18 Secrets to Shopping at Trader Joe’s – Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

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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 global health pandemic has forced the supermarket chain to make some changes to its day-to-day operations. However, customers can still appreciate the unconventional touches that help make the Trader Joe’s shopping experience stand out from a traditional grocer.

If you’ve never set foot inside one of Trader Joe’s 500-plus locations, here are the shopping secrets you need to know before making your first trip.

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Trader Joe’s Has No Plans to Offer Delivery or Curbside Pickup

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Many big supermarket chains and big-box retailers that offer fresh grocery items are now offering online ordering for delivery or curbside pickup as a result of the pandemic. However, Trader Joe’s says there aren’t any plans in the works to offer these services to its customers. In a recent episode of its Inside Trader Joe’s podcast, the company’s vice president of marketing Matt Sloan explains why doing so now doesn’t make sense for the business: “Creating an online shopping system for curbside pickup or the infrastructure for delivery, it’s a massive undertaking. It’s something that takes months or years to plan, build and implement, and it requires tremendous resources.”

Rather than cut staff to help fund services such as self-checkout, online ordering and delivery, the company says it will continue to invest in hiring on-site staff. In that same podcast episode, Tara Miller, Trader Joe’s marketing director said, “The bottom line here is that our people remain our most valued resource . . . We know that this period of distancing will end, and, when it does, our crew will be in our stores to help you find your next favorite product, just as they’ve always been.”

In the meantime. . .

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Trader Joe’s Store Hours Have Been Modified Amid the COVID-19 Outbreak

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Like many retailers, Trader Joe’s has revised its operating hours during the pandemic. This has allowed them to ramp up their cleaning efforts after normal store hours. Most stores open at 9 a.m. and close at 9 p.m. local time. The first hour of operation each day is dedicated to customers age 60 and over, as well as those with disabilities. (In some locations, the store may open an hour early to accommodate at-risk shoppers. Check with your local Trader Joe’s to confirm the exact time.)

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You Can Buy a Banana for 19 Cents

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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.

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Aldi Is Part of the Family

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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, a former 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.

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There Are No Sales or Coupons at Trader Joe’s

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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 household 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 a bottle of Trader Joe’s Vegan Caesar Dressing with a similar salad dressing available at Whole Foods. Here’s what we found: At Trader Joe’s you’ll pay $3.99 for an 11-ounce bottle, while you’ll pay $5.99 for a 10-ounce bottle of Tessamae’s Organic Creamy Caesar Salad Dressing at Whole Foods — 50% more.

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8 Out of 10 Items at Trader Joe’s Are Store Brands

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In 1972, the grocer introduced its first private-label product: granola. Today, 80% of the products carried by Trader Joe’s are store brands, a company spokesperson told Kiplinger. 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. It’s a common industry practice for traditional grocers to charge their suppliers fees for shelf placement, which results in higher prices for customers. Trader Joe’s says it doesn’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.

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Trader Joe’s Prices Aren’t Always the Lowest

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To find out whether Trader Joe’s really does offer lower prices versus other stores, we did some comparison shopping. We looked at the cost of several everyday grocery items and priced them against similar items available at Aldi, Target and Walmart. Here’s what we found:

At Aldi, a 12-ounce package of their Little Salad Bar Chopped Salad Kits (available in a variety of salad combinations) costs $2.89. You’ll pay $3.99 for a 9.75-ounce bag of Trader Joe’s Lemony Arugula Basil Salad Kit. That’s an extra buck for less product. We spotted a 4-pack of Morningstar Farmers Grillers Original Frozen Veggie Burgers at Target for $4.99, while a 2-pack of Trader Joe’s Turkeyless Protein Patties costs $4.49. For an additional 50 cents, you’ll get twice the amount of veggie burgers at the big-box retailer. At Walmart, a 5-ounce can of Pompeian Extra Virgin Olive Oil Spray is $2.98. You’ll pay $3.99 for the same-size can of Trader Joe’s Organic Ghee and Sunflower Oil Spray — an extra $1.

