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All Contents © 2017The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Andrea Browne Taylor, Online Editor
| Updated March 2017
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 a far different experience than shopping at a typical supermarket. Stores are smaller and selection is limited, so you might not be able to cross off every item on your list. Trader Joe's stocks about 3,000 products, versus the 30,000 carried by traditional grocers. However, you can find basics such as bread, milk and eggs, as well as some produce and meats.
This is just the tip of the Trader Joe's iceberg. If you've never set foot inside one of its more than 400 locations, here are eight things you should know before you make your first shopping trip.
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 (Trader Joe's most popular item) with that of a similar cookie spread found at Target. 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 Target, the same-size container of Lotus Biscoff Creamy Cookie Spread cost 30 cents more.
Eighty percent 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 milk, fruits and vegetables, and priced them against similar items available at Whole Foods, an upscale grocer, and Aldi, a discount supermarket.
Despite Whole Foods' reputation for high prices, a half-gallon carton of its 365 brand organic whole milk cost $3.99, the same as a half-gallon of Trader Joe's brand organic milk. A 16-ounce bag of Trader Joe's brand organic baby carrots cost $1.99, while at Whole Foods and Aldi the same same-size package of organic baby carrots was $1.49. At Trader Joe's, a four-pound bag of navel oranges rang up for $3.49, while the same same-size bag of oranges cost only $1.99 at Aldi.
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. Last year 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. (See more retailers with generous return policies.)
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 Lauren Greutman, founder of IAmThatLady.com, a blog about frugal living.
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 ranked number one in customer satisfaction among supermarket shoppers, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index's 2016 Retail Report. Publix was second, Aldi ranked third and Walmart finished last.
While offering customers quality products is a top priority for Trader Joe's, so is giving back to the community. On its corporate website, Trader Joe's states that its "long running policy is to donate products that aren't fit for sale, but are safe for consumption."
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 2016 , the grocery chain says it donated $341 million worth of products to charities across the country, up from the $321 million in goods Trader Joe’s donated the previous year.
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. Potential 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 2016, the grocer opened 17 new stores ranging in location from Westfield, N.J., to Bellevue, Wash., and has nine more stores scheduled to open later in 2017 ranging in location from Jacksonville, Fla., to San Diego.
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