Trader Joe's in Oceanside. The stores carry unusual items such...

Trader Joe's in Oceanside. The stores carry unusual items such as cookie butter, chili lime chicken burgers, rosemary marcona almonds and cocoa almond spread. Credit: Julie Cappiello

There are plenty of reasons the California-based grocery chain Trader Joe's has such a loyal following. Employees dressed in Hawaiian shirts tell you to have fun as you enter the store and walk through the aisles with question-mark signs to invite inquiries. The stores carry unusual, tempting items such as cookie butter, chili lime chicken burgers, rosemary marcona almonds and cocoa almond spread. And, best of all, the prices on these goodies -- as well as organic and more traditional fare -- are low.

However, we wanted to find out what was actually a good deal at Trader Joe's and what wasn't. We compared its regular prices on a variety of items with the regular prices of similar items at Harris Teeter, Kroger, Walmart and Whole Foods. For the most part, we found that it's tough to beat Trader Joe's. However, there are a few things that are better deals at other stores. As always, you may be able to find lower prices elsewhere when items go on sale or discounts are offered. Download a coupon app to your smartphone, or try one of these strategies to save on groceries without coupons.

Note: We didn't include Trader Joe's low-priced Charles Shaw wines (aka "two-buck Chuck") on the list because not all of its stores sell them due to state or local restrictions. Also, wine enthusiasts often say you get what you pay for with this cheap label. But, hey, if you're using it to make sangria, you might not even notice.

Worst buys

Conventional fruits and vegetables. With the exception of bananas, Walmart beat Trader Joe's prices on a variety of nonorganic fruits and vegetables including avocados, grapes and strawberries.

Frozen fruit. Trader Joe's sells only small packages of frozen fruit. So you'll pay nearly three times as much per ounce there than if you buy a 64-ounce package of strawberries, blueberries or other fruit at Walmart.

Natural detergents. If you prefer phosphate-free dishwasher and laundry detergents, you'll find a better deal on them at Walmart. A 128-fluid-ounce container of Ecos laundry detergent was $8.97 at Walmart, versus $9.99 for Trader Joe's natural detergent. And a 75-liquid-ounce container of Palmolive Eco+ dishwasher detergent was $2.97 at Walmart, which beat the price of Trader Joe's 50-ounce container by $1.

Organic chicken. Both Kroger and Walmart beat Trader Joe's price per pound on organic chicken breasts. The savings were just 50 cents per pound on chicken breasts at Kroger but were $2 at Walmart.

Organic milk. Whole Foods beat Trader Joe's price on a gallon of organic milk by a whopping $2.30.

Shredded mozzarella. Again, Whole Foods has the lower price on a 16-ounce package of mozzarella -- $3.99 versus $4.49. Other conventional cheeses also were more expensive at Trader Joe's. For example, a 12-ounce package of sliced provolone cost 61 cents more at Trader Joe's than at Walmart.

Best buys

Crackers. We compared the prices on three types of crackers and found the best deals on all three at Trader Joe's. At $1.39 for a 4.4-ounce package, Trader Joe's water crackers were between 80 centsand $2.80 less than water crackers at other stores. Its savory crackers were at least $1 less. And only Whole Foods' club crackers beat the price (by 20 cents) of Trader Joe's Social Snackers club crackers.

Frozen meals. If you don't have the time or skills to prepare a meal, you don't have to feel guilty about stocking up on several of Trader Joe's frozen meals. For example, the price on its individual serving of pesto tortellini beat the prices other stores had on Amy's brand pesto tortellini by 50 cents. And Trader Joe's paneer palak -- an Indian dish with spinach and cheese -- was about $2 less than the Amy's brand version sold at the other stores we checked.

Natural toothpaste. At $2.99, a 6-ounce tube of Trader Joe's natural toothpaste was almost $2 less than the Tom's brand natural toothpaste sold at other stores.

Nuts and seeds. The per-pound price on a variety of nuts and seeds -- including almonds, cashews, pine nuts, walnuts and sunflower seeds -- was lower at Trader Joe's. Only Whole Foods matched the price on whole almonds, at $5.99 for a pound. And Trader Joe's had the best price by far on its 8-ounce package of pine nuts, which were between $2 and $6 more at other stores.

Organic French roast coffee. You can get your caffeine fix for $2 less with Trader Joe's 13-ounce canister of whole-bean organic French roast coffee than a 12-ounce canister at Whole Foods and Harris Teeter.

Organic fruits and vegetables. Trader Joe's prices for organic bananas, petite carrots, Gala apples, russet potatoes and sweet potatoes were slightly lower than at the other stores we checked. The exception was organic grape tomatoes, which were almost $1 less at Walmart. (Note: The Walmart we checked did not carry many of the other organic items listed here.)

Organic ground beef. Trader Joe's organic ground beef was between 50 cents and $2 less per pound than at the other stores we checked.

Organic plain yogurt. Trader Joe's price on a 32-ounce container bests others' prices by at least 50 cents. However, Greek yogurt was cheaper at Whole Foods (see Best Things to Buy at Whole Foods).

Organic spinach. A 6-ounce package of organic spinach was $2 less than at most of the stores we checked and even $1.29 less than a 5-ounce package at Walmart.

Quinoa. At $4.99, this grain was $2 less per pound at Trader Joe's than at Whole Foods and 50 cents less than Walmart's 12-ounce package.

Specialty cheeses. Trader Joe's carries a good selection of imported and artisan cheeses. We checked the prices on two more common varieties: French Brie and goat cheese. We found that Brie was between 50 cents and $4 cheaper per pound at Trader Joe's that at competitors and a 4-ounce package of goat cheese was at least $2 less.

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