Monday, January 30, 2012

Trader Joe's Tea - And Commentary On The Chain As A Whole

Some time ago I wrote a long post about Tea at Wegmans Supermarket, which I followed up on by reviewing nine of Wemgans' Teas and herbal teas on RateTea. This post is about another supermarket chain: Trader Joe's. The following picture shows a Trader Joe's that I have visited before, in Media, PA, although this is not the store I regularly shop at. If you've seen me with my hat, the flower (a poppy) in my hat was a gift from a veteran outside this store, after I donated some money. This store was built inside the old Media armory, which also houses the Pennsylvania Veteran's Museum:

Trader Joe's and Wegmans share a few things in common: they are both perceived as relatively high-end supermarket chains, catering to people who like food and want higher-quality products. But the similarities end there. Both the tea selection and the stores as a whole are vastly different.

Trader Joe's Tea:

Tea is not Trader Joe's strong suit. The company does sell its own brand of tea. However, the tea is only available in tea bags, and as tea bags go, I personally find them quite disappointing. If you read reviews of Trader Joe's Tea on RateTea, you'll see that, as of writing this, all of their tea ratings on the site are in the 40-50 range (out of 100). They're not terrible, but no one seems to love them either. There are no single-region teas, and no loose-leaf teas.

Trader Joe's also does not seem to put as much effort into tea as they do coffee. The company has a full four pages on their website about coffee, and not one page on tea. Their coffee offerings are also, in my opinion, clearly superior to their tea offerings: they sell single-origin coffee, including some shade-grown coffee.

I do believe that, with little effort, Trader Joe's could do better. Most of Trader Joe's products are consistently high quality for a relatively low price, and their tea seems to fall outside this pattern: it is average-priced, but strikes me as below-average in quality. Even if they just wanted to stock tea bags, they could stock higher-quality tea bags. Maybe they could throw in an offering or two from Ten Ren Tea, which, in my opinion, offers one of the best quality-to-price ratios among simple tea bags. Even offering just Foojoy tea bags would be a step up in quality (and a step down in price) from what they currently sell. And there are so many great companies out there selling simple tea bags that are better than what Trader Joe's offers, and lower in price. Why not throw some single-region teas in the mix?

If I were running Trader Joe's:

If I were running Trader Joe's, I'd make the following changes:
  • Sell finum basket infusers in the tea section, and sell some boxes of loose-leaf tea. I'd search long and hard to find a product offering superior quality at a low price, like the three teas I featured in my post cheap tea: loose-leaf teas offering outstanding value.
  • I'd put a big, and cute sign next to the loose-leaf tea for about 6 months after stocking it, saying something to the effect of: "Loose-leaf tea saves money, protects the environment, and is superior in flavor." These are three things that Trader Joe's customers seem to care about, and I think it would probably make the loose-leaf tea sell quickly, even among people who had not ever tried loose-leaf tea before.
  • I'd put an equal amount of pages on their website about tea as about coffee. I'd highlight the individual products they offer, and draw attention to the fact that the company was now selling loose-leaf tea, and explain the benefits of loose-leaf tea in terms of price, quality, and sustainability.
  • I'd find a new supplier for their private-label brand of tea bags. From what I've tried of them, I don't think their current tea bags compare well to what else is out there, even among low-end tea bags.
  • I'd add single-region tea bags, like Darjeeling, Assam, and I'd probably offer some of the most popular Japanese styles of green tea, like hojicha and genmaicha, and maybe some Chinese teas as well, like oolongs and green tea. I know these things exist because I've had decent tea in tea bags for a fair price from brands like Ten Ren Tea, Foojoy, Harney and Sons, and Jacksons of Piccadilly.

In short, all Trader Joe's needs to do is to start thinking more about what tea they offer. The offerings now seem to reflect a lack of consideration or focus on this product, like tea is merely an afterthought.

Trader Joe's as a Whole:

While I'm writing on the topic of Trader Joe's, I want to comment on the chain as a whole. I shop here semi-regularly (every couple of months) and there is a lot I like about the store. But there's also a lot that I dislike.


In my opinion, the biggest strength of Trader Joe's is that it has consistently fair prices on products that are consistently above average quality. I think the best products to buy at Trader Joe's are packaged products that you can buy in relatively large quantities. I buy such things at this store as raw nuts, dried fruit, kalamata olives in glass jars, canned smoked herring, and massive bars of 70% dark chocolate. I also buy a fair amount of cheese and chicken sausage at the store.

I also want to mention some strengths of this store, other than the quality of the products: the employees are very courteous, which, according to my friends who have worked at this store, follows naturally from the fact that Trader Joe's treats their employees very well and the store is a pleasant place to work. I also like the no-nonsense pricing -- there are no sales or complex deals, only consistently fair prices. Another benefit of shopping here is that the store keeps enough staff on hand so that lines stay short, even when the store is busy.


Trader Joe's produce section is close to what I would consider an epic fail. Nearly all the produce is shipped in from very far away; the chain lags behind even the most "ghetto" supermarkets in terms of its lack of locally-grown or even semi-locally-grown produce. Much of the produce is packaged, and a very large portion of it originates outside the country. Once in a rare while I've picked up a good batch of something or other here, but my experiences, by and large, with the produce have been pretty bad.

Trader Joe's also fails when it comes to the sustainability of their fish offerings (with the exception of the canned fish I mentioned above). There is no fresh fish in the store, only canned fish and frozen, packaged fish, which can be fine, except for the problem that much of what the company sells is among the worst choices available from the perspective of sustainability and health. I use Seafood Watch and EDF's Seafood Selector to guide my choices of what fish to buy, and a large portion of what Trader Joe's stocks is on the "Avoid" or "Eco-Worst" list of these organizations, not to mention that many are also marked as being high in mercury and/or PCB's.

In terms of the store itself, some other downsides of this chain are that the store interiors tend to be cramped and have traffic jams during busy times of day, and that many of the store's parking lots also tend to be cramped. I have also noticed that some of their stores in urban areas have a pedestrian-unfriendly design. For example, there is a Trader Joe's on market street in Philadelphia, but you can only enter from the rear of the building, where the parking lot is--friendly to drivers but unfriendly to walkers or people arriving from the trolley stop.

What do you think?

Do you shop at Trader Joe's? What do you think of their tea offerings? Do you think they could do better? How about the chain as a whole?


  1. I think Trader Joe might not have the power to offer a lot of teas since their strategy is to keep the store small. But I used to buy a lot of coffee from Trader Joe and think they do a fabulous job on their coffee offerings in terms of both quality, price and varieties.

  2. I don't think tea takes up much more space (per cup) than coffee. And loose leaf tea also takes up much less space, per cup, than tea bags. Tea bag boxes are mostly empty space and packaging. They also have quite a big selection of tea, yet without offering any high-quality single-region pure teas.

    I think they could do better even with the same small space constraints. The fact that they do so well with coffee is a testimony to what they could do with tea.

  3. The 2 TJ's I've shopped in have had good produce, but not much local produce. They also are very generous in giving unsold but still usable things to food programs like the free meals we had at our church in Norristown, PA. It will probably take a lot of people complaining to them and encouraging them to improve their teas. In fact, I never even noticed them!

  4. That's good that they are generous about donating unsold products!