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Trader Joe’s Produce Sends Mixed Message

Amelia Freidline

Amelia Freidline, Copy Editor

The summer has been a sultry one so far in the Kansas City metro area, so much so that the hottest conversation topic for several weeks running has been just that — the heat.

Before complaints of “It’s so hot!” drowned out almost every other subject, however, the suburbs were abuzz with another cry: “Trader Joe’s!”

Excitement about Trader Joe’s had been building since last fall, when the retailer announced plans to come to our area. Kansas City is now home to two of the discount specialty stores, one on the Kansas side of the state line and one in Missouri.

I was more or less familiar with the Monrovia, Calif.-based chain, which has been owned by Theo Albrecht of Aldi fame since the late 1970s (and now by the Albrecht family since Theo Albrecht’s death last year), but I had no idea of the frenzied fandom it engendered.

According to reports in The Kansas City Star, eager shoppers started queueing at 3:30 a.m. at the Leawood, Kan., location, and 300 had gathered by the store’s 8 a.m. grand opening. About 100 lined up at the Missouri store. One woman rushed in and grabbed an item as soon as the doors opened, The Star’s story said, then ran right to the cashier to make sure she was the very first person to check out.

Grocery shopping can be crowded enough even under normal circumstances, but with ardent shoppers like that on the loose, I decided my first Trader Joe’s experience could wait until some of the newness wore off.

After a couple of weeks of hearing friends and colleagues describe Trader Joe’s and the items they had seen there, however, I decided it was high time I checked out the stores myself.

Call it investigative journalism.

In the produce aisle

The Trader Joe’s I visited had its produce department close to the entrance, which made for an anchoring eye-catcher as soon as I walked in.

One thing that surprised me as I perused the fruit stands was that apples and bananas were priced per item rather than per pound or per bunch.

On the day I went, conventional apples were 59 cents each — there was no price difference among the five or six varieties the store carried — and organic apples were 69 cents. Bananas were 19 cents each for conventional and 29 cents each for organic.

At least there’s no argument there about the price markup for organic.

Although I can understand pricing apples individually, I wondered how many people were confused by the banana display and tried to break the bunches apart to buy separate fruits.

To the store’s credit, though, the sign did explain “Less than a dollar per bunch.” I asked The Packer’s retail editor Pamela Riemenschneider later about this pricing method and she said it cuts down on labor and equipment because there’s no need to weigh anything.

Tesco’s El Segundo, Calif.-based Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market also adopted the practice, she said.

If the average apple weighs about 8 ounces, that makes the ones at Trader Joe’s some of the cheapest I’ve seen for a while.

Among the bulk bags of private-label oranges and clementines (and a citrus display in bins labeled for stone fruit) I found avocados priced at $1.99 each, Rainier cherries for $4.99 a pound and Stemilt Artisan Organic apricots at $3.99 per clamshell, prices which seemed more in line with a normal grocery store.

While the vegetable section had deals such as a $3.99 5-pound bag of private-label russets and a 2-pound bag of Vidalia onions for $2.29, it also had a huge display of hothouse bell peppers all the way from Holland.

I’d like to see the transportation cost breakdown for European peppers versus ones grown closer to home. Right around the corner from that was a picked-over display of “regional” produce advertising corn, tomatoes and squash — and artichokes.

That made me wonder how Trader Joe’s defines “regionally grown,” but also who in the Midwest had a big enough artichoke deal to supply a retail grocer.

Humorously enough, the shelf space for artichokes was empty.

There were some standard leafy greens such as baby spinach for sale ($1.99 for a 6-ounce bag of conventional or $2.49 for the same size in organic), but most of the salad offerings were specialty items, such as heads of red or green oak lettuce, small bags of torn butter lettuce or film-wrapped trays of sad-looking red and white Belgian endive.

There were also trays of fresh fennel root and boxes of organic pea shoots.

Fuzzy focus

Although Trader Joe’s does offer some unique items that aren’t carried by most mainstream Kansas City retailers, I left the store with the feeling that most people don’t go there for the produce.

The discounts on some everyday commodities, such as apples and bananas, might make for good deals (by way of comparison, a local Whole Foods store sold organic apples for $1.99-2.99 per pound depending on the variety).

On the other hand, a conglomeration of typically priced specialties made me feel like the store had an identity crisis when it came to produce. Is its target customer the bargain hunter on a budget, or the amateur gourmet in search of unusual ingredients?

As Kansas City’s Trader Joe’s fever abates, it will be interesting to see whether the stores steal customers away from Whole Foods and the more upscale, locally owned Hen House markets, or whether some people who currently shop at Aldi will change their allegiance to that chain’s hip and trendy cousin.

At least now I know where I can buy organic pea shoots.

Not even Whole Foods carries those.

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