Trader Joes vs. Costco: What's a Better Place to Shop?
How does Trader Joe’s stack up against Costco? Both stores are often held up as ultimate destinations for the frugal shopper (frugal shoppers who also care about how employees are treated, as both Trader Joe’s and Costco seem to pay their employees well, unlike SOME big-box stores that will go unnamed in this article). Although I don't really enjoy grocery shopping anywhere, I know lots of people who swear by both chains as great shopping experiences. Friends of mine swoon when discussing Trader Joe's frozen desserts, and my mother waxes rhapsodic about Costco's USDA Prime filet mignon, which costs roughly half of what it would in a regular grocery store.
But is Trader Joe's really more convenient than Costco? Or is Costco a better place to shop than Trader Joe's? (See also: 5 Things Other Grocery Stores Should Steal From Trader Joe's)
Advantage: Trader Joe's
There are definitely some areas in which Trader Joe's beats Costco. Here are a few.
Variety of Flavors
Now, Costco probably has greater overall variety of food stuffs — like, you won't find 12 pounds of baby back ribs at Trader Joe's, but you sure as heck will at Costco. However, one of the things that makes Trader Joe's so attractive as a shopping destination is the variety of snack foods that they stock. Yes, you can buy almonds, walnuts, and pistachios by the gallon at Costco — but at Trader Joe's, you can buy wasabi, roasted, and raw almonds; Thai-chili-spiced cashews; pistachios both whole and shelled; Brazil nuts; filberts; walnuts; pumpkin kernels; sunflower seeds; and dozens of varieties of trail mix. Costco may have freeze-dried blueberries and dried apricots, but Trader Joe's has unsulphured dried mango, white peaches, apples, blueberries, apricots, and even freeze-dried pineapple.
Costco will always have seventeen-gallon jars of peanut butter, but Trader Joe's will have peanut, almond, walnut, and sesame butter as well.
No, you won’t find Memory Foam mattresses or flat screen televisions at Trader Joe’s, but you won’t have to walk six miles to get from the front door to the checkout counter, either.
In fact, Trader Joe's is sort of impressive in its ability to cram so many products into such small stores. They are masters of product stocking, and the overall size of the each store is surprisingly small (between 10,000 to 15,000 sq feet per store, as opposed to Costco's 143,000 sq foot average).
Now, how you feel about the size of a store may depend on how much you enjoy walking around the store. Me, I'd rather be in and out fairly quickly.
Most lists of "What to Buy (and Not) at Trader Joe's" will immediately call out Trader Joe's produce as a no-go. Fortunately, TJ's seems to have stopped selling individually shrink-wrapped tomatoes on a Styrofoam tray, but it still seems as though you’re better served purchasing fresh fruits and veggies elsewhere — fruit stands or farmer’s markets if your goal is freshness, Costco if you simply need massive quantities, and your favorite local grocer’s if you simply need more variety than Trader Joe’s offers.
That said, there are some exceptions in the fresh produce section at Trader Joe’s that always take me by surprise.
For instance, the only place that I have ever found Meyer lemons is at Trader Joe’s. I’m sure that they appear at higher-end food marts like Whole Foods every December, but they are prominently displayed at Trader Joe’s, and as such, that’s where I end up buying them.
This weekend, I was surprised to find an entire pound of green figs at Trader Joe’s for just $3.99. That’s steal compared to the $5 I paid for a few ounces of them at my local grocer a few days ago.
Fresh basil and rosemary plants, although often placed outside near the cut flowers, can be had at a relative steal at Trader Joe’s as well.
Trader Joe’s also seems to have a consistent special on bananas, offering them at roughly $0.19 per banana.
How you feel about buying in bulk depends largely on your method of transportation and how much living space you have to keep stuff. Until recently, I lived in a townhouse in Seattle without much storage space, and every trip to Costco resulted in a nightmare unpacking scenario in which I had to figure out where to keep 600 rolls of toilet paper, two Tuscan cantaloupes, two loaves of bread, six cans of salmon, and a pot roast the size of a Volkswagen bus. Contrast that to a trip to Trader Joe's, where I would traipse home with one tightly packed paper grocery bag of nuts, dried fruit, crackers, frozen humbow, and other snacky things that fit neatly into my kitchen cupboards and freezer, and it was easy to love Trader Joe's.
No Membership Required
Trader Joe's just lets anyone saunter in. You don't have to pay a membership fee, show ID, or submit to a personal search on your way out. WIN.
