New York food shopping fun: Trader Joe's

trader_joes.jpg OMG, the line...

For anyone who is not familiar with Trader Joe's, it's a West Coast based grocery chain known for its quirkiness, that sells a lot of house-brand items. Since our company did some work as for them recently (no we didn't bag groceries, we did some specialized forms), I somehow felt obligated to make a pilgrimage to their new store near Union Square in Manhattan. (I make it a top priority to peruse any local food emporia wherever I travel anyway. It's a disease.)

We went there twice, and both times it was absolutely packed. I guess one reason is because it is pretty new, but I think the main reason is the overall fun marketing. The second time we went was around seven in the evening on a Thursday, and the lines for the cash registers were so long that they started at the end of the first aisle, with two employees acting as lollipop ladies directing traffic to the express or regular lines. Being New York where people line up without complaining for anything, everyone continued browsing the ailes as they inched forward in the queue. This is pretty amazing especially if you consider the local competition: there's the Greenmarket of course, and a Whole Foods just a couple of blocks east on 14th street.

Trader Joe's to me has a lot of similarities to Migros, the leading supermarket chain in Switzerland. Both concentrate on house brands, with only a limited selection of the usual national/international brands. Both have managed to convince their customers that house brands can mean quality that is just as good as general brands, that offer better value. Migros, for instance, only carries house brands of chocolate, which is a pretty astonishing feat in a country that consumes so much chocolate and where major manufacturers like Nestlé/Cailler and Lindt compete so fiercely against each other. Also, both manage to inject some fun into the mundane process of supermarket-shopping. The merchandising in the bigger branches such as Migros City in Zürich is pretty nice, and their TV ads are hilarious.

Migros however is a much more comprehensive supermarket - after all, it does command at least 30% of the Swiss grocery supply chain. It has great meat and fish departments (ostrich steaks! real mortadella! sushi-grade tuna!) and well stocked produce aisles. Trader Joe's seems to be strong on dry and packaged goods but weak on the fresh stuff. With the exception of the terrific salad packs, the produce selection is quite sad.

Nevertheless I really liked Trader Joe's. There's something quite addictive about the place, and it's always nice to get that feeling that you're getting a bargain, even if you aren't all the time.


Filed under:  food travel new york shopping

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oh god i know this crazy trader joe's experience. they do have good dark chocolate covered cherries, though!

Trader Joe's is the only "grocery store" we use at this point (I'm in LA tho, so take this with a grain of salt :) ). Fresh produce comes from my local farmer's markets (Culver City, Venice, Santa Monica and Century City). Fresh meat comes from my local butcher shop. So TJ's covers milk, butter, sometimes eggs (we don't use lots, and often we hit either the volume limit or the weight limit on farmer's market runs so we can't fit in eggs that day), dried or frozen food, and emergency salad greens. We also get some cheese, but the local farmer's markets have very good cheese merchants with better quality for about the same price. They also stock "junk food" like bottled enchillada sauce and salsa that is an occasional treat.

Basically, if it's not shelf stable, I don't buy it at Trader Joe's without checking whether I can get better elsewhere. Usually I can.

It is more of a dry goods store than a general grocery store; I find the good ratio is a Trader Joe's trip every third time you go marketing. That said, here on the West coast they're starting to figure out their distribution so they can have some pretty good fresh produce, and are even starting to sell a little bit of fresh meat. Still doesn't beat a good butcher counter, but anymore there aren't a lot of good butcher counters in the grocery stores either here in the States :(.

TJ's is also a great place for relatively cheap, reasonably good quality beer and wine.