5 Things Other Grocery Stores Should Steal from Trader Joe's

By G.E. Miller on 8 February 2011 (Updated 3 February 2012) 32 comments
Photo: niiicedave

Often pieces like this have a disclaimer at the end: I do not own shares in..., I am not employed by...; you get the idea. I have no vested interest in Trader Joe's other than that I'd like to see them expand so that I can find one wherever I go in the states. 

If you don't shop at Trader Joe's, give it a shot. If you do, you should know what I'm talking about. If you're a competitor of Trader Joe's (every other grocery store chain out there), then listen up. You've got some learning and some work to do, or your customers are going to "trade" you for the competition. Here are five things to copy:

1. Prices That Can't Be Beat

I shop at Trader Joe's and Meijer. I only shop at Meijer (a Midwestern, Wal-Mart-style, we-sell-everything type store) for the stuff that Trader Joe's can't carry in its tiny locations. Trader Joe's mostly has Trader Joe's generic label brands. However, you'll find a few other brands that you can also find elsewhere, including at Meijer and Kroger. And for these brands, I've often found identical items to be 25-30% cheaper at Trader Joe's. And TJ's generic items are significantly cheaper than generics at other stores. How do they do it? I don't know. I definitely save money on groceries at TJ's. (See also: Organic Groceries on a Budget)

2. Unique, Quality Products

I have never felt like I've bought something of poor quality at Trader Joe's. Occasionally the store's produce is not the freshest (I still do a lot of my produce shopping at Whole Foods), but everything else seems to be at peak quality. Cheap and high-quality at the same time? Unheard of. There are so many new foods that I've tried at Trader Joe's that I simply can't find elsewhere and would have never tried otherwise.

3. Healthy Foods

Much of Trader Joe's selection is organic and comparatively healthy compared to what you'll find in other grocery stores. Yes, the store does have ice cream, sodas, and chips — but we all have to give in to our guilty pleasures now and then. You can find antibiotic and growth-hormone-free meat and milk, and ingredient lists on items often lack high-fructose corn syrup, food dyes, and other unworldly foreign crap. I still look at the ingredient lists, but I'm fairly confident that if I grabbed something on the run and didn't look until I got home, I would not be displeased with the ingredients.

In any other major grocery store chain (excluding Whole Foods), nine times out of ten, whatever I grab is going to be loaded with unhealthy ingredients. It's nice not to have to worry about that for a change. Healthy food is one of Trader Joe's cornerstones.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

4. Convenience

I alluded to this a little bit, but TJ's stores are comparatively tiny. No, they don't carry motor oil, toys, or 50 types of facial tissues. But you know what? I'm just fine with that! After a busy week at work, the last thing I want to do is have to choose between 30 brands of laundry detergent. I also don't want to have to walk a quarter-mile to the back of the store if I forgot something when I get to the checkout. My grocery trips to TJ's last under 20 minutes a piece. At Kroger or Meijer's, they used to last an hour or more.

It's also hard to get lost. I know where everything is, and I rarely have to ask.

5. Enthusiastic Staff

The staff at Trader Joe's seem to like working there (or at least they fake it pretty well). You can tell that the staff has the same kind of enthusiasm for the product as the customers do. The only other retail chain that I can say that about is REI.

The Downsides of Trader Joe's?

In addition to the produce that isn't always the freshest, you need to hit TJ's at the right time (usually early in the morning), or the inventory on baked goods and produce is typically ravaged. I also wish that I could order stuff online. Other than that, I have no legitimate complaints.

I applaud you, Trader Joe's, for making my grocery shopping experience pleasant.

What about Trader Joe's or your most frequented grocery store do you love and hate?

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Marla Walters's picture

Great post! The last time we were in a Trader Joe's, on the mainland, we bought another suitcase so that we could bring TJ stuff back to Hawaii. It's an office tradition that if you go to the mainland, you should bring back some of their great snacks to share.

You forgot to mention one of their most fun products: Two-Buck Chuck!

Guest's picture
Jetskreemr

I tried it a few times, but I never shop there anymore. Why? Good luck trying to find anything that's actually organic! When I last went, I didn't find any produce I wanted that was listed as organic. (Meaning it was merely conventionally grown like any other grocery store.) I went through the aisles and tried as well with packaged items. The only thing I was able to buy that day was a bag of organic brown sugar. So yes, it may be fresher or cheaper, but there is no benefit to me if it is not organic. And on top of that, the company is a giant national chain, not local. So I will stick with my local co-ops, thanks.

G.E. Miller's picture

I've actually found there to be just as many organic items as non-organic. They usually have one of each type of item. I mostly eat organic. If you haven't been there in a while, you may want to revisit.

