Friday, March 27, 2009

Trader Joe's vs Whole Foods

Aside from my minor distaste for Trader Joe's after I was ruthlessly attacked by one of their biodegradable balloons, I have always found the place a bit disconcerting.

Avocados must be purchased four at a time, not yet ripe, in a plastic scrubber bag. Generally when I want an avocado, I want one, and I want to use it that day. The one time I brought Avocados there, I ended up going to Bell to get a ripe one and the four from TJ's ended up in the compost bin. TJ's frozen food section sort of feels like they raided Costco and put hippie labels on the bags. Products of dubious unknown origin. Cheap, yes, but I don't get how they've managed to build this brand as if they were, well, Holier than Whole Foods.

All of their veggies are packaged on a styrofoam bedding and wrapped in copious layers of plastic. The organic dairy is just as likely to be from Vermont as Sonoma County. Yet somehow TJ's is universally seen as a pretty responsible place and Whole Foods is the land of the overprivileged yuppie who goes there to spend their Whole Paycheck. The only actual super green thing about TJ's is that they have a raffle for $25 if you bring your own bags. This isn't even as much of a pinch as DeLano's probably eats up giving 5 cent credits to bring your own baggers.

I really like Whole Foods. I don't necessarily like my wife going there, where she focuses on prepared foods that are certainly tasty but definitely the high margin items in the store. I prefer to stick to the damn good produce then spend a lot of time in the very reasonable bulk sections. I'll pay for good produce and I can put it in my own bags instead of piling on the styrofoam. I can get Clover-Stornetta Organic Milk instead of TJ's random milk. Does TJ's share a "dubious origins factory" which Kirkland?

Apparently I'm not alone. The Thin Green Line blog in the Chronicle takes on TJ's this week, and echoes some of my disbelief.

They have an interesting link about Whole Foods trying to educate consumers how to shop there for less money. The money quote?

"They need to reorient people to the center of the store, where there are things like ingredients. But ingredients are foreign objects to shoppers and ingredients have not been where Whole Foods have made their money. - Pam Murtaugh"

It is after all "Whole Foods" - not McDonalds. Sounds like Pam Murtaugh knows my wife.

What do you think? Whole Foods or TJ's?




Andrea said...

Yes, Trader Joe's isn't perfect. But then again, few things are... I have long thought that the prepackaged produce isn't ideal for many reasons. Their organic milk comes from California's northern coast; a bit vague, I admit.

While I prefer to pick my produce myself out of a large bin and frequently do so at various Farmer's Markets and occasionally at Whole Foods, TJ's has some great items that I enjoy a lot, including interesting salad mixes, granola, turkey sausages, some frozen foods that taste REALLY good, various imported cheeses, etc. I actually quite often buy the four avocados that you mention; yes, they may not be ripe the day you buy them, but if you plan ahead a bit they work for me.

Are all the things I buy at TJ's organic and the freshest they could be? Maybe not. However, I truly believe in mixing things up and buying and eating food from different sources. And I don't think there is anything wrong with incorporating some of TJ's foods into my diet. It's not as bad as you make it seem! (But it may not be as "green" as others make it seem either...)

NadiaMac said...

After my new year's resolution to avoid overly-packaged food (two years ago), I find myself at TJs very infrequently. Wayyy too much packaging on almost everything. I go to WF more frequently, mostly out of convenience as it is two blocks away. We get a CSA farmbox, so WF is reserved for the occasional supplemental veggies, salads to go, and bulk foods, at least until they eliminated the bulk section last week. Not sure how eliminating the bulk section is consistent with their economical shopping campaign, and it will certainly result in more trips to Rainbow for me, and fewer to WF...(And Murph, the CSA kicks WF's a$$ for both price and quality, and it is all locally sourced).

murphstahoe said...

Requiste Snark (I am of course holier than thou...)

I don't buy the avocados because I AM planning ahead. I want to eat wild, line caught Ahi Tuna on my 70th Birthday and all that plastic on TJ's produce is killing the oceans :)

All kidding aside - TJ's good, interesting foods, have created very loyal customer base in a pretty lucrative demographic, it's a good business plan. But they don't want to lose that demographic. If all the people who shop there but complain about the packaging actually held TJ's feet to the fire - we could get them to change.

