It turns out there are a lot of us who just love Trader Joe's. It's the No. 1 grocery store in the US based on "popularity," or people with a positive opinion about the store, according to analytics group YouGov. Being firmly among this group, I can attest that the reasons for our undying affection not only have to do with TJ's superior and often one-of-a-kind proprietary products, but also a sense that shopping at Trader Joe's is easy on the budget (if not the psyche, depending on the crowdedness of your local Joe's).
But it raises the question: Is Trader Joe's actually that much cheaper than its competitors or is that just a matter of perception? If one leaves the most beloved TJ's items out of their cart -- the , the Mandarin Orange Chicken and Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese, to name a few -- do the remaining staple items actually represent significant cost savings from those you'd find at any other markets? Is it possible that shopping at a conventional grocery store is actually less expensive where basic groceries are concerned?
It is sacrilege to even suggest that, I know, but I did the math anyway to find out exactly how much cheaper Trader Joe's is than a traditional store. The savings were honestly even more than expected; roughly 33% less than a typical supermarket. Here's the full breakdown. (For more price comparisons, check out, , , and .)
Trader Joe's vs. Stop & Shop
|Product||TJ's||Stop & Shop|
|Baby spinach, 6oz||$1.99||$3.99|
|Fresh herbs (variety), 1oz*||$1.69||$2.29|
|Head of cauliflower, each||$2.99||$3.49|
|Red bell pepper, each||$1.29||$2.29|
|Beefsteak tomato, each||$1.29||$1.40|
|Hass avocado, each||$1.49||$1.99|
|Italian extra virgin olive oil, 33.8oz*||$5.99||$8.29|
|Honey O's, 13.5oz||$2.29||$7.19|
|Organic unsweetened soy beverage, 32 oz||$1.99||$4.19|
|Classic potato chips, 10oz*||$2.49||$5.29|
|Tortilla chips, 10oz^||$2.49||$3.39|
|Roasted red pepper hummus, 10oz||$3.49||$4.99|
|Shredded mild cheddar cheese, 12oz*||$3.49||$3.19|
|Cream cheese, 8oz||$1.69||$2.89|
|Sliced Muenster cheese, 12oz*||$4.49||$3.79|
|Greek nonfat yogurt, 32oz||$5.49||$5.79|
|Organic 2% milk, half gallon||$3.79||$5.69|
|Half and half, 1 quart||$2.69||$5.19|
|Unsweetened applesauce, 24oz||$1.99||$3.19|
|Creamy salted peanut butter, 16oz||$2.29||$2.59|
|Whole bean coffee, 14oz*||$4.99||$8.39|
|Whole roasted and salted cashews, 16oz^||$7.99||$16.49|
|Organic low sodium chicken broth, 32oz||$1.99||$3.19|
|Solid white albacore tuna in olive oil, 5oz||$2.29||$2.59|
|Organic virgin coconut oil, 16oz*||$4.99||$14.69|
|Garbanzo beans, 15oz||$0.89||$1.19|
|Black beans, 15oz||$0.89||$1.19|
|Whole grain Dijon mustard, 12.3oz*||$1.99||$3.79|
|Grade A 100% maple syrup, 8oz||$4.49||$9.69|
|Clover honey, 12oz||$3.99||$6.29|
|Unbleached all-purpose flour, 5lbs||$2.99||$3.69|
|Frozen peas, 16oz||$1.59||$3.49|
|Chopped frozen spinach, 16oz||$1.49||$3.49|
|Frozen pepperoni pizza, 15oz^||$5.99||$7.89|
|Multigrain waffles, 11oz^||$2.49||$3.29|
|Large brown eggs, 1 dozen||$3.29||$4.19|
|Frozen cheese tortellini, 10oz^||$2.49||$5.19|
|15% lean ground beef, 16oz||$5.99||$5.49|
|Fresh Atlantic salmon, 16oz||$9.99||$14.99|
|Ground turkey, 16oz||$3.99||$5.49|
|All natural whole chicken, per pound||$3.99||$3.99|
|Plain bagels, 6 count, 18oz||$1.99||$4.39|
|English muffins, 6 count, 12oz||$1.99||$1.99|
|Flour tortillas, 8 count, 15.5oz||$2.99||$2.09|
|French vanilla ice cream, half gallon||$6.49||$3.79|
|Fresh pizza dough, 16oz||$1.49||$3.49|
|*indicates that Trader Joe's item was of a larger size||
|^Indicates that Stop & Shop item was of a larger size||
Who supplies Trader Joe's products?