Guest's picture
Brian Lang

I've only been to a Trader Joe's once - in Bellingham on a visit from Canada. I found the prices to be higher than elsewhere. How do you find the prices compare overall to other stores? Has anyone done a comparison in Washington state?

Andrea Karim's picture

I love Trader Joe's, but one place where they fail miserably is their ready-made sushi. I have no idea where they get it from, but it is terrible.

They are a very mysterious company, though, aren't they? Owned by a German conglomerate, totally unwilling to disclose business practices. I'm wondering if most of the food isn't secretly produced in China. :)

Guest's picture
strawberrylady

They are not owned by a german conglomerate per se but by a German (although I don't know who owns them after his death, but I think it stayed in the family). One of the two founders of the Aldi's chain started Trader Joes, as well as bringing Aldi's here to the states. The Aldi's in the states are not owned by the rest of the company, but are a sort of franchise type deal. He took the Aldi concept slightly upscale.

I have hit the one around us twice and I was definitely not impressed. They are supposed to open one much closer to me so I'll see what that is like. The last two times I went to the "local" Trader Joe's, I ended up going to Whole Foods to actually do my shopping.

G.E. Miller's picture

Yes. There sushi is pretty bad. And their greens just aren't fresh (but I live in Michigan, so maybe it's just the distance).

Julie Rains's picture

There are a few things that have exceptionally great prices compared to my grocery store -- some of the dried fruit (cranberries) and non-trans-fat crackers. Interestingly, though, after I got the crackers at TJ, I noticed a very similar type at my grocery store -- they are just harder to find b/c of all the choices at the traditional stores. There's not one nearby so I go rarely and can't make lots of comparison notes.

Andrea Karim's picture

They also have cheap nuts! I make my trail mix from their dried fruit and nuts.

Great deals on fancy cheeses, as well.

Guest's picture
Julie

Well as long as you don't buy any of the frozen or pre-made crap, Trader Joe's is decent. I love their fresh fruit and vegetables, plus, their cheese prices can't be beat. (I also think they make some of the best burratta on the market.) Other products that beat the competition price-wise: olive oil, dijon mustard, pasta, pancetta.

Andrea Karim's picture

You can get burrata there? WHY DID NO ONE TELL ME THIS BEFORE??!?!?

Guest's picture
Isis

I love Trader Joe's. My only compliant is the mega long lines I have to deal with. This is part and parcel of living in the densely populated NYC. There's often a line to even get INSIDE the store. Maybe I haven't figured out the right time to go. I love that the cashiers are pleasant too, that's an anomaly at almost all the other grocery stores I've ever been too.

G.E. Miller's picture

I usually try to get there right when they open at around 8:30 AM. The shelves are usually stocked, and not many people are there.

Guest's picture
BLT

After reading all the varied experiences and comparing them to my own experience with TJ's, my conclusion is that the different markets vary significantly from each other. I find the NYC, West Side market has mostly packages of pre-wrapped in plastic vegetables (i prefer to pick my own amounts and sizes from stores that offer open bins or stacks). Yet some of the photos of other locations appear to have more of the open type displays of produce than at the store near me. The prices were also no big bargain and higher than a the Fairway store about 2 blocks away, though many comments suggest TJ's is a less expensive alternative. Maybe it is true for comparisons to the average chain super markets but compared to Fairway... well there is no comparison. The quality of Fairway produce, the selection and the price of both produce and other groceries is far superior.

Guest's picture
Laura

I also live on the UWS and am SO glad that TJ's opened! I used to trek down to Union Square every month or two to stock up on the things I like there. I have absolutely no problem at all with lines if I go before 9am (if you go before 8:30am, you can walk right from the aisles to the registers with NO wait at all), and even by 10am it actually isn't too bad. Also, I am one of the few UWSers who doesn't like Fairway - everyone raves about it, but I've tried it on two different occasions and both times disliked it. Good selection, but still pretty expensive, and the store was PACKED. I'll take TJ's any day.

Guest's picture
Harm

Yeah....all I can say is that the article is 'spot on'. I love TJ, unfortunately, I
live in a town (El Paso, TX) with no TJ....and terrible grocery stores in
general. Are you listening, Trader Joe? El Paso is ripe for the taking.....
(a Whole Foods would be great here, too)

Guest's picture
Guest

With everything I just read about TJ's, I can say the same about Aldi stores as well. Everything.

Guest's picture
Valerie

I've never been to a TJ's but I have been to an Aldi store, and based on what was written above, they are very much alike.

Guest's picture
Evan

I LOVE Trader Joes! It is the only store I'll shop in (The Wife will go to the other stores). I think a lot of it has to do with how nice every seems to be and the fact that their prices are outstanding despite how everything is organic.

