I’m going to jump back into a supermarket-type post, at the risk of everyone thinking all I do is eat. I wasn’t really planning to write another of these kinds of posts, but the other day, while stopping by the local member-shopping store here, PriceSmart, I happened to have my camera in the car and figured I’ve mentioned the place enough, why not snap some photos and blog about it.
Let me start by saying this is not Costco and it’s not Sam’s Club. It’s pretty darned close though. What’s the main thing I miss from those U.S. based stores? The table full of books. I loved picking up the hottest titles for $8.99 (or less). You’ll find quite a few things you’re used to at PriceSmart, but they haven’t caught on to the English-language books yet. That said, I’ve moved on to a Kindle, mainly because of the difficulty finding books in English, and if you’re headed to Panama, I recommend you pick one up before hopping on the plane.
The photo above was taken outside the PriceSmart in Brisas del Golf. Of all the branches here in the city, this is my favorite. Traffic in the surrounding area sucks, but once you’re there, you’ll find plenty of parking, the aisles are nice and wide, and it never seems quite as congested as the one on Via España or in El Dorado. I’m sure the ones out in the interior are fantastic, as it’s the location of all the city branches that make them such a pain to visit. All of them are in high-traffic areas. For anyone living in Brisas del Golf, which is one of the decent-quality-for-a-lower-cost living areas around Panama City (rent for a 2-3 bedroom home starts around $900 per month), access to this PriceSmart would be quite convenient.
Anyone who has felt the extreme frustration after fighting through traffic just to reach the rolled down security gate at Costco’s front door at 6:30pm on a Saturday will surely appreciate the later hours at Panama’s member club stores. They even stay open until 8:00 p.m. on Sunday. That’s pretty cool.
Like you’re used to in the States, PriceSmart has the $9.99 larger than life pizza and the cheap hot dogs. I think $1.99 will get you a hot dog and a soda (or close to that price). I don’t remember if they sold fried chicken at Costco or Sam’s, but at PriceSmart you can get a whole bucket of fried chicken, or you can just get a couple of pieces with fries. The chicken bake thing is here too and the salad, ice cream, cookies, etc. The one thing I miss though is the berry smoothie. PriceSmart sells the froze cappuccino thing, but not the smoothies :(.
As you see in the photo above, the Brisas del Golf branch has its own separated, indoor lunch counter. It’s the only one I can think of with this style, as it was built later than the other city locations. The others have the lunch counter inside the store, similar to most of the stores in the States.
How much is the annual membership fee?
The annual cost for a membership card is $35 for regular members, $30 for business members. One of the things I appreciate here, that was different at Costco (may have changed by now) is that I can use my debit card and any credit card I want at PriceSmart. I remember there being an issue at Costco back in the States. I think the problem was that I could use a debit card, but the only credit card they would accept was American Express. Since I didn’t have AE, that sucked big time. Here you don’t have to worry about that. You can use any major credit card.
Most of what you’re used to will be the same in the Panama version of your member-club supermarket. At the Brisas store, but not necessarily at all the others, you’ll find a tire shop in the garage level. I think they change batteries too. Conveyor belts grip your cart wheels and take you and your cart up to the store level where you’ll be expected to flash your card at the associate waiting to greet you as you enter.
The layout is pretty much the same no matter which store you visit. You’ll typically find cameras, iPads, computers, TVs, stereos, printer ink, and all that kind of stuff as soon as you enter. A little past that comes the school supplies, the few clothing options (packs of socks, white under shirts, underwear, and a few pairs of jeans and T-shirts). Next up, pillows, blankets, with a few appliances off on the side. Depending on what’s out at the moment, you’ll probably find a couple of blenders, juicers, you know how it goes. It’s all the typical Costco/Sam’s items. At PriceSmart you definitely won’t find yourself in culture shock. In fact, you’ll probably hear a few people speaking English around you.
I remember the first time I visited PriceSmart. I was sitting, eating a hotdog with my daughters, and I suddenly felt like I was a movie character overhearing peoples thoughts or something. English, but in different accents hit me from all directions, and I couldn’t stop the grin growing on my face. I was like, “Is that English…with an Australian accent? Wait…and with a British accent…and a redneck accent (I’m from Oklahoma so I can say that)…and a New York accent? It was great.
