When it comes to scale, Trader Joe's is the underdog. But with over 400 stores, the nautical-themed grocer has carved out its own loyal market across America.
We visited Walmart and Trader Joe's to see which was truly the better grocer. We were taken with the environmentally friendly policies, low prices, and friendly design of Trader Joe's, which offered an overall superior grocery-shopping experience to Walmart.
First, we stopped by a Walmart store in New Jersey.
We immediately ran into the shopping cart holding area and braced ourselves for the massive selection we knew was awaiting us in the superstore.
Before we even fully crossed the threshold into the store, we stumbled upon these bins bursting with watermelon.
A few more steps and we were in the center of the action. The vast displays and aisles of the Walmart grocery section took up a large area of the store.
First stop: produce. Almost every item was available in large quantities, though the displays were nothing special and had a no-frills quality to them.
All of the fruit looked remarkably fresh. This corn looked as if it had just been harvested hours before arriving at the store.
Despite the somewhat simple set-up, Walmart was advertising an everyday low price on many items. We couldn't believe how cheap some of the vegetables were.
When we found these packs of strawberries for $1.68 each, we thought it was too good to be true. But it wasn't — these strawberries were remarkably fresh and looked delicious.
And these ripe bananas were going for $0.44 a pound. When it came to produce, Walmart had done a great job so far. The selection was vast, fresh, and cheap.
The bakery section at Walmart was huge. We found freshly made pastries, cookies, bread, and cupcakes available for purchase.
Though some goods looked like they had just come out of the oven, others were packaged but labeled with a Walmart seal that guaranteed freshness.
There was also a display of birthday cakes as well as a book full of fancier cakes for weddings and other occasions.
The hot food on display smelled delicious, but it was laid out in a way that was reminiscent of a basic cafeteria. Still, there was a large menu. From seafood to meat, Walmart had it covered.
There was also a selection of pre-packaged sandwiches ...
... as well as a massive section of meat and poultry.
Next, we made our way to the aisles of packaged food. When it came to appearance, the aisles were standard for a Walmart superstore.
There was a huge frozen section filled with frozen vegetables and ice cream.
Then we made our way to the coffee section. Here, we met a woman who told us that she always gets her coffee at Walmart. "It's cheaper here than in other stores," she said. And it was hard to disagree.
One large section of an aisle was wholly devoted to Oreos. Walmart seemed to carry every flavor of the cookie that was ever made.
It was the same story when we got to the cereal aisle.
From the snacks to the sauces, Walmart excelled at carrying the name brands that most people recognize. However, Walmart seemed to be lacking healthier options overall, something that might give other stores like Whole Foods an advantage. But with so many items to choose from, we almost forgot.
Grocery shopping at Walmart was a superstore experience through and through. The low prices and vast selection, while positives, were merely byproducts of the superstore style of getting "more for less." We left Walmart happy with the cheap prices, but feeling somewhat robbed of a traditional grocery store experience.
Next, we stopped by a Trader Joe's on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Just like Walmart, the first item to jump out at us here was the watermelon.
We then walked through the doors of the bustling store but had to stop to look at these beautiful flowers on display. Once we got a good look, we turned around to take in the store as a whole.
The store was not as big as Walmart, but it was spacious enough to handle the rush of customers getting in their early evening shopping. Despite the rush, the atmosphere in the store was calm, thanks to the light blue walls and wooden shelves.
All of our senses were exposed to different elements that enhanced the nautical theme of the store. From the wooden crates holding the produce to the occasional bell signifying a customer in need of help, shopping at Trader Joe's felt like a trip to a trading post at the center of a bustling port.
Even the employees' quarters were decorated in a way to keep with the theme of the store. Employees at Trader Joe's are members of the Trader Joe's "crew."
The signs advertising the different items stood out to us and looked like they were handmade. There were often cute jokes or word plays in the signs that made us smile while we shopped.
Overall, the produce section was standard. The items here looked about as fresh as those at Walmart, though the prices here were slightly higher overall.
We found some garlic on sale for only $0.49 a head, a result of the chain's recent policy of shedding its plastic packaging on certain items. The goal is to reduce the amount of plastic the company uses while making certain items cheaper.
We found huge table of avocados that were going for almost double those at Walmart.
So we decided to go for these smaller avocados instead. They were only $5 a bunch.
We headed into the aisles to see what else the store had to offer. The selection was definitely more limited than Walmart's, but there was a surprising amount of Trader Joe's-brand products.
Though these cookies probably tasted similar to Oreos or other similar snacks, there was something charming about this Trader Joe's packaging that made us want to give these items a taste.
We also found a neat selection of Trader Joe's spices ...
... as well as these Trader Joe's garbanzo beans, going for a shockingly low $0.79 a can.
A lot of the Trader Joe's products were similar to name-brand products, but they seemed to be going for cheaper. That's because Trader Joe's eliminates the middleman in the supply chain.
But the most eye-catching product was the cider. This cider was brewed for Trader Joe's by one of its brewing partners. The cider's beautiful packaging, unique flavors, and low prices all came together in a symphony of grocery bliss, something we didn't experience at Walmart.
We found a similarly charming display of pineapple cider as well.
The baked goods section consisted of many pre-packaged goods, but they all looked delicious nonetheless. Plus, there were mini options, which we thought was adorable.
In fact, almost everything about Trader Joe's was cute. We found this tasting section — dubbed 93rd Street Nibbles — that was meant for demonstrations of different Trader Joe's products.
Before we left, we stopped by the meat and poultry section and were surprised to find a large selection of kosher poultry options.
The check-out line was long, but it moved extraordinarily quickly. There were many open registers and crew members armed with decorated oars were moving the process along quickly.
Here, we found the source of the bell sounds we had heard earlier. We paid for our items and were given a brown paper bag to carry our goods. If we had brought our own reusable bags and spent more than $25, we could have been entered into a lottery to win a Trader Joe's gift card.
The experience of shopping at Trader Joe's could not be beat. The reasonable prices, store-name brands, and charming thematic design made for an enjoyable and personal experience superior to the one at Walmart. The superstore put up a good fight with its low prices and wide selection, but Trader Joe's ultimately won us over.