Please note that I am not affiliated with Trader Joe’s in any way – all ideas expressed in this article are my own. This is absolutely not a paid ad.
I realize that that this headline might be inflammatory and a little surprising, but I promise to explain all! So, how did I come to this decision? It wasn’t made overnight.
We live close to two big box stores, and one local organic food chain. Prior to making this adjustment in our consumer routine, it was my habit to visit at least two of these stores, plus Trader Joe’s, at least once per week. There were different things we liked from each store, and while I made the effort to do one big shopping trip at one specific store, we usually ended up visiting multiple stores each week to get items we had forgotten or hadn’t thought of. My guess is that I spent about 2 hours per week grocery shopping, if not more. We have a 3.5 year old who is usually in tow. Needless to say, that 2-hours was often exhausting.
One day, I realized that I had been leaning towards TJ’s for more of our supplies. Why was that? As a professional organizer, I’m always interested in behavior patterns, and started to ask myself what my reasons were for this change. I came to the following conclusions.
No More Analysis Paralysis
One of the things I love about Trader Joe’s is their lack of choices. Perhaps this is radically un-American of me, but hear me out. Our brains REALLY struggle when faced with what is called “choice overload.” Too many choices can then result in several minutes of debating about the best option, combined with fear of missing out on the best price or value.
At TJ’s there are usually one or two options for each specific item, and that’s about it. The lack of choice abundance means that the layout of the store is super simple, with only five center aisles. I had memorized the store, and knew exactly where each item was located. This ultimately meant that it took me no more than 20 minutes to shop for the entire week. No more time spent lost in contemplation, trying to decide what type of appetizer cracker my guests would most appreciate that night. Heaven.
Food Only, an Organizer’s Dream
The other thing I love about this store is the lack of non-food options. They do have a few household items and small plants, which I buy there. Their toilet paper is sub-par, but I have made peace with that. I purchase their laundry and dish soap, too. If I need pharmacy items, of course that does require a separate trip, but it’s pretty rare.
For me, this means no impulse purchases. No impulse purchases means no time spent looking at things I don’t need or want in the first place, but might have been tempted to buy. Sure, you may take home the pumpkin-spice flavored popcorn on a whim, but no “stuff.” This has kept my bill down, and frees up extra time to do more fun things, like hanging out with my family.
The Staff are Happy, Which Makes Me Happy
The final reason I stopped visiting other stores was because how genuinely pleasant it was to go to Trader Joe’s. It’s clear that everyone is treated well there, and it’s unusual to check out without having an interesting or sweet exchange with the cashier. In answer to my inquiry about how the cashier’s day is going, I have yet to hear a single refrain of “Ugh. I just got here.”
As a deeply empathic person, it’s very stressful to visit a store where the staff are clearly unhappy. For me, talking to the staff at Trader Joe’s always lifts my mood rather than bringing it down.
So How Do I Organize to Make it Work?
There are a few concessions I have had to make in order for this plan to work. You heard about the toilet paper already. Here is what I do.
Bulk Shopping Elsewhere
There are several items which I do prefer to purchase elsewhere, like peanut butter (I’m not sure why, but their peanut butter just doesn’t do it for me.) This I purchase in bulk about once every three or four months. This applies to a few things TJ’s doesn’t carry, like dental floss, toothpaste and other personal hygiene items. Costco is a good option if you have a membership card there.
We also receive an Imperfect Produce box twice a month, so lots of our fruits and veggies come from there rather than the store.
Work the Plan
Since TJ’s only carries limited items, I know exactly what I need each week. I have a permanent list of all the things they carry that we purchase regularly, and I check things off as they run out. I begin in the produce area, and have my own bags so that I can avoid using plastic ones if possible.
I make my tour of the store, avoiding the center aisles where the junk food lives. This usually takes about 15 minutes. It’s incredibly easy and stress-free. Most of what we buy doesn’t have any more packaging than at other stores.
And that’s it! My grocery shopping done, in less than 20 minutes.
Ok, So What About Single-Use Plastics?
Trader Joe’s has come under some heat recently for their long-term reliance on single-use plastics, and rightfully so. A Change.org petition that circulated last year has received over 100K signatures (including this author’s), and garnered a lot of attention. In response, Trader Joe’s has agreed to stop offering single-use carryout bags, replace produce bags with biodegradable and compostable ones, replace styrofoam trays used in produce packaging, and sell more loose produce rather than wrapping it in plastic.
They released the following statement in their Fearless Flyer magazine:
As we fulfill these steps in 2019, on an annual basis, we are eliminating more than 1 million pounds of plastic from our stores. Thank you; we’re listening.
Here’s my take on the single-use plastics thing. YES, it’s not great. And yes, I would much rather have recyclable packaging items any day of the week.
BUT. As I mentioned, when you go to Trader Joe’s, you avoid impulse-purchase “stuff” items. That means that any packaging related to cosmetics, toys, or household items you might have taken home with you simply doesn’t exist.
In addition, since the store layout and available products are not overwhelming, I don’t overbuy. I know exactly what I need, and generally everything gets eaten. So many of my organizing clients end up throwing food, along with the packaging, into the trash because they over-bought on impulse or due to stress, and things go bad. While it’s true that TJ’s has a lot of impulse-food items, when you ONLY shop there, it is much easier to resist these.
There are also plenty of ways to avoid the single-use plastics at Trader Joe’s. Not for all things, but for many. Effectively doing this is about being an attentive and careful consumer, and choosing items that are more sustainably produced. This is something that we all need to practice every day – not just in specific places. Vote with your wallet. If you shop at Trader Joe’s, purchase items that can be recycled, and bring your own produce bags. Avoiding their single-use plastic items continues to give them the message that we don’t like it.
Simplify, Simplify Simplify. -Henry David Thoreau
Of course, there are always downsides to everything, and Trader Joe’s isn’t perfect. They don’t have stores all over the country, so if you live in a place where there is no TJ’s, consider doing the same thing with another local store. Pick a small, simple store without the bells and whistles. Learn the layout and purchase the same items with regularity. Making a conscious choice to avoid giant shopping centers is a great way to limit the quantity of non-consumable items in your home, and will simplify your life (and pantry organization) tenfold.
We are all doing our best to stay sane in this crazy, fast-paced world. If there is something that you can do to make your life easier – do it. The time and energy gained back to spend on more rewarding things is so worth it.