Trader Joe’s Magic, Revealed!

In whoring for a comments invite and proving his worth, Jesse Friedman sent in his term paper he wrote on Trader Joe’s. Now that’s what we call vetting!

We enjoyed and agreed with the thesis that Trader Joe’s, and its ilk, “reenchants the consumption process.” That is a nice turn of phrase.

Furthermore, Friedman posits that TJ’s draws upon the Romantic era, with its belief in “the forces of nature within man, the passions and promptings of the id, which came to be regarded as the ultimate source of all thought, feeling, and action.” From this legacy and its emphasis on imagination comes “modern autonomous imaginative hedonism,” which leads consumers to dream about the pleasures of consumption, only to become disappointed when the actual product fails to live up to expectations.”

We spent one summer working at retro-themed burger bistro Johnny Rocket’s and let us tell you, those customers were distracted from their average burgers and fries by the table top jukeboxes and the servers renditions of “Love Shack.”

Trader Joe’s is a delightful sham, a dog-and-pony workout video in which complicit consumers dance dance to the checkout line. In essence, people are willing to pay for shopping to not be so lame.

The Reenchantment of Food Shopping” [Jesse Friedman]

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  1. I read another study of Trader Joe’s several years back in which an exasperated competitor said, “All they do is buy overstock, repackage it and romance the hell out of it.”

    Works for me!

  2. Papercutninja says:

    I’m SO over TJs. It was novel when i visited Cali, b/c we didn’t have it here. Bought a few bottles of Two Buck Chuck and realised it was pretty good for the money.

    But the TJ here in NY? All those jackasses WAITING ON LINE to get in (my sister included) are just a bunch of morons.

    i went in a few days later (without waiting on line) to see waht the fuss was all about. Nothing. The shelves were bare, basically. People were rushing about grabbing things and marvelling at the wonder that is organic celery. Wow. A grocery store. Fantastic. I’m so excited. OMIGOD! I’ve never seen CUCUMBERS before! I must buy 4 pounds of it!

    Idiots. Waiting on line to get into a grocery store. When I go to a supermarket, i want to get in and out, and deal with the public-at-large as little as possible. It’s not an event, people. Just buy your super-organic-tofu turkey dogs and get the fuck out. That’s all.

  3. dvsDave says:

    Around northern VA we have Wegman’s and it’s the same thing. They squeeze every last drop of the romance of shopping for food out of every product they sell. Granted, you can get stuff there that you can’t get most other places (I mean, they have about 250 varieties of cheese and over 60 varieties of olives) It’s overkill, I mean, do I get the weird sounding olives or the weird looking olives? Too many choices!

  4. HassGoCubs says:

    At Great Lakes Crossing (a big semi-outlet mall north of Detroit), they have a Johnny Rockets within the mall proper and a Steak N Shake as an outlot. My wife asked me one day (while shopping at the mall) if I wanted to eat at Johnny Rockets. My reply: “Why spend an extra $10 for singing waitresses and faux jukeboxes?”

  5. Drinker Nisti says:

    I fail to see the romance in TJs, but perhaps that’s just becuase they’re such a regular part of life here in LA (well, at least a part of anglo-yuppie life). My dollar goes soooo much further at TJs than Whole Foods. Even further than the standard grocery store for staples such as milk, eggs, etc.

    Just stay the hell away from the store in the week before Xmas & Thanksgiving, and the TJ’s experience is generally a pleasant one…

    Fav TJ items: green chile & cheese tamales, 3 cheese froz. pizza, gorgonzola endive salad, white cheddar popcorn, NM pinon coffee…

  6. GenXCub says:

    One thing I’ll definitely give TJ’s is that if you don’t have a grocery list that’s tied to the major chain supermarkets ad, you’ll usually get out of TJ’s having spent about the same money. It’s not more expensive, at least here in Vegas it isn’t…

  7. bigkens says:

    Love the TJs, looking forward to the now-official first store in madison. Great manchego and danish blues, and some good deals on booze. Can do without most of the other TJ customers, who are nearly uniformly (a) food snobs and (b) cheap. Scary combo. Bring your mace.

  8. djwoodyphl says:

    Wow. Bitter much? I have to admit, I’m usually on the side of the commenters when it comes to Consumerist posts. But to call Trader Joe’s a sham, and then read the bashing lines that came after … I’m pretty dismayed. It seems like you used this guy’s term paper just as an excuse to put the smack down on TJ’s, and I can’t say I get it.

    With that being said, I’ll throw my two cents worth in …

    For retailers to be successful, they have to appeal to their intended market and provide products and services that bring customers in and make them loyal. The last time I checked (which was last week) my local Trader Joe’s is immensely popular, full of customers making purchases that are on par with the scale of the store. Not only were people shopping, but they were talking … communicating with one another in a small town sort of atmosphere that you don’t get when you stop by your local super mega grocer. You don’t go to TJ’s to do all of your shopping – you go to pick up unique staples, great single meal ideas, and tons of quick snacks and light fare. They know who their customer is, and they provide the best possible choices for those customers.

    Normally I’m skeptical of everything. I work in retail management, and I don’t buy into nearly as much as other people, because I’ve had to deal with every underhanded half-baked promotion there ever was. But, in the case of TJ’s, where’s the gimmick? Where’s the sham? OK … other than the hawaiian shirts, I can’t seem to find anything other than a successful business model that’s a consistent outperformer in every location they build.

    I’m sure there are many other people out there who feel the same way I do about your commentary on this subject. Hopefully they’ll help balance things out!

  9. RowdyRoddyPiper says:

    I love Trader Joes. In Philly it was actually kind of fun to go on Saturday afternoon and food shop (college football season excepted). In NY I went down this weekend and I can verify that there were people on line to get into the store at 6:00 Sunday evening. Hopefully this will die down as the novelty wears off. I always end up saving tons of money there.

    In the mean time I’ve found the Gourmet Garage works as an adequate substitute. They aren’t as cheap and don’t have as much stuff, but it’s better than Associated.

  10. higgins says:

    The lines in New York are stupid, yes, but understandable when you consider the kind of grocery stores New Yorker have had to put up with forever. Every shopped in a Key Foods?? Ever paid the prices in a D’Agastino’s? You might be standing in line at a TJs, too.

  11. LLH says:

    i love trader joe’s as well but actually prefer to shop in whole foods – basically because the parking at the 3rd and labrea TJ’s is SO bad! WF’s on 3rd & fairfax is much easier to access, and for those who live in LA you know what i’m on about. getting a parking ticket for a 20 min. errand AND having to shlep 4 blocks away with groceries is not cool.