Sneak peek inside Trader Joe’s
John Hielscher/Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Bells will clang Friday in Trader Joe’s to summon help for shoppers or to bring in additional cashiers to check them out when the trendy grocer opens its avidly awaited Sarasota store at 4101 S. Tamiami Trail.
But that will not likely be the only noise that follows the chain’s 8 a.m. opening.
Like Costco, which debuted last month at Sarasota Square Mall, Trader Joe’s tends to generate a buzz wherever it opens.
And also like Costco, Trader Joe’s local premiere is expected to draw a big crowd and rank as one of the top Southwest Florida retail events of 2012.
Sarasota will be only the eclectic grocer’s second Florida store, following the opening of a north Naples outlet in February. A third store, in Gainesville, is to open by year end.
“Naples opened with a bang,” Linda Moffa, the new store’s “captain” — Trader Joe’s-speak for general manager — said Tuesday. “We’re hoping for the same excitement.”
If employment applications are any guide, the store is already a smash.
More than 1,500 applied; company officials declined to disclose how many were hired, but said 80 percent were local residents.
The 11,200-square-foot “neighborhood” grocery, formerly a Rooms To Go furniture store, will carry some 3,600 items — including fresh-baked breads, specialty coffees, international frozen entrees, deli items and staples like milk and eggs.
Dozens of wines, including six varieties of its top-selling Charles Shaw wine — originally known as “Two-buck Chuck” but priced at $2.99 in Florida — and craft beer from Florida brewers will also be sold.
“Customers speak with their dollars as to what stays on our shelves,” Moffa said.
For the even more frugally minded, shoppers can try free samples all day long — the store will be open seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. — at the Sharkey’s Shack station.
But more than the inexpensive wine and the free nibbles, Trader Joe’s is significant because it represents the second major U.S. retailer, along with Costco, with a cult following to open in Sarasota in the past month, noted retail analyst Jeff Green.
“Trader Joe’s appeals to a wide audience,” he said. “They are well priced, and they sell their own products pretty much. “It’s not a place where you go to do all your supermarket shopping. You can’t go there for selection, but you go for quality and price.”
In yet another similarity with Costco, which sells its own line of Kirkland products, 80 percent of Trader Joe’s items are private label and have a loyal, maybe even rabid, following among customers.
To differentiate itself from most grocers, Trader Joe’s changes its prices only when its costs change. There are no sales, coupons, discount cards or special promotions.
To keep prices down, it buys straight from manufacturers, not through distributors.
Like its other locations nationwide, the Sarasota store will feature Trader Joe’s signature decor, which mixes cedar-covered walls and Hawaiian motifs. Store employees, called “crew members,” wear Hawaiian-style shirts.
Wall murals are decorated by crew members and offer a nod to their geography. In the case of Sarasota, the murals recognize the region’s beaches, circus heritage and cultural life.
Cashiers ring bells — there is no intercom system — at one of nine check-out stations when they need help. One ring signifies that another cashier is needed, two rings means crew assistance is required and three rings marks a kind of clarion call for a manager.
If the Friday opening explodes the way Costco’s did — lines formed outside the members’ warehouse store before its doors were unlocked — Trader Joe’s could prove a tough competitor for Whole Foods Market, the Sarasota-based Richard’s Foodporium chain, The Fresh Market and other specialty grocers.
Green said it also might draw customers from some of the major grocery chains, including Publix, which operates its popular Paradise Plaza store about a quarter-mile away from Trader Joe’s.
Moffa does not see things that way, however.
“We’re not in competition with them,” she said. “We’re a different shopping experience. We want people to take their time shopping here.”
The new store is smaller than the company’s 14,000-square-foot prototype, Green said. With 90 parking spaces, it may face a shortage of parking places, he said.
“It’s a fun place to go,” he said. “The people they hire are young and energetic. They appear to have a good time, which makes you enjoy your experience.”
Store captain Moffa is opening her eighth store. She has been with the company for 32 years, starting as a cashier at the original Trader Joe’s in Pasadena, Calif, and most recently managing a New Jersey store.
In all, Monrovia, Calif.-based Trader Joe’s operates more than 370 stores in 34 states. In addition to Sarasota, it will open stores Friday in Foxborough, Mass.; Newington, N.H.; and Plano, Texas. Thirty new stores are slated to debut this year.
The company posted $9.5 billion in sales in the year ended July 1, up $1 billion over the prior year, according to Supermarket News, a trade publication.
The company is owned by a trust in Germany set up by the late Theo Albrecht, who died in 2010, for his children. The grocer started in 1958 as Pronto Markets and took its current name from founder Joe Coulombe.