I Compared the Cost of 48 Items at Trader Joe's and a Typical Grocery Store
Here's how much you'll save shopping at the beloved discount grocery chain.
Pamela is a freelance food and travel writer based in Astoria, Queens. While she writes about most things edible and potable (and accessories dedicated to those topics,) her real areas of expertise are cheese, chocolate, cooking and wine. She's a culinary school grad, certified sommelier, former bartender and fine dining captain with 10 years in the industry. When not sitting at the keys, she leads in-home cheese classes, wine tastings and cocktail demonstrations.
Trader Joe's has built a small empire on daffy branding and cheap groceries that rival the quality of those at much more expensive supermarkets. TJ's loyalists -- you either are one or know one -- rave about the chain's specific items, many of which can be found only at Trader Joe's, but the store's low prices are what really keep the fervent fanbase coming back.
So is Trader Joe's really that much cheaper than a typical grocery store? I did the math anyway to find out. The savings were honestly even bigger than I anticipated. My grocery list of nearly 50 items from various categories clocked in at roughly 33% less than a typical supermarket.
*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 of store brand versus name brand products 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.
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 48 basic grocery items representing a wide range of price points from nearly all food and drink departments in October 2022. 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.