What to Know About Buying Trader Joe's Online—Hint: It's Not TJ's

Find out why the prices are higher when buying Trader Joe's online.

Photo: amazon.com

The first Trader Joe's opened in 1967 in Pasadena, California. Today its 500-plus stores filled with private-label favorites draws legions of loyal customers—some might call them fanatics. This innovative grocer's business model focuses on creating an enjoyable, rewarding, in-store experience for its customers and, unlike many retail behemoths, it does not have an online platform for customer purchases.

Profiteers saw an opportunity to cater to obsessive loyalists who live dozens—or perhaps hundreds or thousands—of miles away from their nearest Trader Joe's store by offering their favorite products online. If you've ever bought Trader Joe's products online and wondered how that works exactly, and why they cost so much more than in the store, read on.

Does Trader Joe's Sell Online?

The answer to whether or not Trader Joe's sells online is decidedly "no." If you've purchased Trader Joe's products online, you didn't buy them from Trader Joe's, which is a company that stresses the importance of their customers' in-store experience as much as (or perhaps more than) their high-quality products.

Here are a few reasons Trader Joe's will not sell online. Adding an e-commerce platform for Trader Joe's would require:

  • Months (perhaps years) of planning, building, and implementing
  • A nationwide network of warehouses to fulfill grocery orders
  • Capital investment that would force Trader Joe's to raise prices or cut pay

What's more, Trader Joe’s strategy of rapid product turnover—introducing and discontinuing products more frequently than many of its competitors—is hard to maintain on a website.

As long as Trader's Joe's retains their pledge to stay out of the e-commerce realm yet continues to offer unique, affordable, buzzworthy products, there will likely be resellers. These third-party sellers see a way to make a profit by filling the gap between Trader Joe's products and the customers who love them.

How the Reselling of Trader Joe's Products Started

In 2012, former software developer Mike Hallatt opened Pirate Joe's, a brick-and-mortar store in Vancouver that resold Trader Joe's items he bought in Washington State and then ferried across the U.S.-Canadian border. He marked up the prices—after paying full retail value for them at Trader Joe's—and eager Vancouverites would empty the shelves, agreeable to the steep prices because of the convenience.

In 2013, Trader Joe's sued Hallatt for copyright infringement, but they lost in a Washington State court. In December 2014, Hallatt enjoyed his most profitable month, making more than $80,000 in sales. But in 2016, amid appeals from the grocer and financially strained by the legal battle, Hallatt settled out of court with the store, agreeing to close the doors to Pirate Joe's once and for all.

How the Reselling Grew

Hallatt wasn't alone in his idea to churn out favorite Trader Joe's items to an online clientele for profit. Today, Amazon, eBay, and even Walmart.com are filled with listings by resellers seeking to make a quick buck off a bottle of Speculoos Cookie Butter, limited-edition Candy Cane Joe-Joe's, or a jar of Trader Giotto's Traditional Marinara Sauce.

This process—buying retail items from stores and then reselling them at a higher price—is known as retail arbitrage and it's not illegal. The "first sale doctrine" protects the right to resell purchased items, but that doesn't mean it's not a bit devious.

How the Buying Trader Joe's Products Online Works

Take, for example, the incredibly popular Everything But the Bagel Seasoning. One bottle at Trader Joe's is $1.99—you can bank on that price; it's a constant at the store. When we last checked on Amazon, EBTB seasoning listed for $7.25, while on Walmart.com, a two-bottle package deal cost $20. The potential to make a profit off this small bottle of seasoning is evident, so folks are doing it.

In December 2018, Juston and Kristen Herbert, a retail arbitrage and wholesale reselling couple living in Los Angeles, posted a video on their YouTube channel detailing how they used those bottles of EBTB seasoning to make nearly $30,000 in profits in one year.

On any given day, the couple said in their video, they would drive to several Trader Joe's stores around Southern California and buy as many units of the seasoning as they felt was responsible. (They said they left some for other customers.) They would then return home to repackage the bottles and ship them to Amazon for distribution.

When all was said and done, the Herberts made about an 80-cent profit per bottle. Doesn't seem like a lot? Consider that they could easily buy, package, and distribute 100 bottles in a day. Over the course of a year, that could quickly add up to more than $29,000.

Trader Joe's Reaction to Unauthorized Resellers

For their part, Trader Joe's, which today is owned by German supermarket franchise Aldi, hasn't taken steps to stop any of these resellers, though they make it clear they do not support them in any way. "When shopping at a Trader Joe's store, customers can expect products of the highest quality, at great, everyday prices," a representative for the store told Refinery29. "We do not authorize the reselling of our products and cannot stand behind the quality, safety, or value of any Trader Joe's product sold outside of our store."

Until Trader Joe's is willing to step into the e-commerce business—or just open significantly more brick-and-mortar stores—the black-market demand for Rosemary Marcona Almonds, Peanut Butter Blondies, and Umami Seasoning Blend will no doubt remain robust.

What to Know Before You Buy Trader Joe's Online

Before you click "Add to Cart" to satisfy your Trader Joe's fix online, do a bit of digging. Research the listing's seller information, including feedback from previous purchasers. Find out if past customers have been happy with the quality of the product—like it wasn't out of date when it arrived—as well as the service. You're already paying more for the product, so there's no reason to let sellers tack on extra charges or send you a bottle that had been languishing in a storeroom too long.

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