The Shopping Experiment: Trader Joe’s

by Laura on March 28, 2010

in Blog

This is part of an ongoing series in which I look at the way I shop – and where I shop – and wonder if things could be better. My store of choice these days has been Whole Foods, but I’ll venture on to shop elsewhere. First, I’ll visit the conventional supermarket, next Trader Joe’s, the local independent supermarket, then Costco, and finally, the farmer’s market. I will note pricing, availability of foods we eat, convenience of shopping at these different venues — including whether I have to supplement elsewhere, and the family’s overall satisfaction with the choices.

Change is hard. Change is disruptive. But at the same time, change is good. And, perhaps what I find out on our shopping adventure is that a simple change in the way (and where) I shop for food will be more beneficial to my family.

As we talk about reconnecting with the foods we eat, reconnecting with the farmers who produce our foods, and buying locally, perhaps this experiment will provide me with a way to do that more frequently.

Perhaps this experiment will tell me that it is way too expensive and too time consuming to purchase all my foods from local sources. Who knows what the experiment will reveal, but it is time we gave it a try.

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A few weeks have passed since my last update, and I’ve lived through the post-shopping experience at Safeway – and it is safe to say, I probably won’t be making it my store of choice.

There just wasn’t anything that was over the top attractive to me that would make me change my shopping ways. There wasn’t much difference in price from what I spend at Whole Foods, I had a hard time with the variety available of the things I purchase. Granted if I was shopping for maple-syrup imposters or the growing list of foods containing Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein – from two flavors of Pringles to various seasoning blends – currently found on the latest food recall list, then I would definitely of had enough variety to choose from (yes, that was a bit of sarcasm).

My next food shopping adventure took me to Trader Joe’s. Still a bit nervous about the experience, I grabbed my shopping bags, emblazoned with Whole Foods, and entered TJs.

First off, produce. Immediately I stopped in my tracks. I wasn’t met by overflowing bins of produce, colorful fruits and vegetables awaiting for me to touch, smell and even sample – and to choose how ever many I desired.

Instead, I was met by bagged apples, clam-shelled grapes, pre-portioned green beans, and other fruits and vegetables so neatly packaged in easy-to-grab containers.

Nearly everything was already pre-packed. (There were some, but not a lot, of vegetables that weren’t packaged). I had to buy 4 organic pears that they chose for me. I didn’t get a chance to touch, feel or smell them. As for the lettuce – it was all in pre-washed bag hell. I wanted to rip off the bags, let the lettuce breath and remind everyone around not to be fooled by the pre-washed moniker on the bag. Wash your greens and wash them well! (I also hate the waste of all that packaging!)

The variety was somewhat limited as well. Not a lot of fresh herbs or vegetables beyond our American palates – broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and green beans. I did, however, agree with the price of some of the organic fruit, which seemed to be a bit less expensive than what I purchase at Whole Foods.

After what seemed like an eternity of sifting through all the pre-packaged produce, I was off to purchase meat a nd poultry. I was once again thrust into the world of pre-packaged foods. I have really come to like strutting up to the meat counter, stretching to see over the top to see the butcher on the other side, then ordering the exact amount of meat, poultry and fish that I need. Here at Trader Joe’s, I was confined to exactly what they had already deemed was an appropriate size. Top this off, with lack of variety – I couldn’t get the ground pork for my Risotto and Pork Ragu recipe, or even a roast for enjoyment on Sunday evening. No whole chickens in the case, but the price for packaged organic chicken breasts and tenders was priced more reasonable than I have encountered at WF.

Up the next aisle, and it is the frozen food section – both sides of the aisle are lined with frozen fish, vegetables, appetizers, Mexican food, –you name it. I grabbed a few bags of frozen organic corn kernels,  and some frozen peas, and just as I was readying to turn the corner to warm myself up in the next aisle, did I spot the coffee. Today, a week-and-a-half later, I’m still wondering about the placement of coffee on the shelves above the frozen foods. That’s just wrong. Coffee, in my opinion, deserves its own space. It’s own place to breath. It’s own place to emanate great coffee smells. And, I shouldn’t have to reach past the frozen pot stickers to grab my coffee. I did anyway . . . Organic Sumatra Dark Roast.

My next challenge was finding packaged items of those I typically purchase in bulk – oatmeal, rice, granola snack mix, raisins, peanuts, and the like. I just wanted my bulk bins, so I could purchase the amount I desired, not the size that they deemed I needed.

I checked out and was very pleased to see that my bill was significantly less than my bill would have been at Whole Foods. (Although, I still had to run to WF to pick up a few items – such as the meat I couldn’t get at TJs.) I wondered, was it a fluke? Could I consistently buy groceries at TJs, be relatively happy with my choices – although have to make a trip elsewhere to buy those few items I couldn’t find at Trader Joe’s?

I ventured back the following week, and felt a bit more confident about where things were, and what I would find. In the end, the price was a bit higher than the previous week, yet still lower than my weekly WF bill. But, I also had to shop for my meat, and a few other items, including oatmeal (I just didn’t want Irish oatmeal), at WF.

I have several other options open to me in the coming weeks. Next up is the local independent food store, followed by Costco and the Farmer’s Market.

As I ponder my experience behind me – and what lie ahead, I have come to realize something, that I probably will have to shop at several different places to get exactly what I need. And, I know I am not alone.

Greg took the kids to the part last weekend, and overheard some of the mother’s talking about the numerous grocery stores they go to. There wasn’t one store that offered them all that they need – usually a mix of TJs, and Costco or Safeway.

At most, I pledge to keep my shopping between two stores. But, who knows what I will find? Next up, the local independent grocery store.

Where do you shop for groceries, and how many stores to you shop at?

Let us know, with a comment below.


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