Don't get me wrong, if I am ever near a TJ's I feel the irrestible urge to go in and get some goodies. And the beer section - ooh la la. But "Going to the Grocery Store" never involves TJ's because I hate choosing between accepting the packaging or a stop at a 2nd shop (I never end up buying the overpackaged stuff).

And waitaminute @NadiaMac - Whole Foods eliminated the bulk section? Is this chainwide or just a specific store? I can't stomach that.

djconnel said...

A pet peeve about both WF and TJ is their heavy emphasis on non-local bottled water. Once WF in Potrero Hill had Japanese-bottled water displayed at the "impulse-buy" position at the check-out. They're probably buying Hetch-Hetchy water in Tokyo.

Of course, the real responsibility is with the idiots buying the stuff, but nevertheless. Curiously, I complained about it to a checkout worker, and never saw it there again.

But TJ is worse, with massive displays of multi-packs of New Zealand H2O. They don't even sell gallons, which at least WF does.

Rainbow has a filter for filling customer containers, the proper solution.

Andrea said...

Well, murphystahoe, I get your point about non prepackaged produce! And, yes, I buy the avocados (when I can't get them fresh at one of the Farmer's Markets I go to every week, or, like yesterday, when I shop at WF), as well as some salad mixes that come in a plastic bag. I hardly ever buy the other prepackaged produce. I know, you NEVER do, but then again, you are holier than me...:) There is no doubt that it is much better to buy in bulk and to put the produce directly into the shopping bag you brought from home. I try to do this most of the time.

Interestingly, while shopping at WF yesterday (which I usually do about once or twice a month), I paid attention to all the prepackaged food; let me tell you, there is a LOT of prepackaged food - from lettuce mixes to prepackaged veggies, etc. Not to mention the bakery and prepared food sections... I know, you weren't necessarily talking about these sections in your post.

I know, the point is that as a shopper I have the choice to avoid the packaging (for the most part) at WF, while that choice isn't there for many items at TJs. I guess my point is that there are still a lot of prepackaged items at WF, and shopping there doesn't necessarily mean you are "greener." (You can walk out of there with lots of packing.)

In fact, I think you can be fairly "green" if you shop wisely at TJs AND other stores AND Farmer's Markets. (And you can do quite a bit of damage if you buy all the packaged produce, etc. at WF!) I, for one, truly think it's best to not buy the same organic milk, eggs, produce, etc. every week but to get food from different sources. It's also fun to explore different local, organic food sources.

And, by not buying most of the prepackaged produce at TJs, I am trying to send a message! I know, you do it better... :)

murphstahoe said...

Andrea - Amen.

I think my point was not so much that TJ's sucks - but why is it that they don't catch any guff, but WF is always under the microscope? As Dan points out - they BOTH should be under the microscope! :)

Rainbow Grocery - now that's holier than thou. The olive bar has eco-friendly compostable containers, yet to encourage re-use, Rainbow *charges* 30 cents per for them!

My favorite local organic food source, by the way, is my yard/patio/deck :) This has the wonderful side-effect that you must eat seasonally. Now if I can just figure out how to make a meal out of the parsley, oregano, and mint I harvested this weekend. Think I'll have to supplement that. If anyone lives in/near Noe Valley and wants some fresh oregano speak up!

georoad said...

Yep, TJ's has a lot of packaging.

We never end up at Whole Foods partly because it is further away / less convenient than TJ's, Rainbow, our CSA, Costco, Golden Natural, Safeway, or Farmer's Market(s).

The issue is the perception of price and value. TJ's is much smaller (as an operation, and the relative size of the stores).

NadiaMac said...

update: our WF (potrero hill) merely relocated the bulk foods. And yes, WF has a ton of packaged items, I also try and stay away from these.

caroline said...

I look forward to reading what you're planning on next, because your blog is a nice read, you're writing with passion.


Inventory Management Software said...

I really appreciate your post and it was superb .Thanks for sharing.