Brands that inspire belief: Trader Joe’s comes to KC
Joyce Smith / The Kansas City Star
More than 8,000 people signed up on Facebook in a push to “Bring Trader Joe’s to the Kansas City Metro.”
Hundreds camped out overnight to be the first in the doors at new area Chick-fil-A restaurants and earn a chance to win 52 free combo meals.
Shoppers were shoulder-to-shoulder when Apple unveiled products at its Country Club Plaza and Leawood stores.
Trader Joe’s, Chick-fil-A, Apple — they’re cult retailers. These big names and others have built a zealous following with great products at great values and by making an emotional connection with consumers. As a result, their customers advertise for them, spreading the word and even convincing other customers that they should buy favorite products when shopping in the stores.
“There are a handful of brands in every category that people ‘love’… Apple, Nordstrom, Target, Patagonia and Trader Joe’s come to mind,” said Ann Willoughby, president and chief creative officer of Willoughby Design Inc., a Kansas City branding and design firm.
“These brands have achieved cult status, and people have literally joined the brand tribe. Consumers and employees feel a sense of purpose and belonging because they know what the brand stands for and what is promised.” On Friday — perhaps partly thanks to the efforts of those 8,000 fervent fans on Facebook — Trader Joe’s will open two area stores, one at Ward Parkway Center in south Kansas City and the other in Leawood’s One Nineteen shopping center. Officials with the two malls said they expect higher-than-normal traffic that day.
Shannon Curran, manager of the Leawood store, said: “We’re going to add to the grocery landscape. Trader Joe’s is an amazing, fun place offering (high-)quality products at great value.”
The California-based retailer bills itself as a neighborhood grocery, but many of its more than 2,000 products come from neighborhoods around the world. It has basics such as eggs and milk, but not national brands like Coke and Tide.
Among its offerings are almond sparkling wine, wild blueberry vanilla goat cheese, peanut butter filled pretzels, cilantro pecan dip, and of course “Two Buck Chuck.” That’s Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw wine, which sells for $1.99 in California but will cost $2.99 at the Ward Parkway Center store. The Leawood store will not sell alcohol.
The cult mentality
Customers of cult retailers believe in the brand and trust the company will stand behind its products.
The stores tend to be smaller, so easier to shop at, and have a limited inventory of carefully selected products that customers believe offer the best quality for the price.
There’s also a strong focus on customer service, whether it’s a friendly greeting or a friendly goodbye, a knowledgeable sales staff that’s helpful but not pushy, and easy return policies.
Wendy Liebmann, chief executive officer at WSL Strategic Retail, a New York retail consulting firm, said great products were just a point of entry to build a passionate following. What sets cult retailers apart is the way they deliver and sell those products.
At Trader Joe’s, for example, it’s “fun and strange food” sold by enthusiastic employees in festive Hawaiian shirts. At Lululemon Athletica, opening a new store in Leawood, Liebmann said it was wearable, affordable athletic apparel and employees who might just pause to do a yoga pose for you in the middle of the store.
“They’re really hiring their passionate shoppers,” Liebmann said. “The barrier between the buyer and the seller doesn’t exist and that changes the tone of the conversation. … They’re not like any other retailer, and you know that the moment you walk in.”
Indeed. Walk into an Apple store and you sense the vibe, Willoughby said.
“Every detail of the brand experience has been thoughtfully designed,” she said. “From the young upbeat sales people to the store design, lighting, instant receipts, beautiful products to engage you, colors, packaging, every moment is an Apple experience. The Apple store is like a grown-up playroom where you can play with all the toys.”
As Christine Baker of Gladstone left the bustling Apple store on the Plaza with her toddler, she said she still found it an enjoyable experience.
“It’s the customer service, the ease of use of the products, and it’s kid-friendly,” Baker said Tuesday. “There’s no hard sell. The product sells itself, and I’m going to trust their name. I feel the same about Apple as I do Trader Joe’s.”
Chick-fil-A concentrates on what it does best — chicken. The menu makes it easier to order, and the Atlanta-based chain has built a big following with customer service touches that elevate the fast food experience.
Chick-fil-A employees are trained to say “My pleasure” after helping customers instead of just “You’re welcome.” Managers also often stop at customers’ tables to see how things are going, and employees continually circle the dining room making sure customers get drink refills or have enough condiments.
New player in town
When Trader Joe’s comes to a neighborhood, it is a cultural experience, Willoughby said.
“Shoppers trust unknown product brands because they are associated with Trader Joe’s brand, and shoppers are more willing to experiment,” she said. “The uber helpful employees donning Hawaiian shirts are paid well to deliver the promise of a Trader Joe’s experience.”
David Gryszowka, vice president of operations for Balls Food Stores in Kansas City, Kan., considers any operation offering food stuffs — including drug stores and convenience stores — to be competition for the company’s 11 Hen House Markets and 17 Price Chopper stores.
But he also recognizes that Trader Joe’s draws the same type of customers as Hen House, so the new stores may end up bringing even more customers to Hen House stores in those markets, he said.
Hy-Vee also has competed with Trader Joe’s in other markets, including a store that opened late last year near its Iowa headquarters.
“We welcome competition. It gives the consumer more choice,” said Ruth Comer, spokeswoman for Hy-Vee in West Des Moines.
Trader Joe’s stores average 10,000 to 15,000 square feet, so when it comes to size they’re certainly no match for supermarkets that can run 80,000 square feet and more.
The company takes out artificial preservatives, colors and flavors from products it carries, and it also puts its Trader Joe’s brand on about 80 percent of the stock. About a dozen items are introduced weekly. Customers can sample any item in the store before purchasing and after buying they still have a money-back guarantee, no questions asked. It offers only one ketchup but it believes that’s the best ketchup on the market.
“Trader Joe’s offers an edited selection … here are the products that we like and we think you will like,” said Jeff Green, principal of Jeff Green Partners, a Scottsdale, Ariz., retail consulting firm. “They keep hitting the mark that way so it makes shopping kind of easy.”
Except for an occasional radio ad, Trader Joe’s doesn’t advertise. Instead, it relies on its followers to spread the word. The chain’s mailer, the Fearless Flyer, comes several times a year, offering information about products such as Tuscan cantaloupes (a variety with Italian origins), organic kosher sandwich pickles, and Almond Windmill Cookies (buttery, shortbread-like cookies topped with almonds).
Trader Joe’s says it hires mostly for personality — fun, adventurous, enthusiastic people who are foodies. During opening day here, the first 300 customers will be greeted with plastic leis. And the walls of each area store will be lined with employee-painted murals of local landmarks such as Loose Park and the shuttlecocks at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Trader Joe’s, a specialty grocery chain, will open its first area stores (and first store in Kansas) at 8 a.m. Friday. The stores are at Ward Parkway Center, 8600 Ward Parkway, and One Nineteen, 4201 W. 119th St., Leawood.
The Kansas City store will sell alcohol, but the Leawood location will not. According to Kansas Alcohol Beverage Control, Kansas grocery stores can sell only cereal malt beverages with 3.2 percent alcohol.
•Headquarters: Monrovia, Calif.
•Founded: 1958 as a chain of convenience stores in Southern California called Pronto Markets. It converted to Trader Joe’s in 1967. There are now 360 stores in 30 states.
It was acquired in 1979 by the Albrecht family, who also own the German-based discount grocer Aldi.
•2009 sales, the latest figure available, were roughly $8 billion.
•Store hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.