Why Trader Joe’s Products All Look So Different — And 9 Other Things You Never Knew About the Store’s Packaging

published Mar 1, 2022
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Trader Joe's canvas bag filled with groceries on countertop; some grocery items displayed on countertop.
Credit: Sarah Crowley

It’s hard to imagine a time when Trader Joe’s shelves weren’t stocked with brightly colored products covered with enticing photos, playful fonts, and more even playful characters. For years, though, the company used to sell its products with “little labels that had some type.” That was early on and, since then, it’s shifted to the playful, friendly, and adventurous-looking packaging we now know. Fun, right? Well, get ready for some more fun! During the latest episode of the Inside Trader Joe’s podcast, hosts Tara Miller and Matt Sloan took us behind the scenes to learn more about the grocer’s packaging.

The hosts spoke with five (crew) members of the design team — Devon, Amy, Kailen, Jack (who’s been with the grocer for more than 19 years), and Sonny (35 years in June) — about the ins and outs and personal favorites, plus a snafu with the launch of the store’s most popular product! They also chatted with Alicia, a nutrition specialist, about the incredibly detailed and technical information we see on each item. TLDR; A lot of thought and work goes into that bag of pancake mix. Let’s take a look!

Credit: Lauren Masur

1. The package designs are purposely “all over the place.”

That’s how Matt describes the look of the store’s products, anyway. And he does have a point; typically, store brand products (like the ones sold at Aldi, Costco, and Target) have a more templated look. It’s not like that at TJ’s. According to Matt, that’s intentional: “Each of our products has its own unique visual identity.”

2. A file clerk suggested the store design its own packaging.

Sonny, who started in accounting as a file clerk while going to school for art, was asked by the then-vice president of marketing to help lay out the store’s Fearless Flyer. And as he explains it, “Then I kind of mentioned to her, ‘You know, we’re already laying out stuff on the computer. How about we just start laying out our labels and packaging?’ And that was kind of the genesis of it.”

Credit: Julian Montijo

3. The store first started adding photography to frozen products.

While Sonny doesn’t remember when the grocer transitioned from “little labels that had some type” to “full-on package design,” he does think the move “was driven by the idea of having photography on a lot of our frozen products.” Before that, “You’d see the raw uncooked product kind of in a tray and a sleeve and it would have a label on it.” Unsurprisingly, the store noticed a bump in sales after the switch.

Credit: Patty Catalano

4. A packaging mishap could have delayed the launch of Mandarin Orange Chicken.

“We were launching it and a couple [of] weeks before the [Fearless] Flyer was to land in stores, but had already been printed (or was in the process of being printed), we found out that we didn’t have the bags for the Mandarin Orange Chicken,” says Tara. They just weren’t ready! What did they do? Sonny took the artwork for the original and converted it into a label that could be stuck on a clear plastic bag. A quick and simple fix that could work until the real bags were ready!

5. The design process begins with a list of questions.

Sonny compares this initial discussion to an interview process. “We talk to the product developer, and ask them what are the attributes of the product? What makes it unique? Where does it come from? Did they travel to a place to source it? Or was that the inspiration?” he says. “And then we start thinking about what type of customer would buy it. And then also what’s the price point? Can we use special printing?”

6. The team also receives a packet of info from the category manager and nutritionist.

“This packet of information has basically everything that needs to be included on the package that we’re designing,” says Devon, including the nutrition and allergen information (more on that below), as well as the amount of space, the shape, and size of the physical package that’s being designed.

7. There’s a lot of technical information woven into the design.

Part of Alicia’s job is to review all the ingredients and analyze their nutrition and allergen information to ensure the products meet TJ’s standards. For example: “We don’t allow artificial colors, we don’t allow artificial flavors, meaning you won’t see a product on our shelf that’s artificially flavored key lime pie,” explains Alicia. “Design takes that content,” she adds, “and makes it beautiful.”

8. Sometimes, the team will use their pets for design inspiration.

“I did the Chew-Cuterie Dog Treats this year and I put my dog Oakley on the box,” says Kaileen. (She went through a lot of pictures of Oakley to find the best one!) “It’s been a really big hit and everyone loves it.” 

9. They like to add humor and hidden gems into their designs too. 

Devon and Amy called out Cold Brew Coffee in a jar and the Advent Calendars, respectively, as a few of their favorites. Last year, for an Advent calendar, Amy drew a little gingerbread man sitting at his table, writing Christmas cards. In case it wasn’t clear, Amy takes a decent amount of time to add little details throughout a scene, like a robot in the window of another calendar. “I drew him in there so the kids would be excited by a robot at the toy store.”

10. The supplement category has the toughest products to design for.

According to Jack, there are regulatory rules the design team needs to follow: Letters have to be certain sizes, for one. To make everything fit and fit into the fun style of the store, Jack has his own process: First he compiles all the information and applies “all the regulations to the fonts and the sizes” and then he adds “a little bit of creativity to make it a Trader Joe’s label.”

Which Trader Joe’s products have your favorite designs? Tell us in the comments below!