Trader Joe’s Inspires Tribute Commercials, Cookbooks & Fan Clubs — A Chain Grocer’s Abnormal Appeal

September 28, 2009
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trader-joes

467,484 views on YouTube — and counting — can’t be wrong. The video in question? “If I Made a Commercial for Trader Joe’s,” a love letter of sorts to, of all things, a chain grocery store. Surprising? Hardly, when you consider that the store in question is a quirky, friendly, and low-priced option that has penetrated the lifestyles and psyches of Californians for generations and, since the mid-90s, has begun to work its magic out east as well.

While almost 500,000 views on YouTube is a lot, perhaps more impressive is that the more than 1,000 comments on the video are largely positive — unusual for anything thrown up for public comment on the Internet these days. It’s both reflective of how spot-on the video is, and how much love is given to Trader Joe’s by its patrons. What other grocery chain has inspired a cookbook publisher and a fan club with membership in the hundreds of thousands? All while earning top marks from Consumer Reports’ study of grocery chain satisfaction?

In the mid-1960s, competition from 7-Eleven set competitor Pronto Markets onto a path that would see it evolve from a mere convenience store. Today, Trader Joe’s is an institution where household staples, worldwide travel, healthy choices, cheap booze, feel-good shopping, and comforting favorites delightfully come together in a space that’s usually smaller than 15,000 square feet. While it’s been owned since 1979 by Aldi, a German supermarket company, that company has largely maintained the strategies and spirit established by original owner Joe Coulombe.

Unsolicited Commercial Captures Curious Charm

Carl Willat, the man behind the commercial, is the proprietor of Carl’s Fine Films, a company that has made memorable — and frankly cool — commercials that even casual TV watchers should recognize. While the chain has been known to air radio spots, Trader Joe’s does not utilize television commercials. In fact, they’d rather everybody keep the cameras off the produce.

Scroll down to the end of the article to see Willat’s unsolicited commercial

“I had an animation studio in San Francisco that was right down the block from the 9th and Bryant Trader Joe’s,” Willat told Osmosis Online when asked about the genesis of the commercial. “One day I was taking a picture of an employee-painted sign and a manager came over and said they had a rule against taking pictures. He didn’t say anything about videos so I started shooting secretly with my cell phone whenever I went in there, not really knowing what I would do with the footage.”

One day, as Willat and friend Mike Bates were walking back to the office from the store, Willat was whistling a tune– Carlos Jobim’s “The Waters of March” — and Bates began to sing: ” “it’s store-brand gin, it’s two-buck chuck . . .”

Willat suddenly realized what that cell-phone shot video could be used for, and the idea for a funny video began to percolate.

“I’ve made a lot of commercials and the idea of doing one with no client was so appealing that it seemed to outweigh the problem of not having a budget,” said Willat. “Also there was the perverse pleasure of making a spot for people who not only wouldn’t cooperate, but would actively try to stop us from making it if they knew what we were doing. All art has to have limitations and this project seemed to have some good ones.”

Willat has long been a fan of Trader Joe’s ever since encountering his first in San Rafael, “years and years ago.” The store was closed, and he couldn’t quite figure out what kind of a store it was, “since all I could see were those weird-ass signs and cardboard palm trees and products with unfamiliar labels. I couldn’t figure out what the organizing principle was, and it made TJ’s seem very mysterious,” he said. “For me the mystery has only deepened over time, and the film is an expression of that.”

Those “weird-ass signs” are part of Trader Joe’s signature personality. The company publishes a newsletter, the “Fearless Flyer,” that outlines new products, suggests recipes, and elicits more laughs than the Sunday paper’s comics pages. As reported in the Washington Post, each Trader Joe’s store employs an in-house artist, helping it to exhibit individuality even as it provides a common link between the whole chain. The staff wear Hawaiian shirts and serve you samples from an in-store tiki hut. The bells sounding in Willat’s video are the store’s version of a PA system; there’s one in arm’s reach of each cashier.

“It’s very different from traditional grocery stores in size and product selection, but has a fun and friendly persona that people love,” said Jovanna Brooks,who runs traderjoefans.com.

The end result is an unforgettable, friendly package that may not be for everyone, but is part of what makes fierce loyalists out of many shoppers, and inspires efforts like Willat’s video.

