March 1st, 2008

Putting the "wire" in "wireless"

I went shopping vicariously through Peter the other day. That means he was in the market for something I want too, so I told him which one to get, and went with him to pick it up, all the while pretending it was me who was experiencing the "new toy" excitement. I got to hold the box. I even got to install it! (Whether that counts as me having fun, or me being used, is open to interpretation.)

These days, I connect to the Internet through a wireless home network, and my computers have wireless-G adapters. Aaaand I want wireless-N. Okay, okay, so let's ignore for a moment the fact that even wireless-B is roughly twice as fast as our DSL connection. Therefore, wireless-G is already overkill. But what good technology aficionado can ignore the allure of higher speeds, even if the benefits are largely theoretical at this point in history? And it's not completely pointless, since wireless-N also means better transfer speeds between machines in the home network.

When it comes to home networking, I'm partial to Linksys products for whatever reason. Like some other vendors, Linksys currently offers a wireless-N PCI card, and I've been eyeing it for a while. This week, while setting up his living room entertainment center, Peter realized he needed to add wireless capability to one of his machines. I promptly suggested the Linksys card, and off to Best Buy we went.

This is where I can't help but make an observation about an odd quirk of these new cards. You know how wireless Internet is supposed to liberate us from the constraints and mess of cables and wires? Isn't it kind of funny, then, how Linksys's PCI wireless-N card comes with a huge external antenna that connects to the back of the computer via a cable, and needs to sit up on some horizontal surface? You can use the card without the antenna, but the signal is much weaker.

Linksys is not alone in this regard. An informal survey of the other networking products offered at Best Buy revealed that both Belkin and Netgear also include large external antennae with their wireless-N PCI cards. Now, I could work with the idea that maybe the substantially higher bandwidth of 802.11n requires such a robust antenna; but no, because laptop PCMCIA wireless-N adapters are just as small and self-contained as their wireless-G predecessors. Pretty much the same with USB adapters. Yet while a wireless-G PCI card has a little stick of an antenna on the back of the card, wireless-N cards come with these behemoths.

I mean, okay, I'm not complaining. I have enough cables lying around (and various peripherals sitting on my desk and other horizontal surfaces) that one more isn't going to make a huge difference. And yes, this technology does free you from the burden of routing network cables all over the house. But when it comes to cleaning up your actual computer area, my friends, we have taken a small step backwards.

In the end, I'm just mildly captivated by the irony that new generations of "wireless" devices require a wire to a large external object in order to function properly. What's next? Solar-powered flashlights? Oh, wait...

Why is Safeway ripping us off?

First, let me clarify the subject of this post. Safeway is not the sole culprit. Lucky (formerly Albertsons) is right up there, but Safeway is the more egregious offender by a moderate margin. Allow me to explain, but first, a little history and context.

When I lived in Ithaca, NY, routine shopping was simple. You want something related to groceries, health/hygiene, cleaning, or some other home need? Go to Wegmans. Simple as that. Definitely the best supermarket I've ever been to, Wegmans has it all under one roof for the best prices. Tops was another very nice supermarket chain, but they were struggling to stay alive with Wegmans in town. It's a shame Wegmans is still only in the northeast.

When I moved to California, I was confused by the array of choices. First of all, I had two major grocery chains to choose from (Safeway and Albertsons), and neither was the clear "winner." Second, I noticed that Target had better prices on some items, mainly health/hygiene. I actually collected some data to compare their grocery prices, and in the end, found that Safeway was the best bet for the grocery items I wanted. I've accompanied people on Costco trips, but their selection has never managed to justify the membership fee for my purposes. I would simply "work the sales" at Safeway, and do pretty well.

So for the next four years, I did my grocery shopping at Safeway ("working the sales"), and health/hygiene/cleaning shopping at Target.

But lately, I'd been noticing that Safeway's non-sale prices were a bit frighteningly high on some items I buy regularly, especially soymilk and orange juice. So much so that even sale prices still seemed a bit high. Had they been creeping upward? I honestly don't remember. What finally tipped the scales was when Safeway stopped carrying my favorite brand of soymilk (8th Continent). I lived with alternatives for a while, but eventually went looking and found that some Lucky and Target locations carry 8th Continent. This led me to start poking around Target grocery sections for the first time in years, and I was a bit shocked by what I discovered.

Lucky tends to be a little cheaper than Safeway. But Target drastically undercuts both of them. How about some examples? Sure.

