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With the recent opening of Shaw’s in Groton, I’ve heard a lot of talk in town about which of the various supermarkets in our area are best. The opinions I’ve heard have not been unanimous, so I decided to look into it myself.

This is not an idle question. The average American family of four spends about $8,000 on food every year. If a family shops where prices are 5 percent less, they will save $400 a year. That’s not chump change.

The stores I included in my research were: Groton Donelan’s, Groton Shaw’s, Townsend Hannaford, Westford Market Basket and Nashua Market Basket. I visited all stores between Jan. 26 and 29.

I used the following shopping list to compare prices: one gallon of skim milk; one dozen brown eggs (large); one head of iceberg lettuce; one pound of domestic ham; five pounds of potatoes; toilet paper (four-pack, but read on); one can of coffee; one pound of margarine; one gallon of ice cream; one loaf of white bread (22 ounces).

Here’s what I found out:

First of all, to cut to the chase, and ignoring all of the caveats to follow, if one simply chooses the least expensive brand of each item, which turns out to be by no mean mathematical feat, the totals are: Westford Market Basket, $19.54; Nashua Market Basket, $20.42; Townsend Hannaford, $25.17; Groton Shaw’s, $26.49; Groton Donelan’s, $28.40.

That’s quite a range. Between the most and least expensive there is a difference of $8.86, or 31 percent. That’s almost $2,500 of that $8,000 annual tab.

Ice cream is expensive, and its price varies widely. Suppose we drop it from our list. Now we have: Nashua Market Basket, $14.71; Westford Market Basket, $15.22; Townsend Hannaford, $18.81; Groton Shaw’s, $18.97; Groton Donelan’s, $19.51.

The Market Basket stores swap places, and the rest of the list remains in the same order. The variation drops to 22 percent.

But it’s more complicated than that, as every shopper knows. Take coffee, for example. As a coffee drinker, I can say with authority that there are big differences in quality and taste across the brands. Also, the volume of the cans varies. Most are 11.5 ounces, but Chase Sanborn, consistently the least expensive brand, only has 10.5. The Shaw’s store brand has 13.

Until I did this research, I didn’t think much about toilet paper. Now I may never go into a grocery store again without thinking about it. Consider Market Basket in Nashua, where nearly three quarters of one side of an aisle is dedicated to nothing but toilet paper. There are half a dozen brands. One must decide: quilted or non-quilted? What color? Septic-safe or not? Single roll, four-pack, 12-pack, or 16-pack?

But the two really big questions about toilet paper are: one-ply or two-ply, and how many sheets per roll? One may choose one-ply, 200 sheets ($1.19); one-ply, 1000 sheets ($2.29); two-ply, 400 sheets ($2.29); or one-ply, 600 sheets ($2.99). That last one is Scott brand, the others are Market Basket store brand. There is also a store brand 12-pack of two-ply, 200 sheets for $4. When you go shopping for toilet paper, to choose the best deal you’ll need a calculator. How you decide between one-ply and two-ply is your own business.

Milk and bread are quintessential foodstuffs. They are last to go from the list as our budget shrinks. The cheapest 22 ounce loaf I found was 99 cents. Several stores had this price for their store brands. By far, the most expensive bread is Wonder Bread. It was on sale for $1.50 at the Nashua Market Basket, but it was $2.79 at Shaw’s in Groton. That’s an enormous range, and I’ve never noticed any great variation in quality between bread brands.

Milk also varies widely. Several stores had it for $2.49, but at Groton Shaw’s it was $2.89, and at Groton Donelan’s it was $3.49. Of course, you can spend more if you want organic, hormone-free milk.

There is more to the grocery shopping experience than just price. One must consider convenience. If one lives within a couple of miles of Groton Center, as I do, then Groton Donelan’s is clearly the most convenient. The other stores form an approximate ring around Groton, and where you live will make a big difference in your travel time. I would also point out that the trip to Hannaford in Townsend is a country delight compared to fighting one’s way down Route 119 into Hades, or Westford’s Four Corners.

Once one gets to a grocery store, other factors impinge. Parking for example. There’s plenty of it at every store on my list — usually, except at Westford Market Basket. There, the parking lot is a consistent madhouse. I’ve also noticed that small as it is, I’ve never once failed to find a free spot at Groton Donelan’s.

Once inside the store, another set of factors must be considered. Lighting, for example. Most of the stores are garishly bright, but Market Basket in Nashua is actually under-illuminated. The florescent bulbs are old. The new lighting at Shaw’s in Groton I found to be just right.

Room to maneuver your shopping cart makes a big difference in the shopping experience. Shaw’s in Groton and Market Basket in Nashua are both splendid in this regard. Market Basket in Westford is miserable, in addition to being the most crowded. Groton Donelan’s has narrow aisles, but it’s never crowded enough to make this a problem.

Finally, for exterior aesthetics I give a big fat zero to every grocery store on my list. All are wastelands of asphalt, concrete and linoleum. It doesn’t have to be this way. Take Shaw’s in Groton, for instance. Their landscaping isn’t done yet, but that site’s opportunities for innovation are enormous. The sidewalks are too narrow, and that’s not a promising start. We’ll see what they do in the spring.

One more note about Shaw’s in Groton: At the checkout counters there are televisions playing advertisements. I don’t trust myself to write how I feel about this. Someone get me a hammer.

Chris Mills lives in Groton with his wife and three teenage children. Chris can be contacted at cmills@gis.net.

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