“For me,” said Willat, “the thing about the TJ’s video is that it’s genuinely heartfelt, unlike most of the commercials you see.”

The commercial has garnered interest from potential clients, seeking the same sort of treatment for their own concerns. There are two main problems with approaching another commercial the same way, though.

First, indicated Willat, some potential clients assume that “the video was made in a weekend and cost ten bucks.” Second, and perhaps more significantly, is that the commercial “only exists because that’s how I feel about Trader Joe’s, both positive and negative. If I tried to use the same approach for a product for which I didn’t have that kind of feeling I think it would come out more like a normal commercial and no one would care about it.”

It was indeed a labor of love, with no deadline, which saw Willat take several years in which he rewrote the lyrics “whenever I thought of something better.” Willat himself sang the scratch vocals for it, “just for timing,” so he’d have something to edit with.

“Originally I was going to have somebody who could really sing do the final track, but in the end it was funnier with my voice,” he said. Obviously, that was the right choice, and the once that’s resonated with hundreds of thousands of viewers. While there’s little that captures the quintessence of Trader Joe’s better than his video, Willat provided a couple lines that help outline the mysterious appeal of the store.

” . . . try telling your friends you’re going to Trader Joe’s and they’ll ask if they can go too. But you can’t drag people to Safeway.”

Culinary Cartography

Deana Gunn and Wona Miniati are the two-woman team behind the “Cooking with All Things Trader Joe’s” cookbook. They were passionate enough about their appreciation for the store that in 2007 Gunn and Miniati left their respective jobs as rocket scientist and hi-tech marketing consultant to create the book and the company that publishes it.

According to Gunn, they wrote the cookbook for people like them, “who enjoy great food but don’t have hours to spend in the kitchen every day cooking it all from scratch. ”

“Both Wona and I grew up cooking from scratch,” said Gunn, “but over the years, with kids and jobs, I had less and less time for cooking. However, I still wanted healthy, homemade meals that tasted great . . . (I) realized that if I took advantage of some of Trader Joe’s products, I could create meals in a fraction of the time it used to take.”

Miniati came to a similar realization.

Cooking_Trader_Joes_CookbookCover

“We think of Trader Joe’s as our prep crew, and we’re the chefs that create the magic in minutes,” she said.

They also attest to the freshness and quality of the products and affordable prices. Gunn points out that a real feel-good quality permeates the Trader Joe’s shopping experience.

“I also love Trader Joe’s commitment to responsible sourcing of their products, whether it’s free range eggs or eco-friendly fish,” she revealed. ” Besides all that, Trader Joe’s is a fun place to shop with the balloons, friendly crewmembers, samples, and fun music. My kids love to shop there. ”

Like Willat’s video, it’s another case of an unaffiliated party invoking the store’s charms to fulfill a need. According to Miniati “The response has been phenomenal.” The book is available in major bookstores like Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Amazon, as well as independent retailers, and it’s garnered the pair plenty of attention. They’ve been featured on TV, cooking recipes from the book for major market morning shows, as well as in print media like The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Sun-Times, and Sacramento Bee.

Miniati believes that “Trader Joe’s fans have been waiting for a book like this that showcases TJ products in quick and easy recipes.” Part of the feedback has included letters from “busy moms, professionals, students, even a couple that retired and toured the country in an RV with our cookbook in hand,” who appreciate the time-saving measures and gratifying results that “Cooking with All Things Trader Joe’s” has helped them achieve.

Miniati points to the frozen pie crusts and frozen puff pastry as being favorite ingredients in her Trader Joe’s arsenal.

“Simply cut the puff pastry sheet into squares, dollop some tapenade or goat cheese on top, and bake. Quick and delicious appetizers, perfect for holiday guests,” she advises.

Among other items, Gunn is impressed with Trader Joe’s gluten-free options as of late, pointing to a “great selection of gluten-free pastas, mixes, and other products.”