When you buy stuff you didn't intend to buy at Trader Joe's, you might walk away having blown, at max, another $50 on wine and dark chocolate. When you buy things you didn't originally want (or need) at Costco, chances of getting away without spending an additional $300 are slim.
Costco definitely shines as a place to find a huge variety of...everything, really. But here are a couple of areas in which Costco bests Trader Joe's.
Price Per Unit
Now, I am 100% certain that there are some products that are cheaper at Trader Joe's — I just wasn't able to locate any in my non-scientific survey. This list is by no means exhaustive, but when looking at generic (or at least, the cheapest) brands of food products at both stores, here are my cost per unit calculations.
They say you should never shop hungry — well, at Costco, you can arrive hungry and actually sate your ravenous state before you get shopping. Although not exactly the pinnacle of healthy food, Costco hotdog stands offer tasty, filling food at incredibly cheap prices.
Sure, Trader Joe's offers a couple of coffee samplers in the back, and maybe some snack foods, but Costco has people throughout the store offering samples of everything from seafood to miso soup. Some people adore this — personally, I feel weird taking samples of food that I have no intention of purchasing, but I know people who can more or less make a free meal out of Costco samples.
Meat and Seafood
Trader Joe's definitely lacks a good butcher's section, and if you are a carnivore, this is where Costco may win you over. No, you probably won't find lots of organic or grass-fed beef at Costco, but you will find large quantities of meat in nearly every cut imaginable. Seafood can also be a real draw for Costco shoppers, although again, you might not find much in the way of sustainably harvested fish — more likely the fish and prawns are farmed, and Costco salmon almost always has color added.
Costco was initially founded to serve businesses by providing goods at wholesale prices, and although it extended its membership rules to include households, it hasn’t exactly embraced the average urban consumer. Costco’s motto might as well be “Go big or go home.” Because while there are some things that can be purchased in smaller quantities, obviously the majority of Costco goods are sold in bulk — that’s where the savings are supposed to come from.
For some shoppers, buying two giant slabs of pork ribs is perfectly reasonable — for others, Costco shopping is pretty much precluded by a lack of storage space…or stomach space. Sure, two gallons of milk will work for the family with four kids, but if you’re only supplying the calcium needs of a childless couple, then Costco’s portions seem a bit excessive (unless you work out a sharing program with another person or household and simply halve the cost and the bounty).
If you hate shopping as much as I do, bulk buying can at least stretch your time in between tortuous shopping trips. The trick is being able to actually use everything that you buy in bulk — not just having the space to store it, but the capacity to consume perishable goods in a normal amount of time. If you have a big freezer and a decent sized pantry, Costco might seem like the ideal shopping experience.
There are simply some advantages to both stores that really depend on where you live, how you travel, and your shopping philosophy.
Location, Location, Location
Trader Joe’s makes a point of having locations in both urban centers and suburban strip malls. In cities, they feature tiny, cramped parking lots that take hours to enter and exit. They are, however, usually on a major bus line, making it easy for many urban commuters to stop off and shop on their way home from work.
Costco, on the other hand, is not a walker’s destination. This is largely because it is difficult to leave Costco without at least 200 pounds of goods in your cart, and you can’t take a shopping cart on a bus (although you CAN simply walk away with the cart, as a good many urban shoppers are wont to do). No, Costco is a car-oriented shopping destination, replete with gas pumps and sometimes even drive-through car washes.
Mind you, even though I commute by car, this doesn’t make Costco an EASY place to shop. It’s just easier for me to get there than, say, someone who has chosen to embrace a car-free lifestyle.
Wine and Beer
Although this probably varies greatly from state to state, in my state of Washington, both Trader Joe's and Costco carry wine. Now, there's a lot of debate about whether Trader Joe's famous Two-Buck Chuck (Charles Shaw wines) is worth the $3 price tag. I'm a fairly discerning wine drinker, but I don't find Charles Shaw to be terribly off-putting. And anyway, you don't generally buy a $3 bottle of wine to impress people — you buy it for big BBQs or to make sangria.
I tried putting both Costco and Trader Joe's through a per-bottle cost comparison, but found it difficult to locate enough overlap in brands to make an accurate comparison, although both stores seem to pride themselves on a wide selection of wine. Costco certainly appeared to have an edge when it came to high-end wines and champagnes, but Trader Joe's had a wider variety of unusual European blends and hard ciders.
Both Trader Joe's and Costco have the world's most horrific sushi platters. There is no excuse for this. It's practically a crime.
Do you prefer shopping at Trader Joe's or Costco? Maybe both? Neither? Tell us why in the comments!