Like many in his generation, Boise native Eric Ringold had a lot of education and few job prospects. He graduated in 2008 from the prestigious Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York, where he majored in mechanical engineering, but a few months later he was jobless and living in Los Angeles. He put his situation succinctly: "I was unemployed right after college and the economy went to shit. I was looking for any old job."
In early 2009, he applied for, and landed, a part-time job at a Trader Joe's grocery store in West Hollywood. It was a job he'd hold for a brief six months, but during an interview with Boise Weekly, he described his experience as positive--significantly adding to his expectations of and passion for groceries.
"In terms of a place to work, at that industry, it's probably one of the best. ... It makes me notice things when I'm in other stores. I feel like that model of what they're doing is great," Ringold said.
Grocery shopping is typically thought of as a mundane experience. It's associated with stocking pantries and avoiding toilet paper shortages, but the advent of a TJ's, set to open Friday, Feb. 28, on the 700 block of Front Street, has shown that folks in the Treasure Valley hold the chain in a different sort of esteem.
"I love Trader Joe's so much!" wrote online commenter Melissa Curtis Transtrum. "My Christmas prayers have been answered," wrote another, Toni Bussell.
Not all the comments were glowing: The effusion was mixed with sarcastic ambivalence from some, concerns about parking and worries that Trader Joe's and then-under-construction Whole Foods Market would edge established groceries like The Boise Co-op out of the market.
Opinions differ as to what effect the introduction of a Trader Joe's will have on grocers like Whole Foods and the Co-op, but according to market analyst David Livingston, of DJL Research, a grocery market research firm based in Milwaukee, Wisc., the grocer to suffer most would likely be Whole Foods Market, rather than a Fred Meyer or the Boise Co-op. In high-density areas like Southern California, TJ's might land between 5 percent and 10 percent of the grocery market share, but in a mid-sized city like Boise, with a single location, the specialty grocer's market share would probably amount to less than 5 percent.
"They don't tend to impact the competition in any great degree. They would impact a Whole Foods more than a chain store," Livingston said.
The projected impact of Trader Joe's on Boise's grocery market may help local stores rest easier, but similarities between the target demographics TJ's and the likes of Whole Foods and the Co-op, in addition to their close proximity, may temporarily challenge small and independent grocers. For Patrick Shannon, dean of Boise State University's College of Business and Economics, the silver lining for upscale grocers catering to wealthier patrons is the precedent set when Whole Foods opened in 2013.
"There'll be a big initial reaction to [TJ's]. And then it'll settle out," Shannon said.
Whole Foods' successful cohabitation with the Co-op has inflated many people's expectations of Boise's market capacity. Jared Buff, administrator for the Facebook page Bring Trader Joe's to Boise, thinks there's enough grocery business in Boise to go around: "The playing field's huge. ... Trader Joe's is on a different level."
The customer loyalty TJ's inspires has prompted some to describe fans of the chain as "cult-like," but its devotees don't shop there exclusively, nor do they disdain other grocers. Buff started the Bring Trader Joe's to Boise Facebook page in April 2010. Today it has almost 6,200 followers, but when he created the page it was out of nostalgia--a Boise native, Buff first encountered Trader Joe's in Portland, Ore., in the early 2000s--and dismay at the paucity of certain categories of foodstuffs like specialty snacks at a price point he thought was reasonable.
"I just kind of thought at the time that the only thing was the Co-op. I like the Co-op, but it's a little on the spendy side. Boise needed something else to level out the playing field," he said.
Buff and many of the fans of his Facebook page make special trips to TJ's locations in Salt Lake City, and Portland, Ore. His last, to Portland, was less than a year ago. He said what draws him and others to the store is its selection of unusual items.
"It's their focus on uniqueness and not just on everyday bags of chips. ... I think that's where the passion is, because it's not like stuff you can get [at other grocers]: It's their own unique stuff," Buff said.
Like many savvy retail businesses, Trader Joe's derives the loyalty of its customer base from cultivating a signature style of employee-customer relations. Stores have open layouts and, according to several former "mates"--the term for TJ's employees--BW spoke with, management promotes a brand of customer service in which employees develop a rapport with customers.
"They're very focused on customer experience to the extent that there were positions where you just roam the store helping customers, helping them find things. It's very engaged," Ringold said.
At TJ's, a meticulously crafted store personality is an explicitly stated goal. According to Cheyenne Marquez, one of the 80 mates who helped open the Salt Lake City TJ's in 2010, she hadn't been hired from a pool of about 1,700 applicants because of prior grocery experience: Management told her it was because she fit into its vision for that store's atmosphere.
"I'm kind of goofy. Being able to talk to people ... on a personal level--more than just checking them out. Typically when you go into grocery stores you don't really talk," Marquez said.
As Marquez's personality was an asset to her, so was Marquez to TJ's. The chain's investment in employees in the form of higher wages and extensive training have led analysts from the Sloan School of Management to The Atlantic to contrast its practices with those of other retailers like Borders and Circuit City, both of which went bankrupt after cutting back wages and full-time positions. According to The Atlantic, companies like Trader Joe's, Costco and QuikTrip that empower employees with knowledge and higher wages have been rewarded with up to 50 percent higher sales per square foot. TJ's has the highest rate of sales per square foot of any retailer in its category in the country.
Both Marquez and Ringold's starting salaries were $10 per hour--well above the minimum wage--and both underwent extensive training prior to beginning employment. Marquez and her fellow mates learned the ropes of keeping the shelves stocked, the back room clean and the general protocols of customer service. They also became a close-knit group through team-building exercises, during which many of the employees formed close friendships.
"I was even a part of helping one of my co-workers at the time find a new house. There were birthday celebrations. It was really cool," she said.
As with major brands like Apple and REI, Trader Joe's equips its employees with an intimate knowledge of available merchandise. With an average size of 8,000-12,000 square feet, the chain's locations pack a lot of cultural diversity into a relatively small space, courting growing demographics like Hispanics and Asians. In fast-growing markets like these, according to a Forbes article, customer experiences can go viral, and TJ's has successfully developed meaningful relationships with them through a combination of marketing, selection and customer service.
All this work has gone on mostly in secret--like a product launch, the Trader Joe's corporate offices have been mum on the Boise location's specifics and, until Wednesday, Feb. 26, a media embargo is in effect, which means that until then, there will be no interviews with management or photos taken from inside the store. That's unlikely to faze TJ's fans, some of whom have waited years for one to open in the Treasure Valley. As one commenter on the Bring Trader Joe's to Boise Facebook page put it, "I can hardly wait... ohboyohboyohboy!"