You may associate Trader Joe’s with Hawaiian shirts but, paradoxically, the beloved grocery chain doesn’t have any locations in Hawaii. The closest store is a few thousand miles away in California. Thus, Marli Arneson, a 25-year-old from Oahu craving Trader Joe’s ginger turmeric tea, did what many of us might: She went on Amazon and bought a box for $9.74, assuming the two retailers had a partnership. But no. It was only later that Arneson learned her sought-after tea hadn’t come directly from Trader Joe’s, where it costs less than $3 in stores, but from a reseller called “Alvinztore Inc.”
After the tea arrived, “I just checked the box to see if there was any kind of ‘best if used by’ date but I can't see one. So who knows how old it is, but it seems exactly the same,” she told Refinery29 via Facebook message. Arneson got hooked on this particular tea after a coworker brought some back from Las Vegas, so she decided to buy some for herself; she says that if she had noticed the tea wasn’t being sold by Trader Joe’s, she would have looked for an official alternative. Failing that, she probably still would have bought it from “Alvinztore Inc.,” who declined to comment for this story.
Welcome to the quasi-underground Trader Joe’s reselling economy. Though the chain has 484 stores around the continental United States in 41 states and Washington D.C., it has no international locations or e-commerce business. In that absence, unsanctioned sellers offer popular items like Speculoos Cookie Butter, Dark Chocolate Covered Powerberries, Roasted Plantain Chips, and Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups on marketplaces like Amazon, Ebay, and Walmart.com. These treats often come at a significant markup: Two jars of Everything But the Bagel seasoning, which cost $1.99 each at Trader Joe’s, are going for $22.44 on Amazon, a price hike of roughly 564%.
Reselling products that have been purchased at retail is legal — a so-called “gray market,” rather than a black market — but Trader Joe’s does not support its resellers. A Trader Joe’s rep declined my interview request, but did provide this statement (complete with a podcast plug):
"As our President of Stores, Jon Basalone, shared in episode 4 of the Inside Trader Joe’s podcast, 'The store is our brand and our products work the best when they’re sold as part of the overall customer experience within the store.' 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."
Indeed, Trader Joe’s has taken legal action against brick-and-mortar reselling operations, the most famous being Pirate Joe’s in Vancouver, which shut down in 2017 after a protracted fight. It’s hard to say how much pushback online resellers receive from the brand since almost all of my messages went unanswered, but the sheer, easy-to-find quantity of Trader Joe’s snacks on Amazon and Ebay suggests that business is at least fine.
To understand why a person would voluntarily buy seasoning at a massive markup, it’s necessary to understand the cult and allure of Trader Joe’s: namely, its low prices, tongue-in-cheek branding, and, most importantly here, unique products, many of them shelf-stable. Though Trader Joe’s is owned by the German supermarket giant Aldi, its vibe is not at all corporate; rather, it’s refreshingly eccentric and laid-back. Staffers wear the aforementioned Hawaiian shirts, and Italian and Mexican foods come with “Trader Giotto” and “Trader José” packaging, a cute conceit that extends across its product range.
"Trader Joe’s does the sweets really well, that’s their thing — it’s a revolving door of great snacks. People have this obsession, this loyalty to it," says Barry Hogan, who had never heard of the brand before moving to Vancouver from his native Ireland in 2012. Even though there was no official Vancouver location, he, too, became obsessed with the stuff after he started working at Pirate Joe’s, where the top-selling snacks included Milk Chocolate Covered Peanut Butter Cups and Triple Ginger Snaps.
There are a couple kinds of customers who buy Trader Joe’s from an unofficial online reseller. The first are those who became smitten with the brand or a particular product while living close to a store — then moved somewhere without easy access, and found themselves willing to pay almost anything to get the goods again. The second group have never experienced Trader Joe’s, either because they don’t live in the US or live too far from a store, but have heard about it and want in.
In September, a Twitter user named Emily Rose put out a plea for someone to ship her Everything But the Bagel seasoning, offering to Venmo them for the purchase. She’d grown accustomed to shopping at Trader Joe’s while attending college in Philadelphia, but then moved to a city 45 minutes from the nearest location.
“I love anything everything bagel-related and was dying to try,” she explains. She wound up ordering it on Amazon for a little more than the original price, but she says it was worth it — “definitely cheaper” than driving the 45 minutes.
The advent of social media and YouTube “haul” videos has transmitted the legend far beyond American shores. On Reddit’s “Snack Exchange” forum, people outside the country are known to request Trader Joe’s trades (“I’ve heard so many good things!” wrote one Canadian). Rebecca Martin made a pilgrimage to Trader Joe’s while on vacation in New York City from Australia — for the novelty of it and for the snacks — but the store was overcrowded with weekend shoppers and she left empty-handed.
Katie Bentz, a 21-year-old from Waterloo, Ontario, heard about Trader Joe’s online and made it a priority while visiting her sister, who had recently moved to Atlanta.
"I was excited to go because I have heard such good things about their beauty products and different snacks, and you really can't beat the prices!!" she writes. "They also have a lot of exclusive products. When I went to the store in Atlanta I bought a whole cart of products and was so excited that the cashier gave me a free TJ's reusable bag!"
