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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Andrea Browne Taylor, Online Editor
| March 13, 2019
Trader Joe's is well-known to its fans for low prices on unique food items, ranging from cookie butter to turkey corn dogs. The chain is also known for its quirky culture. Employees, easy to spot in their Hawaiian shirts, go out of their way to be helpful, and plastic lobsters are used to decorate stores.
The unconventional touches make shopping at Trader Joe's far different than shopping at a typical supermarket. Stores are smaller and selection is limited. Trader Joe's stocks just under 4,000 products, versus the 50,000 carried by a traditional grocer. However, you can find basics, from bread and milk to meats and produce. If you've never set foot inside one of Trader Joe's nearly 500 locations, here are the shopping secrets you need to know before you make your first trip.
Buying produce in bulk can make financial sense as long as you’re sure you’ll use up everything before it goes bad. But if you end up tossing rotten food in the trash, the savings aren’t realized. That’s why some budget-conscious grocery shoppers avoid purchasing large quantities of fruits and vegetables, even though the price per unit might be cheaper. A chance encounter between Trader Joe’s CEO and a customer at a Sun City, Calif., store confirmed this hesitation and led the grocer to start selling bananas individually.
Like most grocers, Trader Joe’s used to sell bananas only by the pound. The smallest bag you could buy contained four or five bananas. One day while visiting the Sun City location, CEO Dan Bane observed an elderly customer examine a bag of bananas, then put it back on the shelf. When the CEO asked why she didn’t buy the bag of bananas, he recalls the elderly shopper saying, “Sonny, I may not live to that fourth banana.” The next day Trader Joe’s started selling single bananas for 19 cents apiece.
Trader Joe's was founded in 1967 in Pasadena, Calif., by entrepreneur Joe Coloumbe. It was acquired in 1979 by Aldi Nord, a German company that also operates Aldi grocery stores in Europe. Aldi Nord's sister company, Aldi Sud, operates Aldi stores in the U.S.
Despite the corporate ties, the two chains have distinct marketing strategies. Aldi is price-driven and undercuts competitors by selling cheaper private-label versions of the most popular items at traditional supermarkets, says Jon Springer, retail editor for Supermarket News. Trader Joe's also aims for affordability, but its driving force is uniqueness. It focuses on its own line of mostly prepackaged products in unusual flavor combinations that you won't find anywhere else.
Most supermarket chains put select items on sale every week. But at Trader Joe's, what you see is what you get when it comes to price, says Jeanette Pavini, a savings expert for Coupons.com. That means you won't find any Trader Joe's deals listed in your Sunday circulars.
The grocer claims that because it already offers the lowest prices it can every day, there's no room for sales, specials or coupons. To test this claim, we compared the price of Speculoos Cookie Butter, one of Trader Joe's most popular items, with that of a similar cookie spread found at Whole Foods. At a Trader Joe's we visited in the Washington, D.C., area, the Speculoos Cookie Butter cost $3.69 for a 14-ounce jar. At a nearby Whole Foods, the same-size container of Dream Spread Cookie Butter cost $6.29 -- about 40% more.
In 1972, the grocer introduced its first private-label product: granola. Today, 80% of the products carried by Trader Joe's are store brands, says Alison Mochizuki, the company's director of public relations. These include items with the Trader Joe's, Trader Jose's and Trader Ming's labeling. The grocer says the heavy emphasis on store brands helps keep costs low because it buys direct from suppliers whenever possible (no middleman markup) and then passes the savings on to its customers. "Most stores charge their suppliers fees for putting an item on the shelf," Mochizuki adds. "This results in higher prices, so we don't do it."
Health-conscious customers should know that the company claims all of its store-branded food and drinks are free of artificial flavors, artificial preservatives, synthetic colors and genetically modified (GMO) ingredients.
To find out whether Trader Joe's really does offer lower prices versus other stores, we visited one of its Washington, D.C.-area locations to do some comparison shopping. We looked at the cost of everyday essentials such as eggs and milk, and priced them against similar items available at Whole Foods, an upscale grocer, and Aldi, a discount supermarket.
Aldi is known for its bargain prices on kitchen staples. A half-gallon of skim milk rang up for $1.25 at the discount grocer, while the same-size carton of milk cost $1.79 at Trader Joe’s. At Whole Foods, which has a long-standing reputation for high prices, one dozen extra-large brown eggs cost $4.19. That same-size carton of eggs was 30 cents more at Trader Joe’s.
Another thing to keep in mind, says Cindy Livesey, founder of LivingRichWithCoupons.com, is that a lot of Trader Joe's produce items are prepackaged, which doesn't allow shoppers to choose how much they actually want to buy.
It's easy to get attached to your favorite snack. Just be warned that at Trader Joe's those snacks might not be around forever. Petits Palmiers -- puffed pastry cookies that had been on Trader Joe's shelves since 2003 -- were discontinued in 2015 due to declining sales. The company also dropped round sweet potato tortilla chips, which had been around since 2011, but quickly replaced them with new and improved sweet potato tortilla chips that are triangular in shape.
Trader Joe's rationale? Because store space is limited and new products are introduced every week, items that don't catch on quickly with customers are wasting valuable real estate. Besides poor sales, Trader Joe's says a product might be discontinued if it's seasonal or if the cost of producing it increases significantly.
If you see something that piques your interest, but aren't totally sure you'll like it, Trader Joe's allows customers to have a taste on the house. Seriously. Simply ask an employee to open up whatever it is you're considering purchasing, so you can try a small sample before forking over your hard-earned cash. If you don't like it, you don't have to buy it.