  • Tropicana orange juice: A carton goes for $5.99 at most Safeways I've visited. Target's price varies a bit with location, but tends to be around $3. Safeway is charging twice as much! Yes, Safeway offers Tropicana at two-for-the-price-of-one rates sometimes, but I'm talking about everyday prices, not sale prices.

  • 8th Continent soymilk: Safeway doesn't even carry 8th Continent anymore, but they tend to charge something in the $4.50 range for a carton of soymilk. At Target, I buy 8th Continent for around $2.50. Right now, Target is running a sale on 8th Continent, and it's even less. Silk is priced a little higher, in the $2.80 range from what I recall, but still.

  • Yoplait yogurt: I eat a lot of yogurt, and I prefer Yoplait's "thick & creamy" style. I am not aware of any company that competes with this style. Yoplait seems to be the only choice. Safeway's regular price is $1 a pop for these tiny cups of yogurt. When Safeway offers a sale, you might be able to get them for 60 cents each. Target's regular price? 52 cents each. Again, that's about half Safeway's regular price, and still less than even their sale price.

  • Cereal: I don't have any specific numbers off the top of my head, but you can count on spending 2 to 4 dollars less on a box of cereal at Target than at Safeway.

You get the idea.

Now let me make a few concessions:

  • Target is not a grocery store. Their grocery sections are small and contain mostly frozen or packaged/non-perishable foods. I still need to visit Safeway/Lucky for some things, such as produce.

  • Safeway and Lucky both have their own generic brands to push, and raising prices on name-brand products might be a way of increasing the appeal of their own merchandise. Why not charge a premium for the name-brand items? People who want those are used to paying more for them anyway.

But if you think about it, this still doesn't wash.

  • Safeway and Lucky are both grocery stores. They deal with high volumes and wide varieties of grocery items. Target has only a small grocery section. Through the simple principle of buying in bulk, grocery stores should be able to undercut Target's prices easily. Just like you'd expect to pay more for groceries at a[n in]convenience store or drugstore. Why are Safeway and Lucky allowing Target to wipe the floor with them? Do they think people simply don't notice?

  • Even though Safeway and Lucky are pushing their own generic brands, they don't directly compete with all the name-brand items. For example, 8th Continent and Silk carry light versions of both their vanilla and chocolate soymilks. I believe Safeway has dabbled a little in this, but not to the same degree. Or as I mentioned, nobody (that I know of) competes with several of Yoplait's yogurt styles. Yet Safeway still charges an arm and a leg for them.

  • But most of all, this does not simply "come with the supermarket territory." My mom confirms that Wegmans is still price-competitive with Target for groceries in Binghamton, NY. There's nothing substantially different about Wegmans other than location (they also have a large generic brand presence), and whatever location-influenced factors (bay area CA vs. small city upstate NY) that could be used to justify Safeway charging more than Wegmans don't seem to affect Target, whose prices seem fairly consistent from east to west coast.

  • Sure, Target may be a larger company with stores all over the country (which could theoretically give them more "buying power"), but it's not that much larger than Safeway or Lucky, especially considering those stores' larger parent companies. Besides, Wegmans is northeast-only, and they compete just fine with Target.

  • But even if you take Target out of the equation, Lucky seems to undercut Safeway consistently, albeit not by nearly as much as Target. They are both large supermarket chains, with parent companies representing large swaths of the United States. What's different? What is Safeway's premium buying for you that you can't get at Lucky? The fact that they are more likely to be open 24/7? I'm not impressed. Wegmans is open all night too.

When you put it all together, it just doesn't make sense. I was a loyal Safeway customer for years, and I still shop there for certain items, but my trust in them has been irreparably damaged. It appears they have employed the same boiled-frog effect that lets the oil companies jack gas prices up higher and higher without incurring a total revolt, as long as the increase is gradual enough. The difference in this case is that if you need to drive, you can't avoid today's gas prices; but when it comes to certain grocery items, there is an alternative. It's up to consumers to exert the "power of the purse," our main feedback mechanism against unfair pricing. Now that I know better, I'm trying to do my part.

So is it just me? Has it been widely known for years that Safeway is a ripoff compared to Albertsons/Lucky, but that both are running extortionist rackets compared to Target? Or have they been successfully pulling the wool over the bay area's collective eyes?

Either way, I think it's time this issue gets aired out a bit, because this is a bit ridiculous.