The beloved grocer has no e-commerce presence, so others are filling the gap—and raking in the profits.

By Kimberly Holland
Updated: May 24, 2019
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In 2012, former software developer Mike Hallatt opened Pirate Joe’s, a brick-and-mortar store in Vancouver that resold Trader Joe’s items Hallatt would buy in Washington State and ferry across the US-Canadian border. He’d mark up the prices—he was paying full retail value for them at Trader Joe’s, after all—and eager Vancouverites would empty the shelves, agreeable to the steep fee 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 had 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.

Hallatt wasn’t alone in his idea to churn Trader Joe’s items out to a buying public for profit. Today, Amazon, eBay, even Walmart.com are filled with people who see the opportunity 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. It’s not illegal; the “first sale doctrine” provides that people can resell items they’ve purchased.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not a bit devious.

Take, for example, the incredibly popular Everything But the Bagel Seasoning. One bottle is $1.99. You can bank on that price. It’s a constant at the store. On Amazon, EBTB seasoning currently lists for $6.50. On Walmart.com, a two-bottle package deal is $18. The potential to make a profit off this small bottle of seasoning is evident, so folks are doing it.

Indeed, 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 alone. On any given day, the couple said in their now deleted 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 say the 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, they made about 80 cents in 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, they could quickly add up to more than $29,000 dollars.

For their part, Trader Joe’s, which is owned by German supermarket franchise Aldi, hasn’t taken steps to stop any of these resellers yet, 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. 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,” a representative for the store told Refinery29.

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 likely remain robust.

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What to Know Before You Buy

If you’re dozens, or perhaps hundreds or thousands, of miles away from the nearest Trader Joe’s, purchasing from an online reseller is one way to get your fix. (You could ask your friends to just send you a care package, too.) But before you select “Add to Cart” at any of these retailers, do a bit of digging.

Each of the retailers currently selling Trader Joe’s provides seller information, as well as feedback from previous purchasers. You can and should look to see if customers in the past have been happy with the quality of the product—i.e. it wasn’t out of date when it arrived—as well as the service. While you know you’re paying more for a product you could get for a lot less, that’s no reason to let sellers tack on extra charges or send you a bottle that’s been languishing on a shelf for too long.

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