OP-ED

Op-Ed: Trader Joe’s Finally Sales into Providence

The grocery store with a cult following is making waves before the doors even open

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In the spirit of famous “point-counterpoint” players like Shana Alexander and James J. Kilpatrick or Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase, Barry and I often knock heads. Since the political season has burned everyone out, we decided to switch to current events and the most-talked-about and long-awaited arrival of the city’s worst-kept secret, Trader Joe’s, which should be open soon.

When it comes to Trader Joe’s almost iconic status, Barry and I are on different planets. I have been an unapologetic Trader Joe’s loyalist for years and am counting the days until the doors swing open. Barry loves Rory’s downtown, Dave’s Marketplace, and anyone who advertises with us. He doesn’t really know Trader Joe’s at all but is curious as to how they’ve gained their insanely loyal following. 

Barry found an old Forbes Magazine article by Blake Morgan, a senior writer and “Customer Experience Futurist” who has written several books on retailing in the future. In “Seven Reasons Customers Are More in Love With Trader Joe’s Than Ever,” she explains why the company has developed such a faithful following. Her thoughts and my broad observations are almost identical, so it’s not me who sounds like a corporate shill.

Whether you love it or hate it, the city’s worst-kept secret is located in the center of Parcel 6 in the 195 District at the corner of Point, South Main, and South Water streets. “Soon” is as close to an exact date as you’ll get for now. Trader Joe’s isn’t a full-sized market; the Providence store’s footprint is 9,000 square feet, while a Super Stop & Shop is 81,000 square feet.

To some grown-ups, shopping at Trader Joe’s is like being a kid in Disney World. Everyone is so nice, the attractions are different almost each visit, and there’s always something that puts a smile on your face. Shopping at Trader Joe’s is an adventure and people love talking about it.  

On a recent video call, my daughter and grandson were ecstatic that Trader Joe’s pumpkin-spiced pumpkin seeds had returned. Apparently, the roasted hulled seeds with butter-sugar toffee glaze and seasoned with traditional pie spices are only around for a short time each year. 

Trader Joe’s is known for its service and its atmosphere – think Chick-fil-A without the political issues. Ocean Staters may appreciate the store’s nautical theme, complete with cedar planks and sea-worthy lights. The managers are called “captains,” the employees are “crew members,” and they wear colorful floral Hawaiian shirts. They communicate using a bell system instead of a PA system. And they always seem happy, friendly, and knowledgeable. A large part of their training is focused on culture and values, and staff is given the discretion to go out of their way to enhance the customer experience. 

Known as the “anti-grocery store,” Trader Joe’s offers a well-selected collection of affordable foods. They only carry 4,000 items, and while not all of their products are unique, about 80 percent of the items are listed under some sort of Trader Joe’s branding, with many organic, gluten-free, and natural foods. 

They don’t sell many branded items. They don’t have coupons or discounts. There’s no loyalty card. There’s nothing to scan. There’s no self-checkout. There are no TV ads, nor circulars in the newspapers. Products are largely promoted through Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer (“always free and worth every penny”). Here you’ll find seasonal favorites like Butternut Squash Mac & Cheese, Maple Pecan Granola Cereal, Pumpkin Spiced Joe-Joe’s, Organic Maple Vinaigrette, and Pumpkin Chipotle Roasting Sauce. There’s also a podcast and seasonal recipes. Two Buck Chuck, their signature wine that debuted at $1.99 (it’s $3.79 today) has sold over a billion bottles, though RI liquor laws mean Providence shoppers won’t be able to imbibe. 

There will be haters, no doubt. Some people may miss their favorite brands, others feeling irritated by the parking and traffic situation, though health- and cost-conscious middle-income shoppers are likely to flock to Providence’s new market.

Joe Coulombe founded Trader Joe’s in 1967 in Pasadena and named it to evoke the image of the South Seas. His target back then was a “better educated, better traveled customer who had a modest income.” He sold the operation to the German grocery chain, Aldi, while remaining chief executive until 1988. The original Trader Joe died two years ago at 89.

If nothing else, the new addition means shoppers have more choices. We’ll leave it to you to decide!

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