Product selection may, in fact, be a key differentiator in how Trader Joe’s is able to engage its customers. According to an article in BusinessWeek from 2008, a typical supermarket has 30,000 items at a given time. Trader Joe’s has a mere 2,000. A manageable number that customers can come to know — and engage in — much more easily. Yet another way that Trader Joe’s puts a more personalized stamp on the shopping experience. This means that products frequently change — sometimes for the worse, as with Willat’s treasured Ginger Soy Dressing. Willat also bemoans that the “great tomatoes for just a dollar a can” he sings about now cost $1.49 “and they’re terrible.” But the changes, in part determined by a secretive “tasting panel”, give way to lots of fresh, new options as well.

Brooks says that the changes are part of the winning formula.

“I believe that the rotating inventory and unusual store marketing has resulted in a base of fans that feel they are into something special,” she shared.

Gunn and Miniati keep fans up to date on such developments — as well as new recipes, giveaways, and more — on their blog, blog.cookingwithtraderjoes.com. And new offerings are in the works . In response to the feedback that customers were actually taking the hardcover cookbook with them to the store, the pair decided to publish their next cookbook in a tall-and-skinny format that shoppers could easily take to the store. Called “The Trader Joe’s Companion: A Portable Cookbook,” the new book due out in October.

“It’s a cute book and we’re so excited about it!” said Miniati.

Gunn followed: “There’s just nothing else like Trader Joe’s. No other store has the fanatical, loyal following that Trader Joe’s has earned over the years with their unique offerings and unique shopping experience.”

Speaking of Fans . . . .

Brooks, a Web designer, launched traderjoesfan.com, a site where fans of the store can browse almost 1,500 recipes and product reviews. About four years ago, said Brooks, “I realized that my friends and I all had our little must-have ‘hidden jewels’ at Trader Joe’s we were always sharing.”

Brooks, whose “home store” is in Burlington, Mass., thought that with the enthusiastic fan base, “an online product review and recipe site focused on Trader Joe’s would do well.”

While we can’t guess as to the site’s traffic levels, the affiliated “fan page” on Facebook has more than 108,000 fans. For the uninitiated, that’s not just considerable, that’s insane. It’s mostly been a solo act, with Brooks largely relying on volunteer contributors for submissions for content, supplementing with some articles from hired freelancers.

Her voluminous interactions with fellow fans have given Brooks a keen insight as to why the store is so appealing.

“Trader Joe’s is marketed and perceived as an ‘adventure,’” she said, invoking one of the main principles on which founder Joe Coulombe based the store’s evolution in the 1960s.

Brooks is very much in line with Gunn in hyping the store’s health consciousness. “Trader Joe’s was one of the first stores to start offering more organic products and privately branded products with no artificial flavors or colors,” she said. “It has always been sensitive to dietary needs.”

“Furthermore,” Brooks said, “Trader Joe’s products can be 25%-40% cheaper than nearby large grocery chains.”

Indeed, value is another key factor in Trader Joe’s popularity. When you consider that its prices compare favorably to regular grocery stores, but its products can compete with the likes of Whole Foods in terms of health foods, organic labels, and natural ingredients, it’s easy to see how Trader Joe’s casts a rather wide net for customers.

The store is also sensitive to its clientele. It’ll take products back, no questions asked, should a customer be unsatisfied.

Of course, the prices and customer service wouldn’t matter if the products weren’t unique and delicious.

“Trader Joe’s is known for having products not found elsewhere like chocolate-covered edamame, exotic dried nuts and fruits, and vegetable masala burgers,” said Brooks. “While shopping for (ahem) healthy items, there is an incredible selection of gourmet snacks and desserts that are hard to resist.”

Inevitable Detractors

No, not everyone’s a fan. Greenpeace, for instance, has a whole Web site dedicated to calling out the company on its “one-stop-shop for ocean destruction.” The name of that site? Traitorjoe.com.

From language in their supporting documents, it appears that at least part of the problem is Trader Joe’s lack of response to the organization’s self-appointed authority.

“Trader Joe’s remains the largest US grocer operating on a nationwide scale that refuses to substantively respond to Greenpeace inquiries regarding its seafood sustainability policies and practices,” says Greenpeace’s “Trader Joe’s Scorecard. The environmental watchdog is down on Trader Joe’s penchant for selling what it calls “red list” seafood — fish species that Greenpeace believes consumers and suppliers must avoid because they are increasingly endangered.

Other recent non-fans include protestors of the Israeli government, who deshelved goods from that country at Trader Joe’s and slapped their own labels on the products. This vandalism was presented as an effort on behalf of “National Don’t Buy Into Apartheid Day.”

