Award-winning journalist Fran Hawthorne has been a writer or editor at Fortune, BusinessWeek, Institutional Investor, and other publications. She is the author of Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love, The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting,and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism and books on health care and investing.
New Trader Joe’s outlets have just opened in Lexington, KY, and West Seattle, and 18 more are scheduled soon across the U.S., from Medford, OR, to Sarasota, FL, to Albany, NY. That should certainly please fans like Jeff Pollard, 33, who lives near Albany and belongs to a group called “We Want Trader Joe’s in the Capital District” – the Capital District being the area around Albany, the capital of New York State.
Congratulations, Jeff. Enjoy the Formosa papaya and the Chicken Tikka Masala with Cumin-Flavored Basmati Rice.
Altogether, the new openings will mean approximately 400 Trader Joe’s stores in the U.S., which should make even more people happy (like Denice Rochelle in Seattle, who has blogged about that location). But this growth puts a real strain on the chain’s slogan: “Your neighborhood grocery store.”
Just whose neighborhood are they talking about?
The yuppie neighborhood near Manhattan’s “Silicon Square”? The middle-class family neighborhood in the Los Angeles exurb of Camarillo? The two neighborhoods in Atlanta?
Perhaps a surfer neighborhood in Hawaii? That would seem to be what the company wants shoppers to think, with all the surfboards, fake-bamboo, and garishly flowered shirts throughout the stores. However, there actually aren’t any Hawaii outlets.
True, each TJ site serves its own neighborhood, sometimes altering the product mix to appeal to the local demographic. Food shopping tends to be a neighborhood activity; we rarely drive 30 miles for a carton of milk. But in that case, Trader Joe’s is no more of a “neighborhood grocery store” than is Kroger, Safeway, Whole Foods, or any other supermarket chain-– many of which are smaller than Trader Joe’s.
In fact, the most apt neighborhood might be Germany’s Ruhr Valley, headquarters of the multinational Aldi grocery chain that owns TJ's.
That’s right. What most Trader Joe’s devotees don’t realize is that all the cute Polynesian décor is actually part of a $70 billion, 4,000-store global chain owned by a super-secretive German nonagenarian ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the world’s wealthiest people.
So what difference does this make? Maybe none. The papaya and chicken taste the same, the staff is just as friendly, and the prices are just as low.
Yet the hidden billionaire ownership and the phony neighborliness matter, because they are part of a bigger misleading image-– along with a smattering of exotic veggies and cage-free eggs-- that makes people feel as if they’re somehow supporting a nice little health food coop when they shop at Trader Joe’s.
The truth is that Trader Joe’s is almost the complete opposite of that feel-good image.
As my new book Ethical Chic points out, it’s not merely the surfer-local image that’s false. For instance, only TJ-brand products are guaranteed to be free of trans fats, genetically modified organisms, artificial preservatives, and other yecchy stuff. The 20% of items that are not made specially for the chain can have any kind of ingredients, and that includes non-cage-free eggs from chickens kept in horrible battery cages. And think again about the pre-cooked, frozen Chicken Tikka Masala with Cumin-Flavored Basmati Rice. All the extra packaging? Ingredients shipped from India? That little meal violates some of the basic tenets of the organic and environmental movements, including “reduce packaging” and “buy local.”
I don’t want to be a grumpy, eat-your-tofu, enviro-extremist. Go to Trader Joe’s if you want, Jeff and Denice! It is fun to shop there (even if I think the hand-written signs are just too-too cute). All I’m saying is: Read the labels. Know what you’re buying-- and buy the product, not the image.