A Supposedly Cheap Thing I'll Never Do Again[1]:

A FreshDirect Detailed Price Comparison



A few weeks back, I received a promotional email from FreshDirect offering $100 off my first two orders. I haven't ordered from them in years. They're just too expensive, or at least that was the impression I had.


When FreshDirect opened their massive plant in Long Island City in 2002, I anxiously awaited service to my part of Queens. It would be city style services for slowly gentrifying Jackson Heights[2], an area that familiar to many for the only semi-trendy spot we have, the Jackson Diner[3].† †I signed up at FreshDirect with my zip code and address, to be emailed when FreshDirect would begin deliveries to our up and coming neighborhood.


Year in, year out, nothing. I'd go back to the web site and check periodically, sign up again (maybe they lost that list- it happens!). And then one day the blessed email arrived, we ordered, and received an on-time delivery from pleasant personnel, containing lovely quality goods, all securely wrapped in impregnable swaths of foams and plastics. But the bill was awe inducing, and I thought, ok, maybe not so much.† Years go by.


A month ago (February 2013), I received a discount flyer. FreshDirect missed me! Were they more competitive?† Were they simply reminding me of their super service and convenience?† No matter.† With $100 off[4] I'm all in to re-try FreshDirect.


I also thought I could shed some light for other shoppers, by detailing a typical basket of goods at FreshDirect vs. my local supermarket. Typical, that is to say, for people like me. Or maybe just me. Maybe you're vegan, maybe you're doing Atkins, or on a heavy alfalfa rotation. Look, I can only do so much.† Iíve assembled a mix of produce, dairy, meats, and grocery that might be a few weeks consumption. Download the excel sheet, and you'll find a good-sized selection of items edited down from my actual orders[5].† Itís not perfect Ė youíre not going to buy an 8 pack of Bounty every couple of weeks and only one can of cat food.† Fine, go ahead, adjust the sheet to your heartís content.


I visited a supermarket (two, actually, a Met Food on 37th avenue, and a Mi Tierra on Northern Blvd, plus my butcher, Ottomanelli on Woodside Avenue), found the same items and noted their prices. So you can take my conclusions as-is, re-weight the different categories to your tastes, or make your own basket from scratch and see how FreshDirect prices fit your lifestyle.


Googling around, itís surprising to me that no one had done this type of comparison before.† What commentary is out there is tendentious and repetitive, backed up with zero data[6]. The bulk of the chat out there compares FreshDirect to Fairway and Trader Joeís. ††Sorry, not so helpful for me.† So this is my public service to you, the people who use the local supermarket. Because an educated consumer is FreshDirectís best customer[7].


The FreshDirect basket is $60 more at $428, about 14%.† Not so much, really, for all that convenience.† Still, $60 every couple of weeks is another $1500 a year.† Itís not consistent either Ė FreshDirect is very competitive on boxed goods and not so (over 20% worse) on fresh goods.† If you lean towards more perishables and fewer staples, FreshDirect isnít for you.† Still, I went into this thinking FreshDirect was way more, which isnít the case.† Will I change?† A little.† There are some things I value about the hands-on part of shopping, which includes changing my mind based on what looks good, and being able to measure quantities more accurately.† My butcher has far better quality than either FreshDirect or the supermarket.† In a pinch for time, though, I wonít feel as if Iíve been raked over the coals. †Close enough to shop there every now and again, a bit too much to make it my primary outlet.


Addendum - March 21st:† A correspondent inquires whether I am being paid by FreshDirect for my commentary.† No.[8]The missive included a suggestion to highlight news stories of a boycott of FreshDirect.[9]† To the untrained eye, it almost appears the correspondent has an agenda unrelated to my price comparison of FreshDirect vs. local supermarkets.

[1] With apologies to David Foster Wallace


[2] The gentrification of Jackson Heights is really slow, if not in tectonic plate shift terms, really not soon enough for me, who moved in for the large affordable prewars, but then decried the lack of city amenities. The arrival of the first (and still only) Starbucks was a sign of arrival, not blight.† I eagerly consumed the Times 'If You're Thinking of Living In' mentions (1996 and 2005) and New York Magazineís attitude-laden versions (look at their change in tone from then to now). †I have none of the derision directed at chains catering to the mid-market; in Jackson Heights we have no coffee made by artfully tattooed baristas on $10000 Clovers. We have 99 cents stores, money wiring/laundering outlets, and Colombian chicken places. We are deprived of the boutique baby clothing stores, the endless parade of bistros, artisanal anything.† All of which, I might add, have made it to increasingly marginal neighborhoods in Brooklyn (Bed Stuy, really?). Plebian Queens, so stolid, so Archie Bunker, and sooo profoundly unhip, (so much so that in the media it is a reference point for life's nadir - Ben Stiller, in Night at the Museum 2, I think, was in such dire straits that he had to choke out to his son that he had been forced to move to Queens). So. Jackson Heights.† My wife and I bought an apartment in 1994, when we might have known - at a minimum known of - every young couple in similar socio-economic circles - not in my building, but in the whole neighborhood. Now we can regularly spot the extra-large wheels of the premier baby carriages, and yet....still no Queens Lager, no poetry slams, no warehouse conversions to lofts and no locally sourced, humanely treated, free range, fair trade, line caught, organically grown, environmentally sustainable products of any description. Yes, there is a farmer's market, and it is a wondrous thing, but in these depths of winter my enthusiasm for turnips and rutabagas is as fervent as ever, which is to say nonexistent.