While it’s disheartening to see such a positive institution become embroiled in political third-rails beyond its purview, perhaps fans can take comfort in this: Willat’s video is bringing in ten times the viewers that the protest video has, and, unlike the protest video, has nary a rancorous comment.

Gunn pointed out that the company did eventually issue an official response to Greenpeace.

“In response to customer concerns, TJ’s issued a recent statement saying that it will be consulting the Monteray Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and list when making decisions, which is a great move forward in making more eco-friendly choices available.”

In her opinion, the criticism was deserved, and she appreciates that the company did issue a response (seen here).

She also pointed out that Trader Joe’s seems to be making some movement in their packaging — “I’m noticing more bulk produce items available and most compostable containers,” said Gunn.

“Since I personally look for more ‘green’ options, these are both areas where I’m glad to see some changes,” Gunn told Osmosis Online.

Trader Joe’s itself has nary a comment at all for anything. Greepeace shouldn’t have felt personally slighted by the lack of access (even as it’s angered by the heart of the issue). The grocery chain is notoriously tight lipped, about private-label suppliers, about itself, about, as mentioned above, its internal tasting panel and product decisions. Not too many outsiders get much access. From reports, it seems only customers’ buying habits can truly influence the company.

But maybe an unofficial commercial has done the trick. Or maybe it was simply sending something via U.S. Post.

“I really do miss the ginger soy dressing and that particular brand of aged gouda cheese that went away,” said Willat, referring to the lyrics of his must-watch video. “They discontinued their vegetarian sushi rolls and I wrote and complained and now they’re back.”

“I’m pretending it’s because I have some sort of clout with them now,” he joked.

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11 Responses to Trader Joe’s Inspires Tribute Commercials, Cookbooks & Fan Clubs — A Chain Grocer’s Abnormal Appeal

  1. Dave on September 28, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    I’m sort of curious, if this was just done ad hoc, then why at 2:02, are there boxes and boxes of cereal with the brand/name taped over? Doesn’t seem like this would be something, um, just any ordinary “Joe” could get away with while filming with his Treo. Just sayin. Be real.

  2. jason on October 6, 2009 at 1:02 am

    It has also inspired a number of wine blogs including mine. Be sure to print out my Trader Joe’s Top 10 Wine List before heading out for your next shopping trip!

  3. [...] up mostly in Winnipeg. And I immensely enjoy dinner — vegetable jambalaya and tandoori naan from Trader Joe’s, with a chocolate chip cookie chaser — before a startlingly purple sunset. Food that’s merely [...]

  4. [...] Maple Syrup (the real kind, Trader Joe’s sells it at a reasonable price) Ground [...]

  5. [...] Trader Joe’s, Ralphs, Piggly-Wiggly, whatever; buy as much product as you can get your hands on. Then every day next week, camp out in the canned goods section of a different store, one you don’t frequent, just to save face the rest of the year. When you see a distraught shopper that’s turning this way and that in a panic, you’ve got your mark. [...]

  6. [...] turkeys are available at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, among other places. They combine the advantage of brining with the convenience of delivering the [...]

  7. Holiday cocktail party made easy | Osmosis Online on December 19, 2009 at 9:53 am

    [...] grocery store for Kalamatas and other tiny bites. A bowl of Marcona almonds (I like the ones from Trader Joe’s with rosemary) also goes great with cocktails. You can’t go wrong with chips and dip, of [...]

  8. [...] of some kind or manage to blow throw two gallons of milk in record time, necessitating a quick Trader Joe’s run (so long, another 2,000 potential [...]

  9. [...] Italian cheese that melts like a dream. The first time I tasted these rice balls was courtesy of Trader Joe’s freezer section. They were stuffed with fontina, and I thought: These are good, but I bet [...]

  10. [...] Barbara facility. Oreana also leases space in Paso Robles, where the winery makes its wines for Trader Joe’s: “?” and “Happy Face”; about 40,000 cases of those two wines combined. The [...]

  11. […] transitioned to using Stevia extract as our go-to coffee sweetener (the concentrated kind from Trader Joe’s, naturally, which has 622 servings in a tiny, tiny bottle, and comes with a most minute measuring […]

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