I’m sure you don’t want to hear my goofy personal stories, so let me get back to shopping. I mentioned in a previous article that Fabuloso is a cheaper (and great) brand of cleaning product for your floors. You may not be able to see the prices so well in that photo, but that’s $12.99 for two giant bottles of Fabuloso and $10.99 for one bottle, approximately the same size, of Pine-Sol. For only $2 more you get a second bottle of the Panama brand. I don’t know about you, but floor cleaner is one of those things I’m willing to easily switch up. So, unless you’ve got some sort of Pine-Sol fetish, you own stock in the company, or you just really like your floors to smell like Christmas trees, give the cheaper brand a try. Just imagine it’s lavender Christmas trees.
I don’t buy a lot of my cleaning supplies at PriceSmart. Some things are incredibly cheap, like bottles of Clorox. You can get two large bottles for a very affordable price. However, most of the other stuff, like laundry detergent, just doesn’t seem all that affordable to me. You can get a gigantic bottle of Sun brand detergent for $8.49, which is a great price, and will last forever, but to me it’s kind of runny. I usually just pick up the 32 (or so) load bottle of Purex at the regular supermarket for $5.99. Tide is $22.99 at PriceSmart. I can’t bring myself to spend that kind of money on a bottle of liquid detergent.
I like to mention diapers and formula because believe it or not, expats are getting younger and younger, especially now that it’s very possible to telecommute. So young families are springing up overseas, especially in Panama. I moved here with twin infants. Now, while floor cleaner is something you might be willing to scrimp on, diapers are not. One bad case of diaper rash and late nights of pissed off baby will have you back to the expensive brands in a heartbeat. I found that splurging on the big box at PriceSmart worked out better for me in the long run, especially with two kids. In the photo above, the Huggies (size 3) diapers on the left come with 144 for $29.99. The Pampers, same size, come with 174 for $33.99.
I was lucky that my boys were nearing the end of their formula stage and we were able to move on to Nido, which is kind of like a toddler formula, but only costs around $16 a container. In the photo above, it looks like the cheaper (I guess generic brand) costs $18.79. Similac (gain 2) is $22.70 (900grams). Enfagrow from Enfamil costs $29.49.
For those of you without babies, but who have a dog, I’ve got your back. But damn, I feel for you. I haven’t had a pet since I was a kid. Four kids is enough responsibility for me right now. And looking at the cost of dog food, I can see why Panamanians let their dogs eat chicken bones and just about everything else. For that big ass, green, Supermarket Sweep-size bag of Purina Dog Chow, you can expect to pay $41.99. The Kirkland brand to the right is $36.99. Sorry, I can’t see the price of the Pedigree on the left, but I think you get the general idea, dog food ain’t cheap. You could always feed your dog the $3.99 donuts in the photo way up top (just kidding, don’t hate me dog owners; I know how vicious you can be).
Somehow, seeing the price of dog food, made me instantly think of toilet paper, cause I just about shit. Maybe that’s why Scott has a dog as the mascot. Good thinking, Mr. Scott. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a big fan of Scott toilet paper. To me it’s nearly the equivalent of wrapping a spiral notebook around the toilet paper dispenser, but some people swear by the stuff. The 24-pack you see in the photo above goes for $13.99.
Moving on to food, I’ve mentioned the high price of cereal here in past articles. It’s ridiculous. I’m a fan of the lightly frosted mini-Shredded Wheats (or whatever they’re called). I pay about $5 per box. I don’t know what prices are like back in the States, but I remember being able to pick up sales on cereal all the time. I remember, for example, General Mills having “buy 3 boxes for $10” types of deals. You don’t see that here. So, seeing this deal at PriceSmart is great. For $11.99 you get Froot Loops, Apple Jacks, and Coco Krispies. To give you an idea of how this helps you save money, if you’re a fan of Apple Jacks, you’ll be shocked to know that my daughter asked me for a box at the Rey supermarket, the regular supermarket, last night. I glanced over and nearly gasped. A box of Apple Jacks was listed at over six dollars. I think it was like $6.49 or something like that.
