Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Grocery smackdown: Trader Joe’s vs. other markets in Dallas-Fort Worth
How TJ's stacks up against Whole Foods Market, Central Market, Eatzi's, and more.
The opening on Friday of the first local Trader Joe's in Fort Worth has stirred anticipation, especially from veterans who've shopped there already. But those less familiar with the concept seek context. What does TJ's do that other stores do not?
Below is a store-by-store comparison of TJ's and our other local grocery options. As a point of comparison, we use the Bubbies Mochi Ice Cream -- bites of premium ice cream wrapped in a paper-thin sheet of chewy mochi rice cake -- a product served at a few fine restaurants such as Nobu, whose exotic/gourmet qualities make a handy definer for differences in availability and price.
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Trader Joe's vs. Whole Foods
Whole Foods and Trader Joe's have a similar audience: foodies/yuppies -- fuppies? -- of a healthy-ish bent who like good food and are open to trying new things.
The two chains stock many similar items, including whole-grain foods, nuts, dried fruit, gourmet goods, vitamins, and health care products. Whole Foods is much, much larger and serves a segment of the market more strictly focused on organic/natural than TJ's. Whole Foods has its incomparable produce-meat-and-seafood sections, and a worthy selection of wine and beer that it seeks out, rather than TJ's practice of acquiring close-outs.
But any of Whole Foods' gourmet merchandise -- chocolates, cookies, seasonal pastries, coffees, teas -- is 100% at risk, and the company has already taken steps to offset that, such as its recent introduction of cheap coffee beans. TJ's also has a lot of gourmet dinner-party items like heat-'em-up appetizers, frozen dinners, and flash-frozen seafood that beats any grocery, Whole Foods included.
Both Trader Joe's and Whole Foods have their own private-label store brands. But Whole Foods' 365 brand is never as good as the product it mimics, whereas Trader Joe's store brand is the real stuff, relabeled under the Trader Joe's name.
As for the Bubbies Mochi Ice Cream, WF used to stock it, then swapped it out for the Mikawaya brand, a box of six for $4.99, which they recently discontinued. Maybe they shall reconsider.
Trader Joe's vs. Central Market
Trader Joe's and Central Market both sell high-end goods, as well as their private-label store brands. But Central Market's store brand is even more mediocre than Whole Foods' 365 brand, vs. Trader Joe's top-quality real deal.
On the brand-name goods, CM's prices are an unblinking, wallet-raping gouge, while TJ's are a bargain. Hello, Bubbies Mochi Ice Cream: TJ's sells the box of 9 pieces for $2.99; Central Market sells the same for $7.99. On items like that, Central Market will totally take a hit. All those special holiday items Central Market brings in, like panettone and stollen for which CM charges ridiculous amounts; all of its baking items; its chips, its snack foods, its sweets, its frozen novelty treats -- on all of that stuff, goodbye Central Market, because TJ's will beat them every time, not only with far cheaper versions but better, too.
Trader Joe's is small and quirky; Central Market is larger, more like a regular supermarket. Central Market has a sizable beer and wine selection. It also has a deli counter, bakery, huge take-out facilities, and gold-star produce selection, which TJ's does not.
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Trader Joe's vs. Market Street
Trader Joe's and Market Street aren't a direct comparison primarily because of location: Market Street resides in wealthy suburbs like Colleyville and Plano, while Trader Joe's goes for funky urban neighborhoods. Market Street has major bakery and to-go facilities as well as many high-end items, but it's also a regular supermarket, at regular supermarket prices -- not as expensive as WF or CM but not as discounty as TJ's. No Bubbies Mochi Ice Cream, though.
Trader Joe's vs. Sprouts/Sunflower
Trader Joe's and Sprouts/Sunflower (the two just merged, so the Sunflower on Henderson will soon become a Sprouts) are both smaller and more accessible - although Trader Joe's is half as big as Sprouts. Both emphasize bargains, but in different ways: Trader Joe's is nice-for-less, while Sprouts puts discount over quality. Sprouts has lots of bulk bins and produce; TJ's does not. Sprouts has no Bubbies Mochi Ice Cream.
Trader Joe's vs. Aldi
Aldi is Trader Joe's less-attractive cousin, and there's a family resemblance: Both stores don't mind limited inventory or a less-than-fashionable address, and don't offer much in the way of fresh produce/deli/bakery. But Aldi is sharply focused on discount. Where TJ's pushes for best-and-greatest at a good price, it's almost a coincidence if something nice or fancy shows up at Aldi's. Forget about Bubbies Mochi Ice Cream.
Trader Joe's vs. Jimmy's Food Store
Trader Joe's and Jimmy's are both small in scale, unconcerned about fancy atmosphere, and share a sense of choosiness. But Jimmy's is all about Italian and has a masterful deli, while TJ's is neither of those things. TJ's might have a version of some of the crackers and dry goods you'd find at Jimmy's, but it's unlikely that they'd be from the same source. It goes without saying that Jimmy's does not have Bubbies Mochi Ice Cream.
You can hardly make a direct comparison between Trader Joe's and an Asian mega-market that features a numbingly comprehensive inventory of Asian products. But markets like Ranch 99 provide TJ's with inspiration for new items to feature; you can also find comparable items in their freezer case. But where you'd have to wade through dozens of experiments at Ranch 99 to find one you liked best, Trader Joe's fulfills its usual curatorial role by doing that for you. Some of its frozen dim sum items are as good as, or better than, any Asian market.
What all of the Asian markets do have is mochi ice cream -- yay! However, instead of the Bubbies brand, they're by Asian manufacturers such as Sweety, $4 to $5 a box. Cheaper than Central Market, but still not as cheap as TJ's.
Trader Joe's vs. CostCo
Of all the local entities, CostCo is probably most like Trader Joe's -- except magnified by about 1,000,000 times. CostCo has a similar audience of discriminating yuppies looking for high-end foodstuffs at a discounted price. But where Trader Joe's is small and colorful, CostCo is gargantuan and impersonal, with a greater number of
closeouts rotating goods available for a limited time. One easy point of comparison is in wine: Where Trader Joe's focuses more on bottles under $10, CostCo offers marked-down versions of expensive wine. But -- no Bubbies. Sniff.
Trader Joe's vs. Wal-Mart
Eliminate CostCo's discerning eye for quality and you have nothing in common between Trader Joe's and Wal-Mart. Bubbies, no. No Bubbies.
Trader Joe's vs. Eatzi's
Eatzi's has mostly the things that Trader Joe's does not: big deli, take-out stations, and inflated prices. While TJ's is a destination for olives, condiments, and preserved foods, Eatzi's stocks a nominal selection as window dressing, to make you feel like you're shopping at a "market." Both stores appeal to a yuppie customer, but Eatzi's targets people in a rush while TJ's aims for the roving foodie adventurer. Negative on the Bubbies.
Trader Joe's vs. Ann's/Natural Grocers/Cox Farms
Vitamins. No Bubbies mochi ice cream, but Natural Grocers does sell actual mochi, the chewy rice snack.
Trader Joe's vs. Tom Thumb/Kroger/Albertson's
They all sell food, so that's something in common. But Trader Joe's is not like a conventional supermarket. No Bubbies, of course.
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