This story is part of Home Tips, CNET’s collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.
Food and grocery costs on the rise, and you might be trying to cut costs when shopping for groceries, or to figure out where to find the cheapest food options. While we now have a handful of convenient options for buying groceries online, there are delivery fees, tipping and even membership fees to consider. So I’ve done some math to see if buying groceries online is cheaper or more expensive than buying them in the store.
Two services, Amazon Fresh (national) and FreshDirect (currently available in the Northeast only) manage their own supply chain and inventory, and thus set prices to compete with brick-and-mortar supermarkets. Both are ultra convenient since you simply place a full order and then set a delivery day and time — often as soon as the same day. Instacart (national) is a similar delivery service, but this third-party online grocery operation simply aggregates from your local stores so you’re getting the same prices, although you can price-compare area stores more easily.
I set out to see whether or not purchasing groceries online from either Amazon Fresh or FreshDirect was comparable or even cheaper than buying them yourself at the store. It turns out that even with extra fees, buying your food online costs nearly the exact same as if you made a lengthy and pricey gas-fueled trip to the market. Here’s what I learned. (You can also check out our picks for the best cheap meal delivery services, and the best prepared meal delivery services.)
Read more: Best Meal Kit Delivery Service
Stop & Shop vs. FreshDirect vs. Amazon Fresh
|Stop & Shop||FreshDirect||Amazon Fresh|
|Total before extras||$197.64||$182.27||$183.63|
I used average-priced Stop & Shop to compare
There are dozens of grocery chains around the country that vary greatly in overall cost. For the sake of this exercise, I chose Stop & Shop, which is right in the middle; not known for being overly pricey like a Wegman’s or Acme, but also not in the budget or wholesale category with Costco and Walmart.
Before looking at any prices, I generated a list of 39 popular groceries items — some name brands, some generic — in every category from eggs and dairy to bread and snacks, produce, meat, fish and pantry staples. I mostly avoided organic foods and specialty items and chose the cheapest available option from all three retailers: Stop & Shop, FreshDirect and Amazon Fresh.
If something wasn’t available at one retailer, I selected the next closest item, since that’s what an average shopper might do. Amazon Fresh doesn’t stock boneless chicken thighs, for instance, so I chose chicken breast and added the same price-per-pound cost. This issue didn’t come up more than twice.
Read more: Are Meal Kits Worth the Money? I Did Some Math to Find Out
FreshDirect and Amazon Fresh also have either a membership or delivery fee to consider along with (optional) tipping (more on that later), so I included those figures in the final tally.
I did not include the fuel cost required to travel to and from a brick-and-mortar grocery store, since there is no one-size-fits-all formula. There is also the consideration of time and hassle required to shop in person. But, again, this is not something one can easily quantify in monetary terms.
Read more: Gas Prices Are Bananas. Here Are 10 Ways to Save Money at the Pump
Stop & Shop vs. FreshDirect vs. Amazon Fresh
|Stop & Stop||FreshDirect||Amazon Fresh|
|Brown eggs (12)||$4.79||$3.49||$2.79|
|2% milk (1 gallon)||$5.19||$4.59||$4.39|
|Almond milk (1/2 gallon)||$3.29||$2.79||$4|
|Block Cabot cheddar cheese (8 oz)||$4.89||$5||$5.29|
|Quart of plain yogurt (32 oz)||$3.69||$5.29||$4|
|Bread and crackers:|
|Loaf of 7-grain bread||$5.19||$4||$4|
