Trader Joe's Employees Reveal What *Really* Happens During Tasting Panels

Here's what makes a product worthy of adding to their shelves.

Trader Joes grocery store entrance with sign

Have you ever wondered how trendsetting products like Everything But the Bagel Seasoning, Cauliflower Gnocchi and Hold the Cone! ice cream end up in Trader Joe's stores?

It's not a fluke—the process takes a lot of (delicious) work, including ample vetting by Trader Joe's employees. In the latest episode of the Inside Trader Joe's podcast, co-hosts Tara Miller, marketing director, and Matt Sloan, vice president of marketing, allow us to step inside their refreshed pandemic-friendly tasting panel strategy.

A cross section of about 10 to 12 Trader Joe's crew members with diverse backgrounds and perspectives are invited to join the sometimes-virtual, sometimes in-person (with masks on, of course) tasting panel to share their thoughts on a range of potential new Trader Joe's products.

"What all of these people have in common is that they're actually customers and they bring with them a customer point of view. We're after basically 70% voting yes, to approve a product. We want more than a simple majority. We want this to have an overwhelmingly good chance of succeeding," Sloan explained on the podcast.

Explained as a mix between a "spelling bee, talent show and blind date contest," a Trader Joe's product scout leads the team through a tasting. Just as it sounds, taste is the most important, but other qualities are also often up for discussion and critique:

  • Flavor
  • Packaging (for example, if chips will hold up in a bag as they're shipped to stores)
  • Price
  • Nutrition info
  • Organic certification
  • Food allergy qualities (is it gluten-free?)

Sometimes products go through a testing panel as many as five times before they're officially added or axed from the lineup. Along the way, the team shares feedback with the product developer so they can adjust accordingly (say, reduce the sodium or add more chocolate).

"For calendar year 2020 through the month of June, we've introduced almost 300 new products, like 284 new products, not counting beer, wine, spirits or plants and flowers. And we have a little over 250 to go for the calendar year, either new, everyday products or limited-opportunity buys or holiday types of things," Sloan added.

One big priority moving forward is increasing the diversity of the brand owners. Trader Joe's has enacted a goal to have at least 15% of products presented at future tasting panels coming from Black-owned businesses—equivalent to the Black population of our country.

"People in our communities who have not historically had access, have access. And once you get to that tasting panel, the parameters are the same. It has to taste great. Has to be a good value, has to have the ingredients that make sense for Trader Joe's, but there's access to the panel. That's a lot of products and that's a minimum. We're not saying we're going to stop at 15%. We're saying at least 15%," Miller explained.

While the crew member tasting panel determines what gets introduced at the popular supermarket, Miller reminded listeners that they play a vital role in determining if things like the Turkeyless Protein Patties or Crispy Crunchy Okra stick around.

"At the store level, it's our customers who are participating in the tasting panel because they vote with their dollars," she said.

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