Apple juice isn’t cheap in Panama. You can pick up mango juice, papaya juice, and all the other strange tropical juices for just over a buck a quart, but real apple juice, not the candy tasting refrigerated stuff, is way overpriced. The only place to get the stuff at a decent price is PriceSmart where they sell two, one-gallon jugs, for $10.39.
You should grab grape juice while you’re at it, which is somewhere around the same price, as it too is ridiculously overpriced in the regular supermarkets. As you can see in the photo above, orange juice, the real, fresh-squeezed juice, isn’t very affordable here either. The one on the top shelf, is a local brand, and goes for $4.99. It has a strange taste though that can take some getting used to, but once you do, it’s not so bad. Tropicana, the one we all know and love, will run you $6.99 a gallon.
If you use a lot of oil in your cooking, and if you’re married to or living with a Panamanian, trust me you will, the only place to buy oil at a reasonable price is at PriceSmart. I’ve looked everywhere else and you might as well save yourself time and just pick up this giant jug. A regular, supermarket-size bottle, maybe around 64 oz. will cost about $6 (or more). So $11.29 is a steal.
Remember this stuff? I mentioned it in one of my other supermarket tips posts. Again, this is the best place to buy it as you can get a variety pack of these cooking sauces for only $5.99. For this price you get Salsa Condimentada (great for cooking everything, but I don’t know what the hell it is), Salsa Inglesa (Worcestershire sauce), Salsa China (soy sauce), and Criollo sauce. I never use the Criollo sauce. I know a lot of people who do though. I had like six bottles of that stuff in my cabinet just because it kept coming with the variety pack and I didn’t know what else to do with it.
You won’t find spaghetti sauce cheaper anywhere else either, not unless you like the canned stuff or the cheap packets of Panamanian sauce. This 1.77 liter plastic jar of sauce is only $5.29. In any other supermarket, the regular size jar of Prego will cost right around that same price. I usually mix one of these giant jars with two pounds of ground beef (carne molida) and use two to three packs of spaghetti to whip up a huge batch of pasta for the family.
This is what’s keeping me up long enough to finish this post. Duran is my favorite Panama coffee brand. I like the instant stuff, but of course you can pick up a bag of the regular stuff too. This big jar will cost about $7-$8 in a smaller supermarket, so I always grab one at PriceSmart.
On to the alcohol. If you go through Vodka quickly, or you just want to make a thousand jello shots (okay, I’m exaggerating), you can pick up a 1 liter bottle of Smirnoff for $10.99.
If rum is your thing, this 1.75 liter bottle goes for $12.39. You can pick up the less expensive Panamanian brand, Ron Abuelo too, but that stuff’s fairly cheap no matter where you’re shopping.
I stay away from the hard liquor. I’m a beer drinker and I’ve learned to appreciate Coors Light, as I’m not a fan of the Panamanian beer brands. I can drink any of them at a party, but you won’t typically find me putting a six pack (although very affordable at about $3 a 6-pack) into my cart. At PriceSmart you can buy a 12-pack of Coors Light for about $6.99 or a 24-pack like you see in the photo above for $15.99. The Miller Light right next to it costs $16.69 a case.
I like Corona, but it’s a little too far outside my budget. Hell, at $23.29 a case, it’s half the price of a bag of dog food. Where’s that toilet paper again? The good news is limes are cheap in Panama.
In case you can’t see the prices in the pictures, a case of Red Stripe is $22.99 and Stella Artois is $28.99. You can usually find Old Milwaukee for a very affordable price, Budweiser, and even Heineken.
Hang in there guys, not too much longer. Hopefully I’ve held your attention so far.
I try to always buy butter at PriceSmart. It’s just not economical anywhere else, not unless you buy a stick or two at a time from the small mini-supers. A tub of Country Crock Light costs only $3.69. That same size tub at a regular supermarket would probably be right around $5.
Two-dozen eggs will cost you $3.89, which is a pretty good deal considering an 18-pack at Rey costs right around the same price. The packs are wrapped in plastic wrap, so you can’t check them for damage, but I don’t think I’ve ever found a broken egg in a pack purchased from PriceSmart.
