mart. For me, at least, the ease of shopping locally cannot necessarily be measured in dollars and cents.

From door to door, it takes me about an hour to do my semiweekly grocery shopping at the Aspen City Market. I avoid going at peak times like après ski (because that alone would drive me to go the Wal-Mart Supercenter on a weekly basis). I also try to sneak it into my workday so the kids are at day care, or go early in the morning, before my husband leaves for work. Carl’s is just next door to The Aspen Times; the Miner’s Building is across the street – hassle-free.But I’m not frivolous. We do keep a running list of the things we don’t need immediately and plan ahead for a big downvalley shopping excursion. It’s actually fun when you make it a family adventure. We stock up then, and do the day-to-day shopping closer to home. Given my “research,” I think we’ll continue to do things this way.As the Visa ads say:Shopping in Aspen: easy, but expensiveShopping at the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Rifle: cheaper, but challengingMaintaining my sanity: pricelessJeanne McGovern’s e-mail address is jmcgovern@aspentimes.com


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