Friday, January 09, 2009

Trader Joe's and evangelism

Anyone who's known me in the past few years knows how much I love Trader Joe's. Actually, anyone who doesn't know me but visits this blog from time to time probably knows this. I'm not sure I've ever actually spelled out the reasons why I love TJ's and why I will evangelize about them to almost anyone who will listen and who hasn't actually bought into the TJ's cult yet. Here goes...
  1. Size This may not be the first criteria most people bring up when evangelizing for TJ's, but it tops my list. At 15,000 sq. ft., the average TJ's is far more manageable and scaled to human needs than your average grocery store (50,000 sq. ft.) or superstore (a terrifying 250,000 sq. ft.). At this size, I can get in and out in a reasonable amount of time. Banana is also easier to manage in a store this size. She can help with the groceries without getting bored. Because things are closer to her scale, she can also take it all in without being as overwhelmed by hundreds of options for cereal/bread/cookies/crackers/cheese/you-name-it.

  2. Quality With occasional exceptions, the quality of TJ's products is good and consistent. They have eliminated high fructose corn syrup and unsaturated fats from most (if not all) of their product lines. To the best of their ability, they source even their non-organic products from GMO-free sources. Their non-organic milk is rBST-free, as are most other dairy items. They offer cheeses from grass-fed cows, and their meats are hormone- and antibiotic-free. As a companion pointed out, they even specify the use of animal rennet versus vegetarian rennet in the cheeses. Their frozen foods are generally very good and can be a godsend when you need to pull together a quick, healthy dinner for a tired little girl, or when you need to pull together appetizers for cocktail hour.

  3. Cost We finally get to cost, which is where most people start. I can get out of TJ's with groceries for a full week (breakfast, lunch, and dinner for two) as well as a couple six-packs of decent beer and a couple bottles of wine for a hundred dollars. Certainly some items cost the same as they might at one of the large supermarket chains, but there are many staples like pasta, yogurt, cereal, cheese, and juices that I can buy for significantly less at TJ's.

  4. Customer Service I cannot emphasize enough the importance of customer service in this list. When managers and employees show genuine enthusiasm and are consistently friendly and helpful, the whole experience improves. When they go out of their way to pay attention to children with (healthy) treats and hellos, shopping becomes more fun than a chore. And any parent who has ever taken a kid grocery shopping will probably agree that keeping a kid happy in a grocery store is priceless.

  5. Variety TJ's may not have hundreds of options for every item, but I don't necessarily want or need hundreds of options. They have the staples in enough variety that I can generally find what I need. Then there is the constant flow of new, interesting products. Whether it's cheese, prepared food, wine, ice cream, or you name it, there are inevitably moments in every shopping trip when I come across something new and worth trying. As a creature of habit who occasionally needs to be wrenched out of my habits, I appreciate this. I can say the same thing for shopping at Whole Foods, Ellwood Thompson (our local natural market), or the farmers market, but I cannot say the same thing for the standard supermarket chains.

  6. Green awareness I've found them to be very good about the use of recycled materials and about developing and using smart packaging. They are also very good about sourcing from sustainable sources. That said, I do wish that their use of packaging for fresh items would be more limited. All the smart packaging in the world can't change the fact that you're still adding waste to the trash stream.

In the end, my only quibble with TJ's is that they are consistently going into locations that can only be reached by car and are often in the exurbs. Such decisions are short-sighted at best and indicate a strategy that ignores the smaller urban areas where their core customers congregate. In Richmond, for example, a store placed in or near the Fan or near West End would perform phenomenally — and would show a nod to green economy. All one has to do is walk around the neighborhoods on recycling day to see how many TJ's bags are out. Hell, you could have done that before the Richmond store opened and seen the numbers of people who made regular treks to Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads for their TJ's fixes. I know; I was one of them.