|Thomas’ English muffins (pack of 6)||$5.59||$5||$4.29 (Bay’s)|
|Club crackers (13.7 oz)||$5.49||$4.79||$5.29|
|Broccoli head (1 lb.)||$2.29||$2.60||$4.89|
|Bag of red potatoes (1 lb.)||$1.49||$1.01||$1.20|
|Package of mixed greens (4 oz.)||$4||$4.29||$4|
|Hass avocado (1)||$2||$2.49||$2.29|
|Bag of carrots (1 lb.)||$1.79||$1.49||$1.25|
|Bag of yellow onions (1 lb.)||$1.49||$1.25||$1.11|
|Bottle of Heinz Ketchup (32 oz.)||$3.69||$3||$5.69|
|Jar Hellman’s Mayo (20 oz.)||$6.59||$6||$7.69|
|White rice (2 lbs.)||$2.79||$3.39||$1.89|
|Chicken stock (32 oz.)||$3.29||$2.89||$1.89|
|Ground Starbucks coffee (12 oz.)||$11.59||$11||$9|
|Peanut butter (16 oz.)||$5.19||$2.49||$2.69|
|Barilla penne pasta (16 oz.)||$2.39||$2.09||$2|
|Prego pasta sauce (24 oz.)||$3||$2.79||$3.59|
|Canned dog food (12.5 oz.)||$2.09||$2||$3|
|Box of Cheerios (9 oz.)||$5.69||$4.79||$5.79|
|Cape Cod potato chips (7.5 oz.)||$5||$4.79||$4.19|
|Corn chips (11 oz.)||$2.69||$3||$2.49|
|Chewy granola bars (box of 8)||$4.89||$4.29||$3.79|
|Breyers ice cream (1 quart)||$6.19||$7||$6.79|
|Simply Orange juice (52 oz.)||$5.69||$5||$5|
|Ground beef (1 lb.)||$5.49||$6||$4.69|
|Skinless chicken thighs (1 lb.)||$5||$5.29||$5.19 (breast)|
|Atlantic salmon (1 lb.)||$15||$14||$12.39|
|Whole chicken (3 lbs.)||$6.90||$7.50||$6.75|
|Organic chicken breast (1 lb.)||$14.24||$9||$11|
|Bacon (16 oz.)||$7.49||$10||$8.09|
|Beyond beef (16 oz.)||$11.49||$10||$11.29|
|Veggie burgers (4-pack)||$4.29||$4||$4.95|
|Total before extras||$196.64||$182.27||$183.63|
|Delivery or membership fee||N/A||$6||$8|
Is buying groceries online cheaper than in person?
After tallying the grocery cost for my order with all three retailers, the results were remarkably similar.
FreshDirect was the cheapest before fees and only slightly more than Stop & Shop with the $10 tip and $6 delivery charge added. The total amounted to $198.27, just $1.63 more than Stop & Shop (but with no trip to the store, time spent shopping or money spent on gas). If you subscribe to FreshDirect’s DeliveryPass, the total would be more like $194 and a few bucks cheaper than Stop & Shop.
Amazon Fresh was the priciest, clocking it at $201.63 for the same 39 items including the $8 delivery fee and a $10 driver tip. If you already have Prime and knock the delivery cost off the bill, Amazon Fresh would fall to the cheapest at $193.63.
If I’d used Instacart to order from Stop & Shop and have the food delivered, the total with a $4 fee and $10 tip would be $210.64.
How much does Amazon Fresh cost and what are the other fees?
Amazon Fresh is available with free delivery to anyone with a Prime membership which costs $13 a month or $119 per year. This will also get you a subscription to Prime Video along with free two-day shipping on Amazon proper, plus other secret perks.
Those without Amazon Prime can expect to pay $5 to $8 for each delivery, depending on how soon you want your order. Amazon Fresh also offers free pickup at Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh locations, depending on your proximity to those stores.
Read more: Prime Day 2022: Don’t Miss 9 Amazon Prime Perks Hiding in Plain Sight
How much does FreshDirect cost and what are the other fees?
Fresh Direct has two delivery fee options: You can pay $6 per individual delivery, or sign up for DeliveryPass, which gets you unlimited free deliveries. A year of DeliveryPass is $129. There are also two six-month DeliveryPass options: One allows for deliveries seven days a week for $79, while the other limits deliveries to Tuesday through Thursday but costs just $39.
If you were to order groceries every week and choose the cheapest delivery plan (Tuesday to Thursday only) you would pay just $1.50 per week, or $1.50 per delivery depending on how you look at it.
Is it hard shopping for groceries online?