First things first. In understanding the potential cost savings of shopping only at Trader Joe's, it's important to know where TJ's products come from, whether we're speaking of flour and butter or Unexpected Cheddar and Butter Chicken. Having previously brought you an analysis ofproducts and finding massive potential savings in the grocery receipts, is it simply a matter of Trader Joe's only selling store brand items? That is: Trader Joe's more or less only sells products under its own brand name, with few exceptions.
Trader Joe's isn't actually a manufacturer unto itself, and unlike some store brands, which are just name brands in disguise, Trader Joe's relationship with its vendors is a unique point in understanding its pricing structure. Turns out there's actually merit to the "trader" element of Trader Joe's, which, according to its website, deals directly with manufacturers and growers, and cuts out the brokers and distributors, contributing to its lower-seeming prices. Which exact vendors make those Trader Joe's items with cult-like followings is a closely guarded secret.
Trader Joe's vs. Stop & Shop
Stop & Shop is a regional chain in the northeastern US whose sibling companies include Hannaford, Giant and Food Lion. I chose Stop & Shop to represent an average grocery chain in my available area whose reputation is good and whose prices are known for being reasonable, but which doesn't have the cult following of Trader Joe's, or even certain other conventional retailers such as Wegmans. Stop & Shop does have its own store brand, which is simply called SB, which stands for "store brand." (No points for originality there, Stop & Shop.) It also has an organic store brand line called Nature's Promise. Both the SB and Nature's Promise brands offer a wide variety of products in every department.
How I evaluated Trader Joe's and Stop & Shop for staples
Using grocery shopping templates available online, I generated a list of almost 50 basic grocery items representing a wide range of price points from nearly all departments of the store: produce, pantry, dairy, deli/meat, bakery and frozen sections. (I only really left out bath/body and cleaning supplies, since I was primarily interested in this from a food cost perspective.) For each item, I compared the Trader Joe's price, sourced from an in-store visit in Queens, New York, to the Stop & Shop price, sourced from Instacart. (For Stop & Shop items that are typically sold by weight, Instacart offers an estimated price per piece.)
I tried to find equivalencies in terms of the sizes of each product, but noted where one store or the other was offering a larger size. I didn't scale the prices accordingly, however, since I wanted the end totals to reflect the actual prices you'd find on your grocery receipts. To make it as fair a fight as possible, and since Trader Joe's entire fleet of products qualifies as store-brand, wherever possible I used the equivalent Stop & Shop SB or Nature's Promise product as a point of comparison.
Trader Joe's savings are still huge
At the end of the nearly 50-item list of basic staples, comparing what was effectively store brand to store brand, Trader Joe's clearly came out as the winner, totaling only $150.32 to Stop & Shop's $227.45, for a total of about 33% savings on the entirety of the list. If you're someone who doesn't typically purchase store brand items when shopping at conventional grocery stores, it is safe to assume that the potential savings would be even greater, easily approaching a 50% discount compared with similar brand name products.
Where are the biggest savings on Trader Joe's items?
Almost all of Trader Joe's biggest money savers come from the pantry department, with cereal, soy milk, coffee, maple syrup, coconut oil and nuts amounting to more than 50% off of the Stop & Shop price. Coffee and coconut oil, in particular, have such untouchable prices, one wonders whether TJ's has brokered a deal with the devil himself.
It is worth noting that deli cheeses seemed to be the one category where Stop & Shop came close to TJ's. Stop & Shop's prices for both shredded cheddar cheese and sliced Muenster cheese were actually lower than the same TJ's products. In both cases the sizes offered by Stop & Shop were smaller, however, giving TJ's an advantage in terms of value, but it stands to reason that for items with shorter shelf lives, such as cheese, the smaller package might be a more advantageous purchase anyway.
Additionally, the produce department at Trader Joe's is almost entirely sold by package or by item (as opposed to by weight), with prices that rarely fluctuate, meaning that there might be better produce deals to be found at conventional retailers for fruits and vegetables that are priced by weight rather than the piece, and based on seasonality. (When spotted, I will always buy a 99 cent avocado at any retailer.)
I would also note that weekly sales specials, which were not necessarily factored in here, can also offer a conventional retailer a price advantage over Trader Joe's on certain items from week to week. Despite these possibilities for occasional better savings in some departments, however, the math is clear: Trader Joe's has some of the best overall prices, even where basic groceries are concerned.