Guest's picture
Guest

Also if you get something and you don't like it or it isn't fresh by the sell by date they give you your money back, no questions asked. I think they are great. Had an awesome talk about organic vs non organic meat, grass fed versus non with one their employees (who by the way get paid a living wage, as opposed to some other big name stores.) I shop there for all my meat, wine, and other products but try to hit the farmer's market for my local veggies in the spring-fall. Winter? Bleh nothing I can do to get local, fresh fruit or veggies.

Guest's picture
GE Miller

I totally forgot to mention that, but it's huge. TJ's return policy is completely no-hassle. I've never needed a receipt and never been question about my return, and I've returned at least 10 items.

Guest's picture
Lisa Under the Redwoods

I mostly love Trader Joe's ,though their is one thing I am disappointed in. Almost all of their snacks, crackers, cookies, etc. are processed on machinery that process nuts. With a nut allergy in the house we have to forgo all of those items.

Guest's picture
Some Trader Joe's Guy

All of Trader Joe's manufacturers adhere to good manufacturing processes. This means segregated production runs with a equipment cleanings in between. I have friends with nut allergies, and they have no problems with these items.

Guest's picture
JT

@"Some Trader Joes Guy" - You need to know that your answer is not helpful in the context of her comment.

TJ does a decent job of labeling it seems and we appreciate that. But there are an ever increasing number of TJ products that did not have warnings before that now say "may contain nuts."

That has nothing to do with TJ or their providers' manufacturing process - it has to do with products that contain allergens. So again, we appreciate the labeling, but if there's a MAY CONTAIN on the package, even if a manufacturer has the best cleaning process in the world, an allergic person should not eat it.

Sad, because we are TJ fans in our house.

Guest's picture
SR

God I miss Trader Joe's. That was one of my favourite things about living in California. Sadly, there is nary a TJs in Canada. But whenever I'm travelling to the States, I always scope out the nearest TJs so I can make a visit, and I bring an extra bag with me to carry as many goodies home as I can!

Guest's picture
Guest

This goes along with having good ingredients, but Trader Joe's was a godsend when I realized I needed to eat a very low-sodium diet to get my blood pressure down. They don't have anything (to my knowledge) labeled "low-sodium" because they don't need to--they consider low sodium to be part of making a good quality product, and most of their items are available with little to no extra sodium tossed in. Even though my closest TJ's is 3 hours away, I still go as much as I can and stock up on so many things I can't find anywhere else. BEST STORE EVER.

Guest's picture
Guest

I don't find that Trader Joe's is all that people make it out to be. First of all (at least in Nevada) I've found that the produce is packaged in what appears to be the most wasteful packaging ever. I love how there are signs out front that say "don't forget your reusable bags" yet the store wants to send you home with heaps of plastic containers and wrapping. Additionally, the produce pricing is per item and there are no scales in the store so that you can weigh the produce for any price comparisons.

As far as low pricing, I think this argument is only valid if you normally buy packaged food or shop at somewhere like Whole Foods. Generally the wine and beer selection is cheap if you don't mind drinking cheap wine and beer.

The employee enthusiasm is because employees get paid a decent living wage which is great. TJ's should be recognized for this.

In conclusion, it's not worth all the hype. I shop there only for the Honey Whole Wheat pretzel and cheap beer and wine.

Guest's picture
Linda

Honestly the only things I think are worth it at Trader Joes are snack items, alcohol, and ethnic sauces. Anything fresh (with the exception of their hummus and sausage) is usually low quality and expensive. I go to TJs once a month or so to stock up on desserts, chips, beer, wine, frozen entrees, and the like. Not regular health stuff though.

I read an article awhile ago about how Trader Joes makes many of it's goods in the same facilities that Kraft uses. I was trying to google to find it again, but couldn't. Basically it's not as niche, local, special as people like to think.

Guest's picture
Paul Raymond

Its hard not like the quality/price proposition TJ offers. But I wish they would locate closer to downtown cleveland instead of 15 miles into the Suburbs. I include them in a trip when I pollute the air driving out there. And as zip codes are tracked at the register, they know folks are commuting from the urban center to get those speciality items that no one else sells affordably. So TJ, if you are into this triple-bottom line sustainability stuff, how about opening a store in the city? Don't tell me you don't have enough customer base to draw from.

By the way, I work in Neighborhood development and spend a lot of time studying how to build or maintain urban neighborhoods, good food is a real key element. Frankly, if TJ's isn't willing to create more urban stores, perhaps ALDI - The german retailer might be willing to spin out smaller versions of their quality retail concept.

