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David Holub

A road trip to buy groceries? Trader Joe’s makes the decision easy

I don’t normally spend $272.81 with one trip to the grocery store. I also tend not to drive 3 hours and 57 minutes for the pleasure of purchasing frozen tamales and chocolate-covered nuts. But I did on Sunday, and did so enthusiastically, my smile permanent going down and back to Santa Fe.

The pilgrimage was to Trader Joe’s, a store I manage to find myself in a few times a year, normally a side-trip in a city I’m in anyway. But this was the first time I made a trip specifically for Trader Joe’s.

Was it a crazy, frivolous, indulgent trip? I think not. Because anyone who knows anything about Trader Joe’s secretly wants all of the things from TJ’s all of the time. Try it: Tomorrow at work, whisper the words, “I think I might make a Trader Joe’s run this weekend,” and the area around you will suddenly look like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange with people holding 20s in the air shouting things like, “cookie butter!” or “a brick of Pound Plus Chocolate Bars!” or “four cases of Three Buck Chuck!” or “all the coconut cashews they have!”

So why would I spend eight hours in the car to do something I loathe when the drive is six minutes? Because Trader Joe’s offers the best grocery shopping experience in the history of humans.

Much of it centers on the paradox of choice, the concept championed by psychologist Barry Schwartz in the 2004 book by the same name. In short, the theory argues that, as consumers, the more choices we have, the more anxiety we encounter. When looking at a wall of jams or spaghetti sauces, we often confront an array of decisions: price, brand, flavors, ingredients, etc. And with every decision, we inherently want the best – the best price, the best brand, the best ingredients. Trader Joe’s simplifies all of this.

A somewhat ethically-conscious shopper can trust that Trader Joe’s products are predominantly organic or all-natural. They do not carry any products with artificial flavors, colors or preservatives (ever look for pickles at a conventional supermarket that aren’t neon green?). And you don’t have to inspect every label for things like high fructose corn syrup.

At around 10,000 square feet (compared with an average grocery store, which is around 45,000 square feet), the stores are small and the number of products limited. A Trader Joe’s stocks about 4,000 items, compared with standard grocery stores, which have about 50,000. This might sound like a disappointment, but it’s the opposite.

Essentially, this means Trader Joe’s has one or two of pretty much everything you need. Need taco seasoning mix? There’s one option. Organic black beans: one option. Enchilada sauce: one option. I simply don’t see the need to devote any more brain power than I have to when selecting a jar of minced garlic.

And if price is your main grocery concern, it gets even better at TJ’s. There are no sales and no store cards to scan at checkout. Prices for pretty much everything across the board are astonishingly low. They do this because almost everything is labeled under the Trader Joe’s “brand,” but are actually name brand products found in other stores, like Annie’s macaroni and cheese, Pacific soups and Amy’s vegetarian chili in disguise. TJ’s purchases these products under insane secrecy directly from each manufacturer and passes on the savings to its customers.

And this says nothing of the actual products, which are all kind of eerily amazing and hard to come by, things like bacon jam, cookie butter (what is it?), green chile and cheese tamales, corn and chile salsa and fig butter.

As much as I love Nature’s O and as much as City Market is an OK-ish chain supermarket, nothing comes close to Trader Joe’s. Perhaps Durango will have one someday. Until then, can you pick me up five things of uncured applewood smoked bacon when you’re there?