We went shopping at Trader Joe's and Wegmans to see which beloved grocer is better, and found Wegmans has one crucial advantage

Business Insider Finance 3 weeks ago

On the surface, Trader Joe's and Wegmans seem to have a lot in common. Both chains focus on store brands and have energized fans that rave about them.

With 488 stores across the country, Trader Joe's is larger than Wegmans, which has just 101 stores in New England and the mid-Atlantic regions. But despite the disparity in size, both chains have cultivated some of the most loyal followings in the industry.

Trader Joe's has some of the best sales per square footage in the grocery industry and prime locations in big cities like New York are regularly packed during peak shopping times. New Wegmans stores regularly draw thousands of fans — or Wegmaniacs — to their opening days. Most recently, more than 25,000 people showed up for the opening day of the newest Wegmans store, located in Brooklyn, New York, in October.

Beyond the hype, both grocery chains are known for their quality in-house brands that generally help keep prices low. 

Naturally, this is the head-to-head we've all been waiting for, the battle of the smaller, thematically-infused grocery chains.

After visiting both stores, the underdog was the clear winner. Wegmans won us over with its exceptional customer service and store design. But the real kicker was the numerous hot and ready-made takeout options.

Here's what we saw:

First, we stopped a Trader Joe's in Manhattan's Upper West Side neighborhood.

Trader Joe's is meant to look like a shipping port and we saw design elements reinforcing this theme from the moment we arrived.

Inside, the store kept up the nautical theme with some light wood shelving structures that looked similar to shipping containers.

And instead of a classic "Employees Only" sign, we found a section labeled "Crew Quarters."

As we wandered through the store, we also occasionally heard the tolling of a shipping bell, which indicated a customer in need of assistance.

The produce section boasted a ton of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Here too, the seafarer theme was pervasive. This corn was sitting in a crate that looked like it had just been loaded off a cargo ship.

And in many cases, the prices were extraordinarily low. These bananas were only $0.19 each.

Single avocados were going for $1.79 each, so we opted for this $4.99 bunch of miniature avocados instead.

The garlic at Trader Joe's was also super cheap because of the company's decision to eliminate the plastic packaging around some food to help the company eliminate one million pounds of plastic in its stores in 2019.

Next, we headed to the aisles of packaged food, where we were delighted to see what appeared to be some hand-painted signs in some of the displays.

Almost every item we found was from Trader Joe's brand. Instead of the name-brand Honey Nut Cheerios, we found Honey Nut O's.

Though it was somewhat upsetting to not have that name-brand choice, Trader Joe's products seemed almost identical to name-brand products in some cases. And they were generally super cheap.

For meals, there was a plethora of yummy-looking options in the frozen section ...

... and some raw meat cuts as well. We even found a nice supply of kosher chicken.

There weren't many options for ready-made food. We did, however, find a cute little station where we could taste some products near the back of the store.

And though there wasn't an official bakery in the store, we found some delicious-looking cupcakes that looked ready to eat.

At the checkout area, the line was long but it moved surprisingly fast. Here, employees raised a numbered paddle to signify their lane was open.

We opted for brown paper bags at checkout but were informed that we could have been entered into a raffle to win a Trader Joe's gift card if we had brought our own reusable bags.

Overall, we enjoyed the nautical experience of Trader Joe's. The low prices and endearing store experience were the greatest strengths of the store.

Next, we went to the new Wegmans store in Brooklyn, New York, which recently opened at the end of October.

From the moment we entered the store, we knew we were in for a completely different experience.

Like Trader Joe's, Wegmans is designed according to a theme. In this case, the store is meant to look and feel like a European open-air market.

The warm lighting and dark wood finish of the food displays helped establish this theme. Plus, the store walls had the facade of a building and marketplace, complete with canopies and windows that were lit from the inside.

The produce section was filled with fresh and pre-cut fruit and vegetables. Overall, the prices seemed standard and there were a lot of organic options that were indicated by green signs.

The store made it a point to let customers know about its bananas that were going for $.049 a pound, which likely cost more than the $0.19 each bananas at Trader Joe's.

The display tables were elaborately decorated. Some fruit was popping out of decorative wicker baskets.

Plus, a lot of the signs looked they were handmade like those at Trader Joe's, which added a personal touch to this store as well.

In the aisles, we found tons of Wegmans-brand products, like this cereal for $3.99. For the most part, the Wegmans products seemed cheaper than name-brand products and included everything from snacks ...

... to Kombucha tea.

There was even a little testing station for us to try some of the Wegmans Kombucha in the store.

Despite the plethora of Wegmans-brand options, there were a ton of name-brand products here as well. This was one advantage that Trader Joe's lacked, for the most part.

We also found an entire section for shoppers to fill their own bags of candy in the middle of an aisle.

We were shocked to find so many chances to connect with the shopping experience in the store. We could watch Parmigiano-Reggiano get sliced right before our eyes at a cheese station ...

... or take a look at some lobsters before they were cooked near the seafood counters.

Plus, almost every employee in the store looked thrilled to be there. The customer service at Wegmans went above and beyond the expected norm.

We followed our noses to the main event of the day: Wegmans' hot food and takeout section. Here, a smorgasbord of dishes awaited us.

There were sections for all different types of cuisine, including Mediterranean and Asian. There were also separate counters to order pizza and burgers as well as a large number of ready-made sushi options.

Business Insider's Irene Jiang said her review that the sushi she ate from this Wegmans store was some of the best sushi she's had in New York.

A massive bakery with mouth-watering goodies was not hard to find. There was also a smaller area with a whole selection of kosher baked goods as well.

We noticed that there was a coffee station strategically placed at the front of the store.

And an entire sitting area upstairs that let customers eat their purchases in comfort, away from the rest of the store. Up here, there was also a bar that was open during certain hours of the day.

The checkout area at Wegmans looked more traditional than the one at Trader Joe's and had the option for some last-minute impulse-buys.

As we left, we were certain that Wegmans was the clear winner over Trader Joe's, despite being the smaller chain.

Trader Joe's, in its zeal for low prices and lack of frills, just didn't have the equivalent of Wegman's delicious hot food stations, bakery, and take-out centers,

These factors, on top of the low prices and superior customer service, made Wegmans the winner in this grocery head-to-head.

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