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The rock star of supermarkets

Del: 10/11/2006


Buying from Trader Joe’s indicates belonging to a lifestyle, to the point that the charm of its sign has been compared that of rock music stars. Not by chance has it been called the Grateful Dead of supermarkets.

Funny. In the most sophisticated marketing circles there is only talk about shopping experience and still no one pays attention to the real phenomenon of new retailing that make the USA go crazy. It’s the Trader Joe’s chain store that from California has gone a long way straight to conquering New York City. Here in Italy it is hard that the enthusiasm for a food store be enough to justify fan clubs of clients. Trader Joe’s managed to do it, this way obtaining the greatest success: that is the acknowledgment of an undisputed distinctiveness. It is the secret that allows it to be different from the mass of the discounters and from those defeated by the excessive power of Wal-Mart. It is enough to think that in its mission, that even though it pursues fair and always low prices, it declares, to not want “slotting allowances” from its suppliers, since each product in display has to self-justify its presence on the shelf.

Trader Joe’s is important also for still encouraging out-side-of-the-box thinking on behalf of the employees, who are involved in a shared management of stores in order to give them the carefree environment that magnetizes the public. It follows that even the atmosphere of the sales points greatly reflects folk aesthetics and comics, while being of the liking even of a group of intellectually sophisticated people. But let’s go in order.

As it has always happened in the cases of real success, the origin is far and actually goes back to 1958, when the founder Joe Coulombe opened a sales point in Los Angeles called Pronto Market. Its different feature was the habit of the managers of wearing Hawaian shirts and giving a happy note to their work place. In 1967 Joe got the idea of extending the business characterizing it in a more impressive way. He chose to give it a comic strip image inspired by the sea adventures of the 1800’s, a justification of the offer of specialties and foods (at the time) rare. The manager would become the captain of the ship, his collaborators, the members of the crew. The seas to explore would be those of food and its most exotic and refined components. At Trader Joe’s you can find everything, but in an environment that is in itself a folk setting of places and origins of different products.
The principal works wonderfully and allows clients to daydream, being encouraged by the particular advertising that is put into act. In other words, the food, is thought of even before tasting it, keeping in mind that the chain stores try to guarantee real low cost everyday, without looking for the abrupt promotion screams. Actually, Trader Joe’s, where possible, purchases directly from the producer. It follows that the assortment can sensibly change in space and time: firstly, because every week 15-20 new products are introduced; secondly, because there can be ephemeral products being of the season or being part of just one batch; thirdly, because the sign tries to link, if possible, to the productions of the territory, though guaranteeing undisputable quality standards: respect of nature and animals, no GMO. etc.

What is striking about the over 290 stores spread throughout the USA is their ability to remain on the same wavelength with the common feeling of the middle class and the youth. One of the techniques consists in the choice of the gadgets and of the furnishing material: above all wood, the nautical decor, and the handwritten ads. It is this particular in-store advertising that reveals itself efficient where it is inspired –to be specific – by a Corto Maltese atmosphere.
Particularly interesting is the choice of making use of store sign artists enrolled in different cities. They paint colourful boards to announce and explain, with no commitment, the advantages of the several product offers or their characteristics. So, the bizarre sense of humour that has made them become cult objects and the collection of photography is striking. It is possible to read ads like: “Trader Darwin’sfor survival of the fittest” or “Semi-Precious Stone Wheat Crackers”.
Purchasing at Trader Joe’s means, therefore, indicates belonging to a lifestyle, to the point that the charm of its sign is compared to a rock star’s, to the point that it can be the start of a conversation with a stranger.
Maybe the person who defined Trader Joe’s as the Grateful Dead of the supermarkets was not wrong.

                                             Osservatorio Popai by Daniele Tirelli
                                                 Promotion Magazine


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