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Grocery prices higher in Oil Patch, but not as much as might be expected

Victor Guerrero refaces milk cartons Tuesday at the Village West Hornbacher's in Fargo.

FARGO - Residents in some areas of North Dakota might want to pick a new beverage to cry over - milk is just too expensive to spill.

The price for a gallon of 2 percent milk in June ranged from $3.33 at a large supermarket in Cass County to $6.89, a premium price recorded at an Oliver County convenience store.

That was one of the surprises reported by the team of North Dakota State University Extension Service agents who took a standard shopping list of a dozen items that could be expected to be found on the shelves of stores selling groceries and recorded their prices each month since September in 37 counties, tracking the county, size of community and type of retailer.

Family economics specialist Lori Scharmer said the study was launched out of sheer curiosity after agents noticed they were being asked more and more if grocery prices really were going up, especially in the Oil Patch.

"We thought, 'Well, let's just do a quick little survey,'" she said.

With nine months of data tabulated, the Extension Service recently released its initial findings that showed consumers in oil-impacted western counties typically pay more for their food - but only an average difference of 3.3 percent more, far below what Scharmer thought she'd find.

"We did expect the oil-impacted counties to be higher than they were," she said. "In fact, we found that Minot's national chain was lower than any place in the state, so that really surprised us."

More than just price

Scharmer said the goal was to be as consistent as possible, which is why agents were instructed to record the regular price of items and not sale prices that could vary.

They walked through the aisles of stores large and small, including national chain stores like Walmart and Target, large supermarkets and convenience stores.

Agents tracked the price of each food on the list, including the gallon of milk, a 12-ounce package of sliced American cheese, a dozen large eggs, one head of iceberg lettuce, 1 pound of bananas, a 1-pound box of saltine crackers, a 14-ounce box of Cheerios, a 33.9-ounce can of Folgers coffee, an 18-ounce jar of Jif or Skippy peanut butter, a can of Campbell's tomato soup concentrate, a 1.5-pound loaf of the lowest regular price whole wheat bread and a 1-pound package of 80 to 85 percent lean hamburger.

The monthly data was crunched by NDSU assistant professor Siew Hoon Lim, who controlled for community size, store type and time period to come up with some conclusions.

Her work found that the package of groceries cost an average of 5.7 percent less in communities with a population of 10,000 or more than in smaller towns. The same foods cost 21 percent less in national chain stores and 6.3 percent less in large supermarkets than in smaller supermarkets or local grocery stores.

In June, the bundle of food cost an average of $44.14 in local grocery stores across the state, $40.66 in small supermarkets, $37.34 in large supermarkets and $32.70 in national chain stores.

Scharmer said the results have been interesting, and agents plan to keep track of prices through the end of the year before deciding if they should call it good or keep up their work.

She cautioned that the undertaking isn't meant to change anyone's shopping habits.

"We absolutely didn't want to appear to come across as telling people, 'Well, go shop here because it's cheaper,' because there's way more than price that's involved in choosing where you buy your groceries," she said.

Scharmer said many residents live far away from the cheaper national chain stores. The extra cost of transportation and the additional time to get there could outweigh any possible savings.

Larger communities seem to benefit from more competition, including the presence of more national stores that could help drive prices down, she said.

Scharmer said many people who live in larger cities have told her they will continue to support their local stores even if they'll pay more, because they see it as a "vital" part of the community or appreciate the convenience.

"We also have that population that would have a hard time getting to a grocery store," she said. "Maybe driving there is hard, or maybe having somebody give them a ride is difficult."