Whenever a gift-giving occasion rolls around, Bentz now asks for Trader Joe’s items like Everything But the Bagel seasoning, tea tree facial cleansing pads, and coconut body butter.
But even someone who lives near a Trader Joe’s might turn to Ebay or Amazon. The brand’s seasonal items (yes, including pumpkin-everything in the fall) disappear quickly, and its perennially popular items can be scarce, says Nathan Rodgers, who reviews the chain’s products on a blog, “What’s Good at Trader Joe’s?”
“They have limited shelf space and they frequently run out of top-selling items,” Rodgers writes in an email. “Sometimes it's just easier to order online than to drive around to each Joe's in your city, battling traffic and those notoriously terrible parking lots just to get a couple things that might be sold out by the time you get there anyway.
“Also, Trader Joe's likes to discontinue products — even really good ones. They're constantly making room for new concoctions, and that means discontinuing older products, sometimes forever,” he says. “We've had readers tell us on the blog that they'll buy a dozen or more packs of products they really love, because, knowing Trader Joe's, they may never see it for sale in the store again.”
Rodgers and his wife Sonia are currently traveling around the country, having "joined the ranks of the growing number of RV nomads." In the process, he’s become hyper-aware of the gaps in Trader Joe’s geographic coverage.
“For someone who spends all their time in a city like New York or L.A., it might feel like there's a TJ's in every neighborhood, but most of the country isn't so lucky,” he writes.
Globally speaking, as the TJ’s legend grew, there came resellers catering to pockets of the world where the brand had developed a fanbase. A few years ago, cookie butter became a hot-ticket item in the Philippines, says Angela Gustilo Lopez, who recalls seeing the spread being sold on Facebook and Ebay (“boxes of them”) and in storefronts with other imported foods.
“It’s considered a luxury product, so it’s in the higher-end stores,” says Lopez, who is originally from the Philippines but now lives in California. “Getting that thing that’s very rare, it’s a status symbol.”
Lopez says that in 2013, her local Trader Joe’s imposed limits on the number of Speculoos jars that a person could buy at once, apparently because resellers had started buying it up in bulk. Ironically, this is exactly what Pirate Joe’s wound up doing, too, when people began coming into the store to purchase large quantities of cookie butter for re-resale.
Pirate Joe’s was the brainchild of Mike Hallatt, a former software developer who opened the Vancouver store in 2012. He purchased Trader Joe’s groceries in Washington State and ferried them across the border. Then, as now, there were no Trader Joe’s stores in Canada, and though some early customers complained about the markup the store amassed a customer base with a taste for the brand’s unusual snacks, like the aforementioned Cookie Butter and rosemary Marcona almonds.
“On average, I’d do $25,000 a month in sales, and the most I did was $80,000 — that was December of 2014, the peak,” says Hallatt, who recruited secret shoppers to help him on his Trader Joe’s expeditions, which he occasionally did in disguise after getting banned from the stores.
Like Hallatt, Pamala Sheppard was sent a cease and desist letter when she began stocking Trader Joe’s products at a much smaller operation, Auntie Pam’s Country Store, a shop she owns in Point Roberts, Washington. Sheppard says that grocery options are fairly limited in Point Roberts, which sits on a peninsula just south of Vancouver. So she got in the habit of driving to the Trader Joe’s in Bellingham, Washington, a trip that requires traveling north into Canada and back down across the US border. Round trip, it’s a little less than three hours in the car.
“I thought, you know what, this would be a tremendous convenience for other people,” says Sheppard, whose store also stocks handmade soaps, CBD oils, and crocheted hats. “I started bringing in a few items and people loved it. The demand got to be more and more, and during the summer months we were spending $1,000 a week at Trader Joe’s.”
Carrying TJ’s products lifted her business overall, Sheppard says: Customers would come in for groceries and walk out with new jewelry, too. After getting the cease and desist letter, she petitioned Trader Joe’s but hit a dead end.
Running a brick-and-mortar resale operation like Sheppard’s or Hallatt’s can be costly and labor-intensive. On shopping days, Hallatt would leave at noon to drive across the border and start hitting up Trader Joe’s stores in Washington. Between loading up, traffic, and customs, he’d be back by 1 a.m. at the earliest.
These kinds of resale businesses come with a lot of overhead — rent, freezers and refrigerators, staff — and when they get shut down, it can be hard to get back up. It’s no surprise, then, that Trader Joe’s reselling has persisted online, where the endeavor is more lightweight and less easy to target.
Dionne Kendrick has been selling Trader Joe’s products on Ebay for the last two years, along with other items like limited-edition Twix bars, heart-shaped pillows, and massage hairbrushes, but sticks to a small range of Trader Joe’s goods “that are personal favorites of mine.” (Birthday cake popcorn, for instance.) Kendrick sells between five and 75 items from the brand each month, depending on the season, and to date has received no pushback from Trader Joe’s.
Unlike Hallatt, sellers like Kendrick don’t have to buy in bulk or worry about monitoring cookie butter purchases, because they don’t have brick-and-mortar customers who will be disappointed if the shelf is empty. This is a low-risk, low-infamy approach to reselling, lacking the spunk or humor of an establishment like Pirate Joe’s. But it’s ultimately a more sustainable way of participating in an economy that shows no signs of fading — at least, not until Trader Joe’s starts competing online, too.