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.

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Trader Joe’s Products Come and Go From Shelves

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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. There are even social media accounts dedicated to letting shoppers know when items are slated to be pulled from shelves or are strictly seasonal items (for example, check out @traderjoestobediscontinued or @traderjoesgeek on Instagram). 

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.

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Trader Joe’s Has a Lenient Return Policy

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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. Amid the pandemic, it’s been reported that even though store locations are still accepting returns and giving refunds, all returned products are being thrown away (including those that are unopened) as a safety precaution.

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Social Distancing and Safety Practices at Trader Joe’s

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Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Trader Joe’s was notorious for its long checkout lines — especially when shopping during peak hours. While doing some comparison shopping at a couple Washington, D.C.-based locations, we’ve experienced wait times of as long as 25 minutes on a Saturday afternoon. 

However, since the pandemic hit, the company has implemented social distancing and safety procedures to help eliminate overcrowding in-stores that used to result in packed checkout lines and long wait times. Now, Trader Joe’s limits the number of people allowed in-store at once, marks the distance between customers waiting in lines outside to enter the store and at checkout, keeps every other register open to allow for regular cleanings, and has suspended the use of reusable bags for bagging groceries at registers.

Those long lines at the cash register have been replaced by long lines outside some stores.

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A Ringing Bell Means Help Is on the Way

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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 was among three retailers to rank first in customer satisfaction among supermarket shoppers, according to the 2019-2020 American Customer Satisfaction Index Retail and Consumer Shipping Report.

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Trader Joe’s Stores Donate Unsold Food to Local Charities

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While offering customers quality products is a top priority for Trader Joe’s, so is giving back to the community. The grocer says that it donates 100% of products that go unsold, but remain 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. The company even donates non-food items such as fresh flowers and health and beauty products still in good condition.  

Last year, the grocery chain says it donated $384 million worth of products to charities across the country.

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All Trader Joe’s Products Go Through a Tasting Panel

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Trader Joe’s takes product quality seriously. Every product the grocer sells goes through a tasting panel and must receive a 70% vote of approval before it gets the green light to hit store shelves. If the panel doesn’t like it enough, 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, as mentioned by Trader Joe’s Sloan in an “Inside Trader Joe’s” podcast episode.

“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.

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Snag Flowers and Greeting Cards on the Cheap at Trader Joe’s

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You may not think of your local grocery store as the go-to spot for deals on fresh flowers and greeting cards, but if you’re on a budget Trader Joe’s should be on your radar, says consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. For example, the grocery chain sells small potted orchids for about $15, she notes. By comparison, similar sized potted orchid plants sell for $20 at Whole Foods. If you’re in need of a reasonably priced bouquet in a pinch, Trader Joe’s flower section is usually located near the front of the store. You’ll also find unique greeting cards situated nearby selling for as little as 99 cents, Woroch adds.

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Say Goodbye to Plastic and Styrofoam Packaging at Trader Joe’s

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When it comes to product packaging, Trader Joe’s is making a big push for sustainability. In 2019, 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. Their product marketing team has worked to replace 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.

Earlier this year, the grocer announced that it had removed about 6 million pounds of plastic from its product packaging. This included getting rid of plastic bags at the checkout register and replacing plastic and foil pouches on their tea packages with compostable film.

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Be the First to Find Out About New Trader Joe’s Products

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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 walnut pesto, herbed tahini sauce and strawberry non-fat oat frozen dessert. 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.

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Vegan, Kosher and Gluten-Free Options Abound at Trader Joe’s

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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.

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No Trader Joe’s Near You? Ask for One

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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. There are several new Trader Joe’s locations in the works that will be located in Freehold, N.J.; Richmond, Va.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; and Milipitas, Calif. New stores opened earlier this year in Cherry Hill, N.J.; Tempe, Ariz.; North Hollywood, Calif.; and New York City (East Village).

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