Mary St. Mary isn’t one of those “crazy” Trader Joe’s devotees.
She’s not one of those people who makes special trips to its Rochester-area store a couple of times a month to stock up on her favorite specialty food items. Well, OK, she made the pilgrimage once over the summer, but the super yummy chocolate covered almonds with sea salt and turbinado sugar alone were totally worth the nearly three-hour round-trip drive.
Trader Joe’s is opening its first Western New York store in Amherst on Friday morning at 1565 Niagara Falls Blvd. For weeks, the store manager – or “captain” as they’re dubbed at the California-headquartered company – has been turning away shoppers anxious to get inside, letting them know the store is not yet open and handing them a free, reusable grocery bag or perhaps a flowered lei to dull the disappointment.
“My kids are like celebrities at school,” said Ken Gaytan, the store’s manager. “They come home and say, ‘our teacher keeps asking about Trader Joe’s.’ ”
Consumers beg the boutique grocery chain to open stores in their neighborhoods (Kenmore residents spent two years lobbying for a location). Customers routinely line up for hours at new store openings. It regularly ranks as one of the best supermarkets in the country as rated by shoppers in Consumer Reports magazine.
So what’s all the fuss about?
“Customers like the treasure hunt,” said Burt Flickinger III, a grocery analysis guru and president of retail consultants Strategic Resource Group.
Everywhere you turn there’s something you’ve never seen and want to try, customers say – delicacies such as blueberry cultured coconut milk, dark chocolate-covered pomegranate seeds, spicy seaweed ramen – and it’s all priced within reach. It’s a tasty proposition for Western New Yorkers, who are adept at indulging on a dime.
“It’s a way to splurge without breaking the bank,” St. Mary said.
There’s a sampling station at the back of the store, stocked with ever-changing free samples of food every day. New store items (about a dozen arrive every week) are gathered on a dedicated end cap elsewhere in the store, each with its own handwritten description. The company’s quirky, 20-plus-page Fearless Flyer newsletter, which gives detailed information about select store items, is free and well read.
“It’s like a game for people,” said Arun Jain, a marketing research professor at the University at Buffalo School of Management.
Customers get a kick out of finding specialty food items they can’t find anywhere else – 80 percent of Trader Joe’s products are unique creations sold under its own private label, which is known for its high quality and reasonable prices. The secretive company is not on social media, but a fan-based Twitter feed called @TraderJoesList, devoted solely to Trader Joe’s food items (“Retweeting what you’re eating!”), has more than 42,000 followers.
But despite the devoted following, there are some rumblings of dissatisfaction.
Trader Joe’s has often touted high standards for its private label foods – no artificial colors or preservatives, no growth hormones, no GMOs (genetically modified organisms). That’s why Trader Joe’s shoppers were surprised to find out through a Consumer Reports survey that meats sold at the stores are not antibiotic free. The company’s secrecy has also raised hackles, especially for shoppers who want to know where their food is coming from and increasingly demand transparency.
Quality can also be hit or miss. Trader Joe’s shoppers themselves will tell you it’s a process of trial and error finding which things are worth buying and which are best to avoid. In a survey of Trader Joe’s stores across the country, Flickinger found great quality and value in the store’s prepared appetizers, single-serve frozen entrees and desserts, but found the chain’s meats, seafood and canned tuna to be more expensive than their quality was worth.
With so many different varieties and flavors, customers are bound to find products that aren’t their cup of tea, the company said.
“That’s why we’ve got a hassle-free return policy,” said Gaytan, the Amherst store manager. “You say, ‘Hey, I gave this a shot and it wasn’t it.’ We’ll say, ‘Hey, no problem, thanks for trying it.’ ”