There is nothing quite like the chain anywhere else on the American food landscape. ”Trader Joe’s is radically different in many ways from other food retailers,” said Stephen Dowdell, editor in chief of Progressive Grocer magazine. ”The stores are small, they don’t rely on national brands, you can’t do price comparisons and they definitely don’t offer one-stop shopping. But every product has a story.”
Part of the strategy to stay on-target and off-kilter is a panel of ”category experts,” who comb the world for interesting cuisine, and then work like crazy to adapt and translate those ideas into products that will enthrall their shoppers.
The company also has a sharp focus on who it’s serving, particularly the ”well-educated, well-traveled and underpaid,” according to its founder. One result is an emphasis on ”speed scratch” items — prepared foods and precut vegetables that let busy people still play an important part in making their meal. Says the current president:
”Trader Joe’s customers are people who really care about cooking,” he said, ”but like everyone else in America, they don’t feel like they have time to chop all the vegetables, cook the chicken and make the dessert — but they want to be in the kitchen.” The stores stock lots of things like precut butternut squash and beets, “simmer sauces” that make quick stews, and marinated salmon fillets packaged with fresh herbs in oven-ready cooking bags. ”We are very careful about marinades,” [V.P. for Merchandising Matt] Sloan said solemnly. ”Dill can be very polarizing.”
But the most striking quote comes at the end of the article, where a customer recognizes all the hard work and focused effort that goes into Trader Joe’s product choices:
”This sounds crazy, but you feel like the company likes food even more than they like money,” said Marcy Benfiglio, who lives near the branch in Larchmont, N.Y. ”You don’t feel that at the supermarket.”
Category experts, laser focus on the lives of customers, quirky but creative choices that stretch what consumers think they want…sounds like a model for another type of enterprise. Hmmm.