Michele Marchetti: In Defense of Trader Joe’s
November 14, 2012 6:00 AM
by Michele Marchetti
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About 10 minutes after the State College Trader Joe’s opened its doors for the first time, I spotted a friend who stopped in for a quick trip on his way home from the gym.

Apparently this didn’t go over so well with his wife.

“She’s really mad that I made it here before her,” he said.

He was only half joking.

For the fiercest Trader Joe’s loyalists, it didn’t matter what time you arrived last Friday. Every minute past the 8 a.m. ceremonial lei cutting was a minute devoid of brownie bites, frozen enchiladas, and edamame hummus. While we could go on living quite happily without a single item purchased on our maiden visits, we wouldn’t miss out on the event itself.

I’ve never lined up in front of a big box store on Black Friday. I try to shop local and support our area farmers. But when it comes to Trader Joe’s, consumerism wins. As I wrote on the sign-in board, “Christmas arrived early this year.”

The Trader Joe’s allure is enigmatic. “What am I missing?” someone wrote on the multiple TJ’s-inspired Facebook posts this week. “Perhaps you weren’t feeling snacky enough,” her friend replied.

For those who can’t see through the hype, I won’t deny that Trader Joe’s knows as much, if not more, about marketing than it does about food. From the imported Aloha spirit to the 80s and early 90s soundtrack to the witty commentary on its private label products to the constant stream of samples, the store is the Vegas of food retailers. Once you’re inside, good luck getting out without spending a lot more than you planned.

The end result: Shopping there is fun. Three girls I met at the lei-cutting ceremony were actually dancing in the aisles.

The store works particularly hard to attract moms, whose purchases are constantly threatened by meltdowns, erratic cart drivers, and bathroom emergencies. Diversions include finding the stuffed Nittany Lion and earning a prize from the treasure chest (currently a lollipop) and retro scratch and sniff stickers with kid-friendly puns like “I went bananas at Trader Joe’s.”

Hand-painted murals that pay homage to the home team appeal to big and little kids alike. My daughter giggles and says, “Look, cows playing football” every time we pass the dairy section. Equally cute are the chickens cheering on those cows.

My own Trader Joe’s mania starts with my love of food. I think about lunch when I’m eating breakfast, and start planning what I’m going to make for dinner before my lunch plate is cleared. I don’t spend much on clothes, gadgets or home furnishings. But I’m downright giddy buying a package of Wild Salmon Jerky or Jalapeno Pub Cheese. And I appreciate the focus on products without preservatives or artificial colors.

Still, I’m a bit conflicted about Trader Joe’s arrival. When I purchased a loaf of the cranberry walnut bread, I felt like I was cheating on Gemelli Bakery. A parent of my daughter’s preschool classmate owns Nature’s Pantry and a teacher wondered whether TJ’s sales would impact her store. It seems like two different customer groups, but I suppose it’s a possibility.

From a strictly capitalistic point of view, Trader Joe’s is great for the consumer. The 12,500 square foot store offers another choice, which forces other retailers to compete for our dollars (Wegmans, I’m talking to you).

I’ll still get my vegetables from my farm share and the farmer’s market, but I expect to do more of my grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s. The blend of can’t-live-without and can’t-resist elevates the notion of food shopping. You can buy onions at the farmer’s market or the grocery store. At Trader Joe’s you’ll also find Fried Onion Pieces.

But here’s the surprise: Those fried onion pieces are only $2.99.

The company attributes its low prices to a focus on private-label products— more than 2,000 items are sold under the Trader Joe's private label — and a business model that bypasses distributors. The store never holds sales because prices are low every day.

As for my own household, I fear Trader Joe’s will ultimately end up costing us more — both in the gas I’m using to get to the other side of town twice a week and the dental bills from those lollipops.

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