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As downtown Trader Joe’s opens, how do prices compare with Whole Foods?

The newest Trader Joe’s opened in the Seaholm development in downtown Austin last week, and Matthew McConaughey was there.

OK, not really, but a cutout of his character from “Dazed and Confused” greeted customers at the front door with a talking bubble that says, “Trader Joe’s in downtown Austin? Alright. Alright. Alright.”

That’s what many downtown residents and workers are saying as the third location of this California-based chain opens in Austin, less than a five-minute walk from Whole Foods Market’s flagship store.

When the first Trader Joe’s opened in Rollingwood, just a few minutes southwest of downtown, in September 2013, the store was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with shoppers who were familiar with this funky brand that is especially popular in California. But Friday, the store — the smallest of the three Austin stores (the second is in the Arboretum) — was almost eerily quiet around 9 a.m. There were shoppers, but they hadn’t yet filled the aisles.

But to be honest, who wants to shop in a store with bumper-to-bumper carts? That’s one of the reasons customers will likely pop into Trader Joe’s instead of the nearby Whole Foods. But how else are the stores different?

Trader Joe’s, whose German parent company also owns Aldi, prides itself on private label products, which fill 80 percent of the store’s shelves. Some customers are borderline obsessive over Trader Joe’s goods, but others find them more sparkle than substance.

Although the Trader Joe’s branding feels wholesome and there are no artificial flavors or ingredients in its store brand products, not all of the items are organic or sustainable, and none are local, with the exception of beer. All of those qualities are a higher priority at the nearby Whole Foods, which carries products from more than 250 Austin food businesses and touts its partnerships with local farms, too.

For some shoppers, it will boil down to price. I compared 10 items at both stores, taking care to make sure they were the same sizes and the house brand at both stores.

As you can see, Whole Foods had a much lower price on milk, but Trader Joe’s had slightly lower prices on most everything else.

It’s also worth noting that Whole Foods had a storewide discount on its 365 products going on last weekend, and they’d set up a large display of $3 and $4 wines that seems directly inspired by Trader Joe’s notorious Two Buck Chuck low-priced wine selection. I also ran into a local food business owner who said that Whole Foods has been doing a sampling push to showcase their Austin vendors, something that Trader Joe’s doesn’t have (and won’t, as far as I can tell).

One more note: Parking in the garage underneath Trader Joe’s is similar to that of Whole Foods downtown, except that you have to get your cashier to validate your ticket or else you’ll pay $4 for the first hour and another $4 for the second and third hours. The garage was far less crowded than Whole Foods’ garage, but I imagine that will change as stores open and residents move into the still-under-construction Seaholm development.

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