Trader Joe’s Hype

December 1st, 2006

Never have I seen a store’s opening garner as much hype as the opening of a small grocery store in Cary, NC has this week. A couple of months ago, someone in the Raleigh flickr group posted an image of a “coming soon” sign on a shopping center building on Kildare Farm Road, and it’s been snowballing ever since.

Now that Trader Joe’s is open and everyone’s had a work week to check it out, opinions are flying on Raleighing, the triangle.dining Usenet group, and just about everywhere opinions are welcome (or even not welcome). As usual, the transplants in this city who have been to Trader Joe’s before in their cities of origin treat any negative opinion of the store as if it’s a personal attack on all things related to their previous city. While anticipation was building for the grand opening, every comment from these transplants was in the class of “finally,” “the one thing I miss about city X,” “you guys are gonna love it,” “you’ll never shop anywhere else,” etc. Anyone in this area who had never heard of this chain of food markets and asked what the big deal was with their offerrings was greeted with vague comments like “you’ll see” and “are you kidding!?!?”

I was so taken with the hype surrounding this place that I actually made an exploratory trip to another Trader Joe’s location while visiting relatives in the metro Atlanta area during Thanksgiving, knowing full well that “my” location would be opening in a matter of days. This is the second time that the opening of a food store in this niche has given me hope that my rather long drive to Whole Foods could be shortened (the other store was the horrendous Earth Fare, and I never miss an opportunity to spread the word that it sucked and I’ve never been back). Previous letdowns aside, I allowed myself to get excited again.

My exploratory visit to the Trader Joe’s location in Roswell, GA was actually somewhat promising. There was a great bread selection (which must have come from a Trader Joe’s bakery in the sky since there was no bakery in the store), the prices were much lower for several staple foods like hormone-free cheese and milk, eggs (semi-local Latta Farm brand was there), and there were many Trader Joe’s store-brand offerrings that I had never seen at any other store of its kind (frozen foods, kefir, wine). The quality appeared to be very high, no doubt about it. It was a little small, and I noted that several things were missing from that location which would prevent a store of the same configuration from becoming my one-stop weekly grocery destination - bulk grains, nuts, and beans, most produce items, a salad bar, meat, fish, deli (now that I read that list, it seems that there were more things I didn’t see than things I thought I would buy) - but I was hoping that “my” location back home would be larger.

Ok, so I was wrong again. I visited God’s Greatest Gift to Food Shopping the third night it was open. I won’t detail the parking, the somewhat large crowds, the completely empty shelves and freezer cases (yes, I know it was opening week), the complete lack of local products (we live in produce land, for crying out loud), or the annoying bell that they kept ringing for customer service (seriously, I’d worry about it affecting my hearing if I were a cashier or even a frequent customer), but the fact is: Trader Joe’s is not the greatest store in the world. It’s not even a grocery store at all - it’s a self-proclaimed glorified neighborhood market, something I would have realized long before my trip if I’d just read the tagline on their website. It’s actually just what some people in Cary probably want and love - a convenience grocery store for people who don’t like to cook or think about their food and feel the social pressure to join the Trader Joe’s Inner Circle in order to be prepared for any impending discussion regarding Two Buck Chuck. It’s hype. It’s a talk about shopping there more than you enjoy shopping there kind of place, but not a viable grocery store.

I’ve been thinking about what kind of cooking and eating one must do in their lives in order to be able to use Trader Joe’s as their grocery store, trying to figure out what their real market was since it obviously wasn’t me. I just can’t figure it out. I think that if you pick up prepared foods every day, shop day-to-day, or pop something in the oven most nights, you might be ok, but even then you would quickly get bored with the somewhat small selection and the fact that there was no “deli.” Granted, prepared foods done the Trader Joe’s way are definitely better for your life than fast food burgers or Wal-Mart Supercenter fried chicken, but it’s a step down in selection from a place like Whole Foods and you’d have to augment your Trader Joe’s trip with a trip to a real grocery store anyway. What’s convenient about that? I got the same sad feeling in this store that I had when I was in Earthfare and realized that the few people actually shopping there lived in the high-priced neighborhoods nearby and were only buying that night’s meal (which apparently consisted of plastic containers of prepared soup, a hunk of beef in a bag of marinade, two containers of sushi, and whatever the kids refused to let you leave the store without buying).

So I’ll still be driving to Whole Foods. There are some things that I think Trader Joe’s does better - I liked their approach to shelf signage, for example - but who wants to drive all the way to Cary to shop there? Some people have commented that they routinely drive over one hundred miles to bask in the glory that is the Trader Joe’s location nearest to them. Who are you people and why do you buy frozen cooked rice?!

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