Have you ever wondered how America's favorite grocery chain, Trader Joe's, generally keeps the prices on items so low? Or why it doesn't ship its Everything But The Bagel seasoning direct to your door?
A Trader Joe's employee based in New York City answered these and other questions during a Reddit Ask Me Anything.
The employee, who chose to remain anonymous, said he has been with Trader Joe's for three years and currently works at the Lower East Side store in Manhattan. While a lot of the questions focused on hard-to-find products (sorry, that Feta cheese spread really has been discontinued), the employee also offered a behind-the-scenes look at how the chain operates.
Here are the employee's answers to four frequently asked questions about Trader Joe's.
Have you ever wandered the aisles searching for vegetarian meatballs, for example, only to find that they're missing? You're not alone.
The biggest reason for shortages: Trader Joe's doesn't order as much stock as other stores, the employee said in the AMA. Kiplinger's reports the average store has about 4,000 products on its shelves, compared to 50,000 at a typical grocery store. So with a limited supply available, there's an increased chance that the product you're looking for will run out if you're shopping late in the day.
Instead of having a ton of products on the shelves or in the back, the employee said, Trader Joe's stores use a method called "truck to shelf." The system works because it means products are always fresh, he said, so no brown bananas here. And it cuts down on the number of products stores need to throw out.
"We don't want to order too much. Sometimes we end up with too little," he said. "But for us, that's better, because it's less waste. It helps keep prices down."
That also means, though, that it's up to the store to correctly estimate how much of a product it will sell.
Shortages aren't always the store's fault, he said: "Sometimes we run out of things in the warehouse and we have something known as an 'order cap.'" That means stores can only order a set number of cases of a certain product each day. It happens for a variety of reasons, such as production delays or issues with the farmers.
"Last year we had a few months when we kept running out of lemons because our growers couldn't grow enough. It was too cold in the south and too warm in the north," the employee wrote.
If you're a regular Trader Joe's shopper, you know that the products offered by the store change frequently change, and some disappear for good. That's another way the store keeps costs low, but it can mean you get cut off from your beloved cereal.
"If we release a new product that doesn't do well, we won't continue selling it because it becomes a waste of money and store space," the employee said. "More store space means more products you WANT."
Sometimes Trader Joe's discontinues an item because a producer started charging more for it. In those cases, "we don't want to up our prices for you guys," the employee said. Other times, products are pulled temporarily in order to rework the recipe or packaging.
As of March 23, the products currently on the discontinued list include the feta cheese spread, the Cameroon Mount Oku small lot coffee, mango black tea and the olive demi-baguette, according to the employee.
However, some products are expected to "hopefully" return soon, the employee said. Those include halloumi cheese and Trader Joe's BBQ rub and seasoning with coffee and garlic.
Don't expect Trader Joe's to become the new Amazon anytime soon.
"We don't do national delivery, or, really, delivery at all, anymore," the employee said. "It would drive up prices in a way that we cannot afford if we want to keep our low price points for you." Other outlets have confirmed that Trader Joe's is even scaling back on the limited delivery options it had previously made available.
There are still ways to get your groceries brought to your door. A few outside services will go shopping for you, like Postmates and Envoy. The Envoy grocery delivery service requires a monthly membership and is available in 11 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington.
During the AMA, the employee said that Trader Joe's can't really afford to do sales, either, as "prices are already too low." Because Trader Joe's stores don't advertise, what keeps people coming back, in addition to the prices, are the seasonal and special items, the employee said.
A vast majority of the chain's products are private label, which means you can only get them at Trader Joe's, according to experts. That means that while you need to make a trip to Trader Joe's for its Unexpected Cheddar, you're also not paying for the marketing and advertising that many brands use to attract customers.
Trader Joe's focuses on everyday value, as opposed to sales or coupons. "'Sale' is a four-letter word to us," the company's website says. "We have low prices, every day. NO coupons. NO membership cards. NO discounts. NO glitzy promotions or couponing wars at our stores."
Neither Trader Joe's nor the employee who participated in the AMA responded to requests for comment.
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