Trader Joe's The ever-evolving cooking and eating habits of today’s consumers have grocery stores in a heated battle with quick-serve and fast casual restaurants for greater share of the eating-away-from-home food dollar. And the frontline for this titanic struggle is the refrigerated prepared foods section of the grocery store. Food retailers are leaning heavily on store brands to tip the scales in their favor. But how does their fare taste?

A growing number of today’s consumers are finding that the prepared foods sections of their local food retailers offer a better value than takeout or fast casual restaurant food. In our research across America, Trader Joe’s is the grocery store that consumers tell us has the done an excellent job developing high-quality, good-tasting prepared foods that rival restaurant-quality fare. In her own words, here’s how one Millennial compares the taste and quality of Trader Joe’s branded prepared food and the store brand from a national chain supermarket.

Ready-to-Eat: Appearance and Value

“I’ve been craving pasta cheesiness as of late, so I decided on Italian, buying similar entrees from Trader Joe’s and my local grocer, a national chain grocery store. The local grocer had fewer options and you could not see the inside the package–it looked like a packaged frozen meal. Under these circumstances, it is harder to make a decision, and none grabbed my attention right off the bat. Trader Joe’s had a more “interesting” selection, and the packaging was more attractive (I could actually visualize the gooey cheese and tomato sauce). Unlike the local grocer’s sort of traditional cheese or meat choices, Trader Joe’s seemed to focus their vegetarian options around interesting vegetables like eggplant and portabella mushrooms. Eggplant parmesan

“Trader Joe’s’ heat-and-eat selections tended to have more complete meals (i.e., mushroom tortellini with asparagus) compared to the local grocer’s simplistic cheese tortellini. Trader Joe’s also had some good old-classic comfort food that one might be craving such as meatloaf or a roast dinner option while the local grocer had less intriguing options.

“In terms of my perceptions of value, for a small portion of tortellini at the local grocer you pay $3.99, while a larger portion with vegetable at Trader Joe’s was also $3.99. For the portion and the creativeness of the local grocer’s tortellini, I could have whipped it up at home for two people and a vegetable for the same price, but now that’s not the point of a “heat and serve meal,” is it?”

Preparation and Perception of Taste

“The local grocer’s tortellini had an interesting “chewy” texture. Perhaps they were going for al dente but it ended up having a texture that my husband and I both noticed (and not necessarily in a good way). The sauce on the tortellini was red-orange and reminded us of a Chef Boyardee meal from a can. Not exactly an appetizing appearance. My husband did the heating up of this particular meal and complained about having to open separate compartments, mix, and then find plastic wrap to cover before cooking. Not really that challenging, but I guess this was not easy enough for him.

“Trader Joe’s Eggplant Parmesan just needed holes poked in the top and placed in the microwave (much less complaining about the prep for this meal). This meal had a more appealing look; of course, it is hard for anything to look unappealing when covered in melted cheese! The flavors were definitely better; you could see and taste the Italian herbs and there was a complexity to it that might make you forget for a minute or two that you were eating a “heat-and-eat” meal from a grocery store. Even my carnivorous husband preferred the vegetable meal to the local grocer’s pasta.”


A Millennial POV:

Trader Joe’s Eggplant Parmesan Meal vs. National Chain Grocer’s Tortellini Meal


  Trader Joe’s National Grocer
Store Brand Product: Trader Joe’s Eggplant Parmesan Cheese Tortellini
Taste: “flavorful, surprising good taste for a heat-n-eat meal” “'basic' no complexity, pasta was oddly chewy, sauce tasted fake.”
Packaging Impressions: “see-through top, looks appealing!” “packaging looks like a frozen meal, can’t see anything!”
Quality Experience: “easy to prepare and the quality and flavors were impressive.” “a disappointment beginning with preparation, ending with flavorless chewy pasta.”


Millennials: Taste and Mediocrity in Store Brands

As this brief comparison illustrates, certain cues are important when shopping for and preparing ready-to-eat meal solutions. Our Millennial, for example, was somewhat underwhelmed by the local grocery’s store brand cardboard packaging that negates any potential cues linking to notions of freshness and quality ingredients, or providing inspiration for what the end result might look (and taste) like. This feeds into her perceptions of likening the meal’s taste to canned Chef Boyardee and an overall lackluster experience. Trader Joe’s, on the other hand, which has been described as having fairly extensive taste-testing panels within its development walls, has not only met her needs in terms of presentation and unique ingredients (e.g., portabella mushrooms, eggplant) but delivers on the most important factor: taste.

These perceptions of the local grocer’s ready-to-eat meal solutions is indicative of troubles plaguing a number of large, middle-market grocers these days who are experiencing customer attrition due to pull from upmarket and down-market retailers (and foodservice/restaurant competitors). Competition in the middle ground of grocery is fierce, and the talents of Trader Joe’s in terms of crafting compelling food experiences in areas like refrigerated prepared foods speak to a long journey ahead for mainline food retailers seeking to demonstrate to shoppers that they are changing with them and are relevant in their search for quality. For Millennials, while they show a willingness to try new things presented to them in conventional grocery, upmarket retailers like Trader Joe’s will continue to erode shopping dollars from such grocers as long as old-fashioned criteria like taste are left to wither on the vine.