Shopping for groceries online was incredibly simple and intuitive. I liked being able to peruse the items carefully and research anything I was curious about. I also appreciated being able to see my entire order and total cost before making a final purchase, a luxury that in-person grocery shopping doesn’t afford.
For the most part, I found every item I was looking for. Stop & Shop, FreshDirect and Amazon Prime stock a lot of the same brands, but not all of the same brands, and so I wasn’t always able to find the exact same item at all three. Amazon also has its own proprietary brand Amazon Fresh alongside Whole Foods’ 365 brands, since it acquired the upscale supermarket chain in 2017.
Surprisingly, Amazon Fresh was the only grocery retailer that didn’t have some of the items on my list including boneless chicken thighs, and so I had to find a like alternative. Amazon also didn’t have a few popular brands like Thomas’ English muffins, so I opted for a lesser-known muffin brand called Bay’s.
For me, personally, FreshDirect had the best overall selection of items, beating out both Amazon Fresh and Stop & Shop. But slight differences aside, you should be able to find just about anything you’re looking for on a regular basis at all three retailers.
One small annoyance I’ve had with FreshDirect is the accumulation of reusable bags since the service won’t pick them up. A spokesperson for the company alerted me to a donation program they’ve set up with local charities and nonprofits that need them.
You can’t squeeze a peach online
The biggest downside of buying groceries online is that you can’t judge produce, meats and other fresh foods with your eyes (or hands). In my experience, what I’ve received from FreshDirect in the dozens of orders I’ve placed have been up to snuff with no spoiled, bruised or overripe foods. The same can be said for my experience with Amazon Fresh, although I’ve used this service less.
Buying groceries online is still my pick for value and convenience
That said, it’s hard to deny the convenience of getting all your groceries ordered in minutes and delivered in a day — sometimes hours. For those looking to grab some time back during the week, ordering groceries online is a major convenience and by my calculations, won’t cost you any more than making a trip to the supermarket.
Other options for buying groceries online
Instacart is a popular national delivery service and functions as a third-party shopper and delivery outfit that allows you to order groceries from a selection of local supermarkets. You’ll essentially be paying the same prices as if you visited the store yourself, plus a $4 delivery fee and tip.
I’ve used Instacart and like it fine, but there is a process by which you must respond to your shopper in real-time through the app while they’re filling your order and consent to replacements for items that aren’t in stock (and there are always items not in stock). It can be distracting, time-consuming and even stressful — although it’s still a time-saver over shopping yourself.
Hungryroot is another grocery delivery operation, but it functions a bit differently than the others. With this subscription service, you’ll get weekly deliveries of curated groceries based on your preferences and eating habits. Hungryroot gives meal kit suggestions and will send you the ingredients to make them if you so choose. You can always ditch the meal kits or any other items you don’t want and swap them for groceries you do want using a credit system. The service ultimately is designed to inspire new recipes and introduce new grocery items to your weekly routine.
Hungryroot doesn’t have nearly as many grocery item options as the three stores I compared above, but it does have a full stock of meat, dairy, fish, produce, pantry goods and just about anything else you’d typically get from a supermarket.
Read more: Hungryroot Review: Can This Quirky Grocery Service Save You Money?
Hungryroot cost versus buying groceries in-store
I tested the hybrid grocery service and meal kit company in June and liked it a lot. Below is the cost for my week of groceries versus buying them from a local supermarket. You can read more in my full review of Hungryroot.
- Hungryroot total: $120
- Groceries if purchased separately: $107
- Difference: +$13
Even more online grocery options: Thrive Market, Boxed.com
There are other smaller online grocery services available including Thrive Market and Boxed.com. I found both the retailers to be quite limited and not a full substitution for your typical grocery run.
Thrive Market, for instance, has lots of high-quality and organic meats but no produce or dairy products. Membership-only Boxed.com is a good place to find dry goods, pantry items and paper products at low prices but it also lacks the fresh foods you generally buy at a market.
If you don’t mind getting your various groceries from different vendors, we’ve tested to find the best produce delivery services, best meat delivery services and even the best online fish and seafood markets for 2022.