Come on TJs... even though you use Pepsi Co and Kraft as suppliers I still want to think you guys are cool and sort of care about the regions you derive your profits from... Paul Raymond - Slavic Village Development, Cleveland OH

Guest's picture
philosophotarian

There isn't much I buy at Trader Joe's--I cook most of my meals from scratch so their mixes and pre-made stuff don't appeal to me. But they do have great prices on organic plain yogurt, butter from pastured cows, and eggs. Good to know they only source cage-free eggs. When I want to splurge a little, I will get a fancy cheese or two. And their english muffins are surprisingly good (and cheap!). But mainly it's yogurt, butter, and eggs for me.

Guest's picture
Denita

I absolutely LOVE Trader Joe's. there are things there you just can't get anywhere else, at least for the price. I love how I don't have to worry about HFC, partially hydrogenated this, or artificial that. Where else can you find uncured turkey bacon for $2.99? Some of my favs are the bacon, the chicken sausages ($3.99), hummus selections ($1.99), 100 calories chocolate bars ($1.99), and the Apple Straws, i could go on and on. My Trader Joe shopping experience is always a good one and I always look forward to "sample" their item if the day and have coffee. Also you can return anything without a receipt and no questions asked! They may have a few cons, but what store doesn't? I'm definitely a proud TJ shopper!

Guest's picture
Comet

I read these sort of self righteous tirades against a place YOU choose to go to and about fall over laughing. If you hate TJ's--and it certainly seems the majority here DO--then DON'T GO THERE. Leaves a shorter line for the REST of us!

That said--altho I live deep in the country we have little access to ANY grocery stores and for most of the year Farmers Markets have little except honey, potatoes and apples. Nice--but not a big choice. We do have a TJ's an hour and a half drive ONE WAY from here so we don't drive there just for them but when we have to be in that area we do go there. We are not obsessive about "organic"--I find it hysterical that the people who LIVE in the MAJOR CITIES are the ones that get and obsess about all this organic stuff while out here unless it's August the stuff cannot be had for love nor money---and TJ's has stuff we LIKE and need.

My daughter cannot have "cured" bacon. OF course she loves bacon! So TJ's uncured amazingly good bacon was a MAJOR score for us and we bring packs home every time we go. In "Our" TJ's the produce is NOT wrapped in anything--and it is sold by the "each" so a scale is not needed--altho I find this a bit precious I don't generally buy by the pound either so---Most people don't buy a "pound" of apples or kale--they buy say 5 apples for that week. OR a bunch of kale for soup. The only time we use the scale at the grocery is for bulk or for when the kids/grandkids need to learn HOW to use one--very amusing and useful.

We DO appreciate the attitude of the very cheerful staff--my husband (who is in retail at a Big Box--please don't kill me for this and no they don't sell organic plaster board) is always commenting on the friendly and knowledgeable people he met there. HE actually LIKES TJ's which is more than I can say for the REST of the worlds stores. HE was very impressed with one cheese guys thoughts on items and even the "upsell" of the guy bringing us a box of crackers that he thought went well with the cheese was well received as it came with great enthusiasm. When was the last time someone actually knew their product AND was helpful about given you that info? Oh and the cheese and crackers were very good too!

Never having been in any OTHER TJ's (Or a Costco and many other larger stores for that matter!) we don't know if this attitude is the store as a whole or not. We DO have several ALDIS around here and I was kinda not surprised to find that they were owned by the same people--I had said the first time we went to TJ's it was like an upscale colorful ALDIS. Because we live in NY we cannot get "Two Buck Chuck" --we can't sell wine or liquor in the supermarket but we can sell beer--and the selection was very widespread and interesting--I was able to find several things people had asked about in our travels.

I think that demanding that EVERY place people might happen to shop be 100% brown rice and organic granola is a bit much. Sadly the production is just not at levels to sustain this. It would be great if it were--but it won't be for quite some time if ever. IF you don't like this--change it. Come to NY and I am very sure I can find you a lovely farm on some of the best agri land on the planet and you can find out exactly how HARD farming and food production IS. The picture of a quaint lil ole granny huddled over the copper kettle in her thatched cottage making brambleberry jam is---precious--but not very realistic. Didn't know NY HAD farms? Well in addition to producing a huge volume of milk and cheese (including some very large organic places--Battenkill for one is right behind my house!) we are huge corn apple potato cabbage onion and other cool weather crop growers. We also have to grow almost ALL of the hay and grain that the dairy and meat cows consume. Oh--and lets not forget GRAPES! Table and wine.

All fine n good to whine about the selection when you are not the one getting up at 4 AM to get the days farm work started and the cows milked in 40 below zero weather.