Trader Joe's in University Place
When Hawaiian shirt-clad Trader Joe’s employees open the
new Silverdale store’s doors for the first time at 8 a.m., you can
bet a bottle of “Three Buck Chuck” that a line of people will be
Kitsap residents eagerly awaited its opening, filling Facebook
with love notes, chiding newspapers for not writing more about it
and gratifying Kitsap Sun reporters and bloggers who did with thousands of page
Elsewhere, the chain has inspired fan blogs,
cookbooks and discussion groups about “TJs”.
When faced with such rampant adult enthusiasm, it awakens a
journalistic tendency to question nearly everything, a tendency
that, if left unchecked, can turn to mockery.
So I asked, what’s the big deal?
I hit Google and a Trader Joe’s store to attempt an honest
As one Facebook fan
posted on the Bring Trader Joe’s to Silverdale WA page, “I
think TJs is a love it or don’t get it place.”
On entering the Trader Joe’s in University Place, you’re greeted
by hand-drawn signs advertising specials and new deals under thatch
umbrellas consistent with its South Pacific theme.
It’s more like Cost Plus World Market than Safeway.
Employees, called “crew members” are generally friendly. On the
job applications, part-time crew members are instructed to “become
smitten with your customers. … Make sure customers know they are
welcome and cared for.”
All the stores are like that, intended to feel laid-back,
neighborhood-like, much like the company’s first store, which
opened in Pasedena, Calif. in 1967. This despite having been bought
out by the Albrecht family of grocers in Germany, the opening of
365 stores nationwide with profits estimated at $8.5 billion,
according to industry analysts Supermarket
But walking down the aisles, I can see that the products
themselves are what set it apart from other grocery stores.
The first aisle on the left filled with organic nuts and dried
fruits, including (catch my breath) green mangoes. Where else do
you see that at a store outside of Hawaii?
Oh, dark chocolate almonds tossed with salt? In the basket.
A $3 six-pack of lager … can it really be worse than PBR? In the
Sunflower butter and f rozen, deep fried Mac and cheese? Hold on
a minute, I’ve got a budget.
It’s the kind of thing the company touts on its website as “the
thrill of discovery.”
The company has cultivated a product line that includes plenty
of organics, exotic ingredients and pre-made sauces and frozen
As one Pepperdine University marketing analyst sums
it up the difference is that, “(Trader Joe’s) culture, because
it involves the customers in an ongoing sense of discovery and
adventure, is both unique and difficult to copy. And because it is
aligned to their specific target market rather than broad
differentiation built around quality and service, it is more
difficult to replicate by those companies that are serving a more
expansive competitive space.”
And somewhere between products and culture is the sense that
shopping at Trader Joe’s is more responsible. Branded products
claim to be free of artificial colors and preservatives, MSG or
added trans fats. The company highlights
a fair trade culture and has been responsive to customers’ requests
for non-GMO foods, and a move to phase out by the end of next year
seafood that doesn’t come from sustainable sources.
But, as a private company likely trying to maintain control of
its relationships, it’s tight-lipped about where its products come
from, making it difficult for an outside organization to track just
how sustainable its buying practices are, according to
Sustainable Industries magazine.
Those who lean toward knowing the exactly where the food came
from would be better off sticking to local farmers
But often unlike organic, fair trade products elsewhere, Trader
Joe’s offers them cheaply.
The company generally purchases items directly from
manufacturers, buying in bulk and doing its own repackaging mostly
— by one estimate, 80 percent —under the Trader Joe’s label.
Items that in style (if not always in exact makeup) are familiar
and cheaper than the original products at regular grocery
Take, for example, an 8 oz. bottle of Annie’s Naturals Goddess
dressing, which runs $4 to $5 at local grocery stores. The
Trader Joe’s version cost $1.99, lists nearly all of the same
ingredients in the same order with slight variations in wording,
such as “sea salt” vs. “salt” and “parsley, chives” vs. “spices” on
the Annie’s and Trader Joe’s versions respectively.
And sometimes, that includes the brand name, too. A block of
Dubliner cheese which has been cut and repackaged in plastic wrap
sells for $6.49 per pound. A brand-packaged block of the same
cheese retails for $12.55 per pound at Safeway.
That’s not to say everything is cheaper at Trader Joe’s. A look
at six-packs of Northwest microbrews or, for example a tube of
Tom’s of Maine mint toothpaste or box of Puffins cereal, are no
better or slightly more than at my local grocery store.
And it’s not a place a person is likely to find an entire
grocery list’s worth of goods.
According to a
Fortune magazine article, “With the greater turnover on a
smaller number of items, Trader Joe’s can buy large quantities and
secure deep discounts” and simplify stocking.
The products regularly change, as the company puts it, “If an
item doesn’t pull its weight in our stores, it goes away to gangway
for something else.” But that doesn’t work against them, says
Fortune, because “customers accept that Trader Joe’s has only two
kinds of pudding or one kind of polenta because they trust that
those few items will be very good.”
The big deal, in short, is that the stores have a consistent
store brand and an ever-changing product line targeted to a middle-
to upper middle-income shoppers who are socially, health- and
And because of that, shoppers will be waiting Friday, ready to
do their darndest to clear the shelves and stock up on cheap wine
and the hundreds of other goodies that they’ll have just realized
they can’t live without.
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