Business

Getting a Trader Joe’s in your town is not as easy as you’d think

The Trader Joe’s in University Place is for now the chain’s lone store in Pierce County.
The Trader Joe’s in University Place is for now the chain’s lone store in Pierce County. drew.perine@thenewstribune.com

It’s a question that comes up all the time:

“When are we getting a Trader Joe’s?”

The national grocery chain has a passionate fan base desperate, apparently, for its dark chocolate peanut butter cups, mandarin orange chicken, pumpkin butter and meatless soy chorizo.

Skim through Facebook fan pages featuring products or asking the company to come to a particular city. See daily #TraderJoes posts on Twitter as well as accounts devoted to the store. YouTube will show you people’s grocery hauls and recipes made with nothing but Trader Joe’s products.

Locally, the company has a store in University Place.

And everyone else in Pierce County?

“We’d still love to see them here,” said Ron Williams, Gig Harbor’s city administrator. “We’re rapidly growing, so maybe we’re getting to the population figures to attract them.”

Same with Lakewood.

“We’d definitely love to have a Trader Joe’s,” said Becky Newton, economic development director for the city. “Lakewood is on the increase in having retailers look at the market and people are looking for what’s next.”

Well, for now, it’s not a Trader Joe’s.

The Monrovia, California-based company has no immediate plans for another location in the Tacoma area, corporate spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki said in a recent phone interview with The News Tribune.

She would not comment on whether there are any current discussions on bringing a store to this area, and she wouldn’t give details on what factors go into choosing store locations.

“It’s always nice to be wanted,” Mochizuki said. “We’re always looking for great locations.”

So how does a location rate being great?

Mochizuki would not say what goes into the company’s decision-making process.

So we asked around.

David Livingston of DJL Research, a supermarket location research firm in Wisconsin, gave it a shot.

“From my experience, Trader Joe’s wants to be in a higher-income area,” he said. “Preferably six figures for median household income.

“They also would like to see an educated customer base, so they like to be near a major university or major medical center complex, then be part of an upscale shopping center facing a high traffic count roadway.

“Usually when you have all those, strong population density follows.”

So what does that look like on the ground?

In addition to the University Place store, the retailer has Tacoma-area stores in Kent and Federal Way. For those in the southern reaches of Pierce County, there’s the store in Olympia.

Compare that with the seeming glut around Seattle — at least 15, not counting Kent and Federal Way, according to its online store locator, plus one in Silverdale (for all those shoppers on the Key and Kitsap peninsulas).

If the chain is not adding stores in Pierce County, then “based on whatever criteria they are using, someplace is better,” said Bert Hambleton, president of Hambleton Resources consulting in Bellevue.

“Whatever you are competing with, it’s not as good as other places they have to choose from, and ‘good’ is a relative term,” he said.

The last Trader Joe’s that opened in the region was in Bellevue (its second one) in October 2016. In Seattle, there are four to choose from (the University District, Queen Anne Hill, Capitol Hill and West), according to the online list.

Spokane has two stores.

Can’t we at least match Spokane? Puyallup thinks so.

“We are solid enough here to keep a lot of retailers doing quite well,” said Tom Utterback, development services director for the city.

Quite well enough that Hobby Lobby recently announced it intends to open a store in a former Puyallup Haggen site.

“We have the rooftops to sustain retailers,” Utterback said. “East Pierce seems like a suitable market for (Trader Joe’s), especially if you expand the scope out to Bonney Lake, Tehaleh, Buckley ....”

Latest state figures tend to support his assertion.

Taxable retail sales in Pierce County in 2016 hit $14.9 billion, second only to King County at $59.5 billion, according to the Department of Revenue.

Tacoma came in third statewide with $5 billion in taxable retail sales, just behind Bellevue and Seattle, at $7.2 billion and $24.3 billion, respectively. Puyallup also made the top 10 in the state with taxable retail sales at $2.3 billion.

Median household income in Pierce County is at $60,167, according to census data, compared with the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metro area at $75,331.

Turns out Trader Joe’s watches its money as much it watches what potential customers could spend in its stores.

“They only expand with cash, no debt,” said researcher Livingston, “and they cannot expand until employees have been trained and can move to where they want to build.

“Unlike Walmart, that just moves a few managers and then hires warm bodies to work six to nine months, Trader Joe’s must hire fit, good looking, quick-on-their feet employees, which can be difficult.

“They pay much better than most retailers but they can’t open stores unless they know they will be able to find workers.”

So it’s a challenge to get their attention, granted.

Even Gig Harbor, home to Kroger’s specialty grocery Main & Vine — the only one in the nation — has run into Trader Joe’s “not-at-this-time” world of rejection.

In 2011, it was reported the city went so far as to send wine decanted into a personally etched bottle to the grocer’s executives to persuade them to move into a former QFC space downtown.

They didn’t hear back.

News Tribune archives contributed to this report.

Debbie Cockrell: 253-597-8364, @Debbie_Cockrell

TRADER JOE’S KEEPS LOW OFFICIAL ONLINE PROFILE

A few things are different about Trader Joe’s than other retailers.

The grocer doesn’t appear to have as much enthusiasm for social media as other stores.

In March, it started an Instagram account as its official social media channel. Those other Trader Joe’s pages you’