Malibu's Grocery Report

With the late May opening of Whole Foods in the new The Park at Cross Creek complex, Malibu’s 13,000 residents now have a total of five grocery stores to choose from for their shopping needs. Once dominated by small independent shops like PC Greens and family-owned chains like Cooke’s Family Market and HOWE’s, Malibu consumers now have an array of shopping experiences and inventories to choose from when weighing where to purchase food and necessities.

Whole Foods, which was acquired by Amazon in 2017, marks the third big-box grocer in the area, joining Pavilions, which is owned owned by Albertsons LLC and opened in the Point Dume Plaza 11 years ago, and 20-year community mainstay Ralphs, owned by supermarket conglomerate Kroger. However Malibu’s stock of smaller chains and independent stores still remains strong, with the 26 year-old PC Greens right across from Carbon Beach and the 5 year-old specialty organics store Vintage Grocers, located in the Trancas Country Market. 

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There are also a variety of choices readily accessible to Malibuites willing to commute a few miles over the hill to the Valley or to the west side of Los Angeles in Santa Monica or the Pacific Palisades, from large chains like Gelson’s, Trader Joe’s and Albertson’s to the smaller Arizona-based Sprouts, which has quickly become a favorite among Malibu shoppers since opening in Westlake Village in 2011.

PRICE TEST

With so many choices now readily available to Malibuites, deciding where to grocery shop can sometimes seem daunting, especially for budget-minded consumers. For many Malibu consumers, the price of goods is still the leading factor in choosing a grocery store, however it’s not always clear which local option presents the most cost-effective option.  Among the big-box chains, Whole Foods has long had a reputation for higher prices. However its August 2017 acquisition by Amazon and the accompanying price decreases on many items and special discounts afforded Amazon Prime members has somewhat pushed back on its reputation for high prices, although its not always clear just how much the changes have effected grocery shoppers’ bottom line. Other large chains like Ralphs and Pavilions are generally viewed as more economical options than lesser-known specialty organics brands like Erewhon or Sprouts, if by reputation alone.

To help consumers better navigate pricing, Malibu Magazine ran a test in early June, comparing the price of common groceries between the five Malibu markets as well as Vons in the Pacific Palisades, Albertsons and Erewhon in Calabasas, Ralphs and Trader Joe’s in Agoura Hills and Gelson’s and Sprouts in Westlake Village. We chose common grocery items such as Chobani yogurt and Cliff bars, Horizon brand milk, frozen pizza from Real Good Pizza Co. and Vital brand eggs. We also included household products like cleaning wipes from Seventh Generation and Mrs. Meyers brand dish soap. A significant perceived benefit at the larger chains are loyalty shopper programs like the Ralphs and Pavilions club member card and Albertson’s’ rewards program, which offer discounts on a range of grocery items for customers who sign up. If these membership discounts can sometimes lead to significant savings, its not always clear whether the slashed prices these programs afford actually lead to a lower final grocery bill than do normal sales and promotions most grocery stores hold on many items everyday for all shoppers. To get a clearer understanding, we ran two tests; one one utilizing membership and sale prices and one that didn’t. 

In many cases, the results were surprising. Taking a look at prices excluding all sales and membership discounts, we found that Whole Foods and Sprouts — chains normally associated with higher prices — offered some of the best rates of the bunch. Among the legacy bix-box chains, Ralphs was another clear winner. Consistently, we didn’t see extreme price differences in rates between the bigger grocery stores, such as Albertson’s, Ralphs and Trader Joe’s. The same couldn’t always be said when we compared those prices against smaller grocery stores in Malibu. One carton of Chobani yogurt, for instance, cost $.99 at Whole Foods Malibu. Take a trip a couple miles down PCH to PC Greens, however, and the price jumped to $1.99. A 64 oz. carton of Horizon brand milk presented another stark example of how big chains can often out-price smaller stores, with Ralphs pricing the item at $4.99 to Vintage Grocers’ $6.99. However the Phoenix-based Sprouts in Westlake Village had every other store beat, offering Horizon milk at a slight discount from Ralphs at $4.29.

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Membership discounts like Pavilions’ and Ralph’s club member programs seemed in many cases to deepen the pricing divide between local smaller and larger grocers. A frozen cauliflower margarita pizza from Real Good Pizza Co. Inc. rang in at $6.99 after club member discounts at Ralphs Malibu and Vons in the Pacific Palisades. However the same item at PC Greens and Vintage Grocers, neither of which have membership discount programs, cost considerably more; $8.99 at Vintage Grocers and $10.69 at PC Greens. 

Even without a membership program, however, Westlake Village’s Sprouts consistently offered some of the best deals we encountered, holding sales on many items that ultimately priced out most of their competitors. Loyalty program discounts at Pavilions Malibu, Von’s in the Pacific Palisades and Albertson’s in Calabasas all brought down the price of a carton of orange juice from Simply brand from $5.29 to $4.49, for example. At Sprouts in Westlake Village, however, the same item was on sale for $3.99, without a membership discount. Horizon cheese singles, were priced down $1 from $6.49 to $5.49 for loyalty rewards members at Pavilions Malibu and Von’s in the Pacific Palisades. However the same item was available for sale in some stores at a cheaper price, without membership discounts.  Ralphs in Malibu and Agoura Hills as well as Sprouts had the same product on sale for a slightly lower price at $4.99. Vital Eggs, gala apples and Angie’s Popcorn were a few of the other products Sprouts was offering on sale, at a total greater discount than other stores.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

For many shoppers, however, price isn’t the only factor when determining which grocer to frequent. Location, especially in Malibu, is often of tantamount importance. While Downtown Malibu has a plethora of options, with Ralphs, Whole Foods and PC Greens within a few miles of each other, the only option for residents of Point Dume unwilling to make a 10-15-minute drive west or east is Pavilions. Same for residents of Western Malibu, whose most proximate option is Vintage Grocers at the Trancas Country Market. During a recent survey of shoppers during a weekday lunch break, numerous consumers in Point Dume and Western Malibu said they frequented Pavilions and Trancas Country Mart because of the proximity to their homes. 

