Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Favorite Brand Lets Me Down

Has a favorite brand, product, or service ever left you feeling disappointed?

After years of waiting, one of my favorite brands just became more accessible -- a new Trader Joe's has just opened a mere 3.5 miles from my home in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

I've loved this brand since first discovering them in Southern California about two decades ago. Their selection of quality domestic and imported food, extremely competitive prices, and an engaging customer experience puts them near the very top of my personal loyalty list.

In anticipation of this opening, I've been reading the Len Lewis profile on this distinctive grocer, The Trader Joe's Adventure: Turning A Unique Approach to Business into a Retail and Cultural Phenomenon. [see Excerpts via Google Books]

It's a fascinating read that confirms much of what I've suspected/observed as a customer. The book reveals a very purposeful vision and strategy -- one that created a differentiated business model unrivaled for over four decades.

But I digress.

So, on opening day, we head out to the very newest Trader Joe's in the world. I'm excited -- about to take on a new Trader Joe's adventure...

The underground parking provides hints of the trademarked tropical experience to come

TJ orchid, localized to Saint Paul, Minnesota

Cool -- vintage suitcases just inside the entrance enhance and confirm the exotic adventure

More localization -- a mural of Saint Paul's Como Park; Hey! That's not exotic!! (though the conservatory pictured does house tropical plants...)

Now this is the kind of whimsy I expect

A mural featuring what are, recognizably, a variety of Saint Paul-style houses

Above the dairy section, a mural of the downtown Saint Paul skyline and Mississippi River; note the bicycle -- one of several displayed above refrigerated cases

For some reason, the longer I was in the store, the less connected I felt to the Trader Joe's mystique. It took a little while to figure out why...

This isn't the exotic adventure one expects from Trader Joe's. Surrounded with images of Minnesota -- not some far-off tropical island -- it feels like an ordinary grocery store. Sure, there are the unique products only Trader Joe's offers, all at great prices. This is, after all, my logical reason for coming back time and time again. But that isn't the reason thousands of fanatical customers like myself line up at grand openings, rave to friends, and have joined the cult.

I expect -- and am stimulated and excited by -- the breeze of the trade winds, not a Minnesota wind chill; surfboards and flip-flops, not a classic Schwinn bike; palm or coconut trees, not northern pines. The casual, beach-side cedar-planked walls -- while some exist -- have been largely replaced with light yellow-painted sheet rock and these all-too-familiar murals.

For that experience, I can go to a Twin Cities-based grocer (and I often do).

A number of years ago, I recall Boston Market taking on a similar localization strategy. They too had murals on their wall. I forget the exact details, but remember tomato crates with "St. Paul" labeled as a destination. For that brand, localization made sense -- "Boston" is in their name, and here they were, plopping down in a far different city. (Since then, Boston Market has considerably scaled back its operations in Minnesota.)

But Trader Joe's doesn't need to do this. They are not local -- that is clear -- and they should not be. They are exotic, equatorial, different.

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