That's where Fresh Direct steps in, to fill the gaping maw left by the absence of overpriced goods that the yuppified heart desires.† The heart wants what it wants, as another New Yorker said in arguably less defensible circumstances.


[3] The Little India strip, on 74th street just off the elevated number 7 train on Roosevelt Avenue, was, 30 years ago, still mixed in with non-Indian-clientele-oriented businesses, including a solid bakery and a diner, the Jackson Diner. At some point during this neighborhood transition the Jackson Diner capitalized on the changes going on around them, leaving half the menu the same bland Americana it always was, and inserting an all-Indian menu on the other half.


This worked for my parents. They enjoyed trying still-quasi-exotic fare. This also worked for my uncle, a frequent dinner companion, whose tastes ran to plain food. †So our orders at the Jackson diner ran towards Rogan Josh plus open faced turkey sandwiches (Is the turkey breast fresh? Was it carved here?). The memorable part of this experience was the waitress, carried over from the prior administration. Vaguely Teutonic, at least in my memory, she efficiently carried out her duties, while taking time to correct your pronunciation ... of the Indian dishes (that's chole poori, sir).


[4] $50 off two orders of at least $125 each, to be specific, not in the bigger print of the flyer.† I found out at checkout.† I also found out that Freshdirectís marketing savvy was far less omniscient than I'd anticipated. The discount code was limited to new clients only, not to tempt the wayward client from years back.† Fortunately, my daughter, 11, was not an existing client, and since the Freshdirect system is keyed off an email address rather than a physical address, so we were able to order twice over the course of a few weeks. If the offer lasts Ė code DMAK6 for the intrepid - other members of the household may open FreshDirect accounts - my son, and if need be my cats.† In timeless marketing speak, HURRY! You have to order by April 23, 2013 to SAVE $100!


[5] For practical reasons I've normalized certain things to allow comparisons with the supermarket. Iíve eliminated sale prices.† Most of my changes don't substantively affect the price comparison, like adjusting a box of Apple Jacks of 11 ounces at FreshDirect with a 12.2 ounce one at the supermarket (why do they make two so close in size?). Some substitutions make for a better apples-to-apple comparison, like my using commonly found Bertolli olive oil for the better but cheaper Spanish brands I actually buy (Goya at $9, or Iberia at $6. $6 for 34 ounces!!). But FreshDirect doesnít carry these brands.† The inherent upsell driven by the absence of some brands leads to an inflated FreshDirect bill that my comparison data doesn't highlight, but is real nonetheless.


Iíve swapped a few items in order to appear a bit less bourgeois (Swanson Natural Goodness chicken stock substituting for the one I actually buy, Swanson Certified Organic chicken stock, both of which are no doubt identical to, uh, Swanson Chicken Stock). But I left in a few for your entertainment. Ancient Harvest Quinoa Rotelle, anyone?† This product is the worst sort of yupster-fleecing flimflammery, and yet I buy it.† Look at the ingredients.† Itís mostly corn!† Youíd be hard pressed to see that on the box.† Quinoa!† Grain of the ancients!† Did ancient Bolivians have a long life expectancy?† I think not.† Besides, whatís wrong with corn?† We call it Maize.† Also from ancient, wholesome, earth-nature-in-harmony peoples.† But itís no Quinoa.


[6] The only story I saw with itemizations was in the Times back in 2006. I have to question Dave Leonhardtís typical supermarket buy - bananas, canned tuna, seltzer, cashews, and sparkling cider?


[7] Quoting Sy Sims, discount haberdasher extraordinaire.


[8] Given my effort to make a purely factual analysis, including the raw price data and the encouragement to make up your own mind based on your personal circumstances, I was less than delighted at this argumentum ad hominem.


[9] Based on my reading of the news stories, the primary complaint concerns the additional truck traffic FreshDirectís proposed moved to the South Bronx would entail.† Does a piece centered on price comparison fall short in omitting traffic squabbles with potential neighbors?† Iíve not mentioned the truck traffic, the environmental impact of wrapping and boxes, FreshDirectís experiences with undocumented workers and the INS, or any number of tangents not relating to price comparisons.† Still, I aim to please.† Please note the following compendium of local boycott info Iíve assembled in several minutes of googling.† FYI, the first one is a riot (isnít a shame you canít physically kill those folks you disagree with?† Darn those pesky regulations!)