New York food shopping fun: Trader Joe's

trader_joes.jpgOMG, 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.


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