business news in context, analysis with attitude

On Friday we took note of a Business Insider story "about something that someone, somewhere finds to be controversial - a TikTok video suggesting that Trader Joe's is a chain primarily targeted at affluent people.

"According to the story, the video "spurred discussion around Trader Joe's, a chain with around 530 stores and 10,000 workers, predominantly being for rich people. It's not the first time that debate over the grocery chain's perceived priciness has gone viral on TikTok, either."

I commented:

As you might be able to tell from the my characterization above, I'm more shocked that this is seen as news than I am by the idea that Trader Joe's attracts an educated, well-off customer base.

The key to Trader Joe's success, to my mind, is less about price than it is about differentiated products that appeal to people who know something about food.  It is not as health-oriented as some might think, nor is it particularly good at fresh foods.  The magic happens with the private label items that are high-quality and give the buyer a sense of being special because the products are positioned that way.

That's a really good combination.  What is more mystifying is why more retailers don't try to find their own way to the same formula for success.

MNB reader Steven Ritchey responded:

I have to admit, I took a tiny bit of exception to one of your comments about Trader Joe's, you said it seems to attract younger, well paid people who seem to actually know something about food.  I sort of felt like you should have finished by adding, "unlike the rest of you clowns who wouldn't know good food if it hit you in the face."

Really, I'm being a bit facetious here.  But for a brief moment I felt like I was being told that those who know food shop at Trader Joe's, or at least a trendy store like it.

I've been in the business for a long time, 45 years now, so I like to think I know a bit about food.  I've been in Trader Joe's and they do run a nice store, but to me it's like a niche store.  They are missing too many brands I like, and the foods they sell are frequently not what I want.  That doesn't mean it's a bad store, because it's not.  They aim for a certain segment of the market, which is smart, every company out there has a target market, or at least should, or if they have several target markets, they have different formats to cater to each one.

I think what I'm trying to say is that, however flippant you may have intended that remark to be, it came off, at least to me as a bit condescending.  You don't have to be a foodie to know food.

That certainly was not my intention … to be honest, I'm not a huge Trader Joe's fan.  During the early days of the pandemic, I found the one near me to fit into the "non-essential" category, and so I think I've been inside it twice in two years.  (To be fair, though, one of the things that my local Trader Joe's had lots of during the pandemic was lines, so not everybody would agree with me.). I agree with your characterization, in general - I think that one of the things Trader Joe's is selling is a bit of snob appeal, though there also is some aspiration mixed in.

USA Today reported the other day that "a group of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology dug deep into the science by devising an Oreometer, a device designed to split the iconic Oreo cookie with a specific amount of force. The goal was to create a perfect split every single time: one side a clean cookie, the other side with all the filling."  There's actually a name for this line of research:  Oreology.

The story noted that one thing the scientists couldn't figure out is "how to manipulate the perfect split Oreo split with equal cream on each side of the cookie."  But you can do it so "all the cream winds up on one side," as long as the Oreo is from a freshly opened pack and separated with a twisting motion."

I commented:

First of all, I don't have a degree from MIT, but I think I sort of knew some of this intuitively.

Second … I checked, and it costs more than $53,000 a year just in tuition to go to MIT.  I know I sound like a parent here, but if I were spending that kind of money on my kid's education there, and this is what they had to show for it, I might be a tad peeved.  On the other hand, if they're paying for it themselves … no, I'd still be sort of annoyed that in a world with all the problems that it has, really smart people are trying to figure out the best way to separate an Oreo.

Especially because the best way to eat an Oreo isn't to split it.  You leave it intact, dunk it in cold milk, and then eat it.

Prompting one MNB reader to write:

Had to check my calendar when I read the Oreology story – thought for sure it was April 1st!

And everyone knows that breaking two Oreos in half and creating a new double stuff cookie with two chocolate wafers as an extra is the way to eat Oreos (even better when you start with two double stuffed Oreos and make a quadruple stuffed Oreo).

I'm a single-stuff guy, myself … and I also have to admit that I can of like it when Oreos get a little stale and soften up a bit.   

Also got this email from MNB reader Rich Heiland:

Your comments on the newspaper dropping delivery hit a sore spot with me. I, too, started as a paper boy, ended up as a reporter, then editor, the publisher/CEO.

One of my former papers in Huntsville Texas came out three years ago with the announcement it was only going to do a print edition Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday. They said they were going to put their resources in a strong digital 24/7 presence. Except, they didn’t. That had cut down to an editor, two reporters, two sports reporters. As recently as a month ago they were down to an editor, one reporter, two sports reporters. Their announcement that they would have a stronger product was, well, bull …..

The fact is that when you go digital, as opposed to a physical paper, readers no longer accept the time lag. They expect currency. They want the latest, now. This means that if a paper is going to succeed digitally it needs to increase the newsroom substantially to meet that 24/7 demand for currency. The majority of papers that have gone digital have not put the money saved from printing and distribution into news, so they will continue to slide more and more into irrelevancy (and forget attracting new generations of readers), and that’s bad news not just for readers but the very core of our democracy.

Spot-on analysis.  Except that the sad thing, in my view, is that there are a number of people out there who do not equate a robust news media with the survival of our democracy.