Many Malibu consumers we spoke with, however, said that long-held routines and familiarity played as much of a role in their choice of grocer as did price and location. Ralphs has been a mainstay in the community for years, opening in the Malibu Colony Plaza in 1998, while Pavilions has become a flagship store for Point Dume shoppers since it replaced the long-vacant Cooke’s Family Market space in 2008, leading to a revitalization of the shopping plaza which has held to this day.

And if PC Greens, which was opened in 1993 by Malibu local Michael Osterman and has operated out of its Downtown Malibu location ever since, might not offer the same competitive pricing as Ralphs or Pavilions, some shoppers said there is something to be said for the store’s local touch.

“You really get a very personalized shopping experience at independent stores like Pacific Coast Greens,” said Emily Stowe, a Pacific Palisades resident who works in Malibu and has shopped at PC Greens for years. She said she frequents PC Greens because of the store’s healthy smoothie and coffee bar and raw prepared foods, and appreciates the fact that the store is not corporate-owned.

THE NEW PLAYER

The recent opening of Whole Foods Malibu, however, has changed the landscape for Malibu’s grocery stores in many ways. While Whole Foods and The Park complex project was on the receiving end of protest from the community for years leading up to its opening, largely from locals who feared the grocery store behemoth’s entrée into Malibu could shutter smaller businesses and upend the community’s “local feel”, much of the initial protest seems to have dwindled since the store actually opened in mid-June of this year. 

If elected officials were notably absent from the store’s grand opening on June 12, many locals showed up early to tour the store and begin shopping. 

“It’s a beautiful store,” said resident Christine Thompson at the store’s ribbon cutting. “Everything looks so nice, clean and perfect.”

Chelle Lujan has been the store manager at Ralphs Malibu for a decade.

Chelle Lujan has been the store manager at Ralphs Malibu for a decade.

At 25,000 square feet, the new Whole Foods features expansive produce, meat, cheese and wine and beer departments, as well as a hot bar, prepared foods section and a Nékter Juice Bar featuring smoothies, fresh juices and specialty coffee drinks from local partner Coffee Manufactory. “We are so excited to bring Whole Foods Market to Malibu,” said Amy La Boube, store team leader. “We look forward to serving the community and providing our customers with the tastiest and highest-quality natural and organic food available.” 

Whole Foods’ new location in Malibu isn’t the only big shift in the community’s grocery marketplace, however. Ralphs has also recently undergone a major remodel, which they rolled out in a ribbon-cutting ceremony with Major “Zuma Jay” Wagner in late May. The changes span from inventory to design, and include a new sushi bar at the front of the store, where sushi is prepared fresh all day, a hot foods bar featuring entrees like orange chicken and fried rice, and a grab-and-go prepared foods section at the front, where beach-goers and local residents can quickly grab specialty items like sliced meats without waiting in line at the deli.

In addition to the revitalized sections, the Ralphs remodel includes a vast array of new products meant to compliment the Malibu diet, including over 1,000 new organic items and much expanded meat, water and dairy sections. 

“It’s been great in the community,” said store manager Chelle Lujan. “We expanded on the things the community was buying more of, which was super important.” That means more specialty and gourmet items like dry-aged, wagyu and grass-fed beef, a 4 foot smoked salmon case (which includes a new community favorite—candied salmon) and redesigns to ensure peak freshness. The produce section, for instance, now includes a wet rack that is more product-dominant and restocked more frequently throughout the day. 

“It’s fresher product all of the time now,” Lujan said. “We might put out 10 bunches of kale 4 to 5 times a day now versus trying to load it all in the old case. We’d put 40 bunches of kale, but only half of them were getting the water they needed.” Lujan says thus far the community has embraced the changes. 

“We’ve had a lot of positive feedback from customers,” she said. “They love the new product selection.”

“It’s much easier to shop here now,” said Malibu resident Joan Lavine, who has shopped at Ralphs Malibu since it opened in 1998. “They’ve got things beautifully organized and grouped. They have a great selection. Everything is very fresh, and they have great sale items.”

THE DUST SETTLES

Amidst all the changes to Malibu’s grocery stores, the fate of long-loved stores and new players is yet to be determined. It’s not yet clear if Malibu’s relatively small 13,000 residents can support the array of options now available to them, or even whether the myriad recent changes will ultimately change anything at all. 

While many consumers we spoke with said they were excited by the new opening at Whole Foods and changes at Ralphs, still more said they would continue to frequent the stores they had come to know intimately and that had become part of their routine.

“I go to Ralphs, Pavillion’s or PC Greens,” said Mayor Wagner of his grocery-shopping habits.

He also pointed to Ralphs’ role in November’s Woolsey Fire, during which management ensured the store stayed open to residents and first responders even as other supermarkets shuttered, as a reason for his continued loyalty.

“[Woolsey] was the backbone of supply and and support during Woolsey,” Mayor Wagner said. 

Some residents we spoke with also said that the new changes just provided more chances for Malibuites to fill their homes with the items they wanted without having to venture out of the community.  Lenise Soren, chair of the Malibu Chamber of Commerce and owner of Malibu’s Sorenity Rocks Malibu, said she divides her time and wallet between all stores.

“I get different things at different stores, and I really try to give business to every store,” she said. “It is really nice to have so many wonderful choices here in Malibu.” MM

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