Trader Joe's also has a no-questions-asked return policy. If you purchase something, try it at home and decide you don’t like it, simply bring whatever you haven't eaten back to your local store for a full refund.
You might need to set aside more time for a trip to Trader Joe's than you would a stop at your local supermarket. Depending on when you shop, you may very well experience an especially long wait in the checkout line, says frugal-living expert Lauren Greutman.
While doing our comparison shopping, we made three separate trips to Trader Joe's. The first was on a weekend and, as you might expect, it was packed. The checkout line on a Saturday afternoon snaked through the store, and it took 25 minutes to reach a cashier. The second visit was mid-afternoon on a Thursday, and the wait at checkout was less than five minutes. We went back on Thursday night, about an hour before closing time, and again the wait was just five minutes.
The lesson: If you're in a hurry or need to do a big shop, go during off-peak hours. Trader Joe's tends to be busiest on weekdays right after work and on weekends. If you can, shop early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid the crowds.
Unlike most supermarkets that use intercoms to summon assistance, Trader Joe's has a bell system. In keeping with its kitschy maritime theme (remember the plastic lobsters?), the grocer uses actual bells located near the checkout area to signal to employees that help is needed.
One ring lets employees know that another cash register needs to be opened. Two rings mean there are additional questions that need to be answered at the checkout area. Three rings signal that a manager is needed for further assistance. While this system may be a bit odd, shoppers seem to like the chain's eccentricities. Trader Joe's ranks first in customer satisfaction among supermarket shoppers, according to the 2018 American Customer Satisfaction Index, just ahead of Wegmans. Walmart, by the way, again finished last among supermarkets.
While offering customers quality products is a top priority for Trader Joe's, so is giving back to the community. The grocer donates products that are safe to consume but unfit for sale. Each store has a donation coordinator who is responsible for working with local food banks and soup kitchens to arrange daily donations. "Store crewmembers evaluate products every day and if they feel something isn't safe for consumption, they will not donate it," says Trader Joe's Mochizuki.
In 2018, the grocery chain says it donated $355 million worth of products to charities across the country, up from the $350 million in goods Trader Joe’s donated the previous year.
Trader Joe’s takes product quality seriously. So much so that every product the grocer sells goes through a tasting panel before it gets the greenlight to hit store shelves. If the panel doesn’t like it, you won’t see it at Trader Joe’s. There’s no “pay to play” for product placement as is the case with most other supermarket chains, says Matt Sloan, Trader Joe’s vice president of marketing.
“We don’t collect slotting fees. We don’t have producers of the stuff that we sell pay for the privilege of having space,” he says. Customers who frequent Trader Joe’s can be confident that stores are stocked with products the company stands behind fully.
When it comes to product packaging, Trader Joe’s is making a big push for sustainability. This year, the grocer began replacing the plastic and styrofoam containers on items including produce, meats and greeting cards with renewable and plant-based alternatives. For example, Trader Joe’s now uses a compostable tray instead of a styrofoam version for its fruits and vegetables. Also, their product marketing team is currently working on replacing the plastic sleeves on their greeting cards with a plant-based starch version to help keep them in pristine condition. The new card sleeve is biodegradable and shoppers can compost it at home.
In addition, the grocer plans to remove one million pounds of plastic from its stores in 2019. This will include plastic bags at the check-out register. Moving forward, stores will only offer paper bags or customers can bring their own reusable shopping bags.
One of the many quirks that keeps die-hard Trader Joe’s customers coming back is the unique food selection -- from dark chocolate peanut butter cups to “Everything but the Bagel” sesame seasoning. While the grocer regularly releases new products, many customers only randomly stumble upon them. Luckily, there’s a way to find out about new products that hit store shelves sooner rather than later.
Shoppers can follow the “What’s New” page on the grocer’s website to learn about the most recent product launches. The page gets updated several times per week. Each post lists a new product’s ingredients, explains how it made its way onto store shelves and where you can find it in-store. A few of the recent posts include outside-in stuffed gnocchi, vegetable and soba noodle stir fry kit and avocado tzatziki dip. Shoppers can check this page and add desired items to their grocery lists before their routine weekend Trader Joe’s trip, which can help cut down on impulse shopping.
If you have a food allergy or adhere to a strict diet, shopping at a traditional grocery store can be problematic. Oftentimes you’ll have to make multiple trips to several stores to grab everything on your list, which can be time-consuming. Trader Joe’s aims to make that weekly chore a bit easier for shoppers with special dietary needs by offering a vast selection of kosher, vegan and gluten-free items. All are clearly labeled. Special dietary offerings include organic brown rice and quinoa spaghetti, Miyoko’s vegan butter and gluten-free cinnamon raisin bread.
Shoppers can find a robust list of kosher, vegan and gluten-free products available at Trader Joe’s on the website, as well as related recipe ideas.
WhisperToMe via Wikimedia Commons
If you're now curious about visiting a Trader Joe's only to find out that there isn't a store near you, you have some recourse. Shoppers interested in bringing a store to their area should visit the Request a TJ's in My City page on Trader Joe's website and fill out the short questionnaire.
While Trader Joe's can't guarantee it will open a store in every requested city, if consumer demand is high enough in a particular area management vows to give it serious consideration. In 2018, the grocer opened 12 new stores in areas including New York City, Washington, D.C., and Santa Rosa, Calif. There are three new Trader Joe’s locations set to open later this year in Bedford, N.H., Marina Del Ray, Calif., and Gilbert, Ariz. A new store in Lynnwood, Wash., opened in January.