Observations by Nicole Johnson

Poring over the Q2 data of our CultureQ research, I of course found countless insights about those big-name brands I expected to dominate the discussions—blue chip brands like Apple, Ford, and Nike, and social media giants like Facebook and Twitter. But I was fairly surprised to see that Trader Joe’s was mentioned nearly as much as the expected set (albeit most often by trend setters and early adopters), and greatly intrigued by the enthusiastic clamoring of our participants for this quirky chain of grocery stores. According to our data, Trader Joes’, or “TJ’s” as its loyal customers call it, has cultivated an eclectic, cult-like following of Millennials. It seems they love everything about TJ’s from its products to its employees to its kitschy store design, and their intimate connection with the brand is captured in their CultureQ musings.

The first Trader Joes opened in 1967, the first trademark Hawaiian shirts were donned by employees in 1969, and since then, the store has expanded into a small grocery store empire of over 350 stores in 30 states. And all the while, Trader Joe’s has retained its quirky vibe and “neighbourhood feel despite being a chain,” as one CultureQ participant reflects. Despite its hundreds of locations, it somehow it still feels local and original, which adds to its appeal. It still promotes itself as “Your Neighborhood Grocery Store,” and its stores are tucked away in intriguing locations, such as a beautiful, old architectural-gem-of-a-bank in Brooklyn that another participant labelled a “palace of food.”

Trader Joe’s is cool, but in an off-beat way. It seems that their coolness is a product of their un-coolness, of the cheesiness of it all—the dorky Hawaiian shirts, the artsy, homemade signage, the obsolete bell-ringing system directing check-out traffic (a far cry from Wholefoods’ busier locations’ electronic, number- and color-coded equivalent). Enthusiastic employees make even more enthusiastic announcements over the intercom, and regularly engage shoppers in demonstrations.

And of course, there’s the food itself—high quality at surprisingly low prices, with unusual offerings inspired by worldly culinary tastes. A whopping 80% of Trader Joe’s offerings are of its own brand, with the “Trader Joe’s” name tweaked ever-so-slightly to complement the ethnicity of the food in question (think Trader Jose’s for Mexican, Trader Giotto’s for Italian). Trader Joe’s is famous for their beer and wine, the cheapest of the cheap—Millennials flock to the store for their “Two Buck Chuck,” the Charles Shaw wine label introduced exclusively at Trader Joe’s.

Trader Joe’s stocks a notoriously low amount of items compared to big-box grocers like Wegmans or Wal-Mart, but by and large, it gets away with its limited selection because everything they stock is carefully curated. Its fanatical customers are known to go to Trader Joes’s first to get everything they possibly can on their grocery list, and then go elsewhere for the rest. You can’t get Two-Buck Chuck or Chili-Lime Cashews at any old Wegman’s.

Trader Joe’s appears to have a unique and admirable appeal with many Millennials, and our early adopter participants who offered insights on the grocer largely perceive the chain as catering to their own generation. Trader Joe’s feels like it’s theirs. It’s stock is cheap, interesting, and delicious, and most importantly, the brand is hip and cool in that elusive offbeat and alternative way.