Not everything at the popular alternative grocer is a bargain.
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Recently, on the way to the checkout counter at my local Trader Joe’s, I noticed buckets of irresistible white tulips—ten for $6.99.
I’m a cheapskate when it comes to buying flowers, but with guests coming for dinner and a dearth of blooms in my yard, the tulips seemed like a smart splurge.
But at home, when I cut open the plastic sleeve for the tulips, five of the stems went limp. There was no rescuing these pathetic beauties, and they collapsed like spent ballerinas around the rim of the vase.
I’ve been shopping at Trader Joe’s regularly for more than two decades—a span spread across three different cities. There are a number of items I refuse to buy anywhere else, since no other store seems to match TJ's value and quality. For those living in smaller cities where ethnic foods may be in short supply, Trader Joe’s can be a huge boon. And Consumer Reports ranks Trader Joe’s highest of all national chains in terms of customer satisfaction.
But not everything at Trader Joe’s is a dream buy. Though often temptingly packaged, there are a few categories I’ve learned to avoid.
In the company’s defense, store managers are given latitude to refund or replace products without question. But if you’re counting on something for tonight’s dinner—like the tulips for my table—arriving home and discovering you have a shoddy product is a real bummer.
Here are the categories I’ve learned to avoid when shopping at Trader Joe’s.
Though they weren't on offer when I first started shopping at the chain, most locations now have a tantalizing selection of fresh fruits and vegetables. But as I’ve discovered more often than I care to admit, much of Trader Joe’s produce has obvious flaws, and little to none of it is locally sourced.
First off, quality is unreliable, with flavorless tomatoes, rock-hard peaches, and moldy blackberries making an appearance more often than they should. The products often spoil faster than the same items bought elsewhere. Problems that might normally be detected by simply examining the items are often masked within the packaging. And the packaging is excessive—most produce is encased in plastic clamshells or trays, meaning these items are sold with an oversized environmental footprint.
Despite Trader Joe’s reputation for bargains, some of the produce is overpriced, or must be purchased in quantities that are unreasonable. The per-pound price on zucchini might be fair, but unless we’re making zucchini bread, who needs five at a time? And two puny garlic bulbs packaged for $1.29 is a ripoff when you can spend the same amount on two or three times as many at most conventional supermarkets.
By selling products in units, rather than pounds, Trader Joe’s keeps its checkout lines moving faster—no need for scales to weigh produce. But the company should pass these operating efficiencies on to customers (something we find more common at Costco, incidentally).
Still, there are exceptions. Bagged, pre-washed salad greens seem as tasty and fresh as what I get elsewhere. There are seasonal, one-off stockings of certain items that are good quality and value; these might be globe artichokes one week or ears of corn the next. And at just 19 cents apiece, the bananas are a loss leader I never pass up.
A few years ago, Trader Joe’s earned a black eye from seafood watchdogs for selling seafood that was not sustainably sourced. Today, the chain gets a thumbs-up on the Greenpeace scorecard among retailers for its sales practices.
But I don’t find a lot of the fresh seafood at Trader Joe’s to be appealing. I’ve had ocean-caught salmon that tasted murky, waterlogged scallops, and sushi packed with fake fish and other non-Japanese ingredients. “Sell-by” dates are often meaningless.
We never know how or when the fish was sourced—it’s sealed in plastic and there are no on-site fish counter representatives to speak with. When a big shipment comes in, you won’t find anything on sale, as you would at Whole Foods, Wegmans, or Sprouts. The same goes for fresh meats, but I’ve usually found Trader Joe’s beef, lamb and chicken to be more reliable.
That said, I don’t avoid most of the frozen or canned seafood items sold at Trader Joe’s. The frozen tilapia fillets are a great deal at $6.99 a pound, and the chain deserves praise for its affordably priced, canned skipjack tuna, sustainably caught through pole and line fishing.
While I do find a number of good deals on wines at Trader Joe’s, those from the so-called Charles Shaw winery—nicknamed Two-Buck Chuck for its once-upon-a-time price tag of $1.99—are worth just that: about two bucks.
Today, these wines sell (depending on location) for $2.99 or more, which means they’re overpriced by at least 50 percent.
I already told you I’m a cheapskate, so you know I’m not ashamed of the price tag, and I agree that the wine world is filled with pretentious snobs who deserve to be taken down a notch. But though I’m not a wine expert, I know swill when I taste it, and these wines are offensively bad.
The Charles Shaw label was born during a wine glut in California. An enterprising marketer decided to sell off excess, low-end wine at a rock-bottom price. The move garnered a surprising amount of press and, in truth, it could be that the wine that first year was a tad better than what is sold now.
Today, the label is a sign of mass-produced wine at its worst—heavily manipulated with sugar and other additives to make it palatable to the undiscriminating few.
In short, I don’t even use Two-Buck Chuck for cooking wine.
Sadly, the tulips I referenced earlier weren’t my first encounter with subpar blooms at Trader Joe’s—but they will be my last.
While there’s usually a pleasing variety of flowers on offer, and while prices are generally quite low, unless you get them fresh off the truck there are too many instances where the quality disappoints. Irises don’t open, roses are past their prime, and, yes, limp tulips abound.
If I were to guess why flower quality at Trader Joe’s is uneven, it’s that the stems aren't refrigerated or even stored in a cool part of the store. Worse, the buckets they sit in are often devoid of water, meaning the plants are dying of thirst before they get to the checkout line.
Happily, Trader Joe’s has a very open-minded return policy. And though it wasn’t in my plans to make a trip back to the store with the spent tulips, I did speak to a manager about it. She not only refunded the purchase price, but she sent me home with two more bouquets of purple tulips.
I got them home, put them in water and—barely 24 hours later—they started to droop.
There are plenty of reasons I do shop at Trader Joe’s, almost weekly. From sweets, to cheese, to drinks and nuts, there are plenty of things the alternative grocer does well. Check out our list of the 7 Best Things to Buy at Trader Joe's
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