At $7.49 for a large pack of individually wrapped slices, this Nestle American cheese is a great deal. Sometimes I see Kraft, but it’s too expensive. Before I forget, Renu contact lens cleaner is usually right across from the cheese, or somewhere in the vicinity. It costs about $7 for a big bottle. I haven’t seen it cheaper anywhere else and it lasts forever.
Things have changed a lot since I first moved to Panama, so what I’m about to say may not be the case now, but I have a hard time trusting the regular supermarkets with frozen vegetables. Too many times in the past, I’ve bought a bag and opened it to find that funky stench wafting out of the bag. I’ve never found that with the bags at PriceSmart, which are just like what I used to buy at Costco in the States. I like the bag of frozen broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots. For less than $6 you can pick up a big bag of most frozen veggies.
I’m not going to go deep into the meats in this post. I still buy a lot of my meats at PriceSmart. My family loves chicken breast, and I can usually find a pack with 5-6 breasts in it for right around $7 or a little less. You can also find boneless breasts and thighs, but they’re a lot more costly.
I love these giant bags of frozen Tilapia fillets. With my family, I can usually squeeze about two dinners out of one of these bags, but remember, we’re a family of 6. The bag in the photo above costs $16.11.
The price of pork ribs is reasonable, but the ribs here are just so damned fatty. I haven’t eaten a single rib since moving here that wasn’t surrounded in fat. What I wouldn’t give for a good slab of ribs. The packages in the photo are priced between $10 and $11.
The packs of Rib-Eye steak you see in the photo above are all priced right around $7. The 4-pack on the bottom left is $6.71.
With the prices changing from by-the-pound to by-the-kilogram here, figuring out the cost can be a pain in the ass. A kilogram is roughly two pounds. At the time of this photo, ground beef was selling for $6.19 per kilo, so I guess you could say right around $3 a pound, well, a little over that.
Okay, wow, I’m about ready to wrap this up. This took a lot longer than I thought. Didn’t I say at the end of my last supermarket post that it would be my last?
I don’t buy many fresh vegetables at PriceSmart. It’s just so much more affordable to pick them up at the local smaller markets, or even the regular supermarkets. Plus, I don’t really need 50 heads of garlic. Here’s a photo though, just to show you the prices on tomatoes.
Like the juice, the fruit you’re used to can be picked up at a reasonable price. A sack of Gala apples is right around $4 and the seedless grapes you see in the photo are $5.29.
When you get to the cash register you’ll usually find young guys ready to help you load your items onto the conveyor belt and into boxes. They’ll take everything out to your car for you. Tipping is always a concern. Most people will tell you that $1 is enough, and it probably is. I usually give the guy helping me with my bags at a regular supermarket $1 just because to me, somehow, that seems a little easier and quicker. They can assist me and be on to their next customer in a jiffy. At PriceSmart I try to always give the guy $2 (unless I don’t let him take the stuff all the way to my car, then I just give $1). I do the $2 thing because the items are usually heavy, require careful packing, and he has to go all the way down to the garage and back up.
I think I’ve covered most of what you need to know about PriceSmart. My intention here wasn’t to treat you like you’ve never been to a Costco or anything like that, but to help you realize that you can rest assured that you can find comfortable places to shop, where culture shock won’t completely shut down your system.
Remember, as I mentioned in my last 5 supermarket tip articles, you don’t want to buy everything at PriceSmart. Trust me. I did it. For a long time too. I blasted through my savings in no time at all. You have to learn to shop wisely in Panama. Pick up your vegetables at the smaller markets and go to PriceSmart for your butter, cheese, meats (if you don’t find someplace cheaper), juice, and some cleaning supplies. You need to learn to buy the local equivalents when you can, and when it makes sense. If you don’t, you’ll regret it at some point.
Man, I must’ve written the word PriceSmart a hundred times in this post. They should be paying me something for this article…seriously!
Now, I’m gonna scroll back up to the top and try to proofread this thing, but it’s 2:00am and I have to get up at 5:30am. The coffee is wearing off, and I barely made it through this entire post, so cut me some slack if you spot errors. 🙂
Thanks so much for reading. You guys have no idea how much I appreciate your appreciation of the work that goes into blogging. I’m sure my fellow Panama bloggers feel the same.
FYI, this post was originally written on June 10, 2013 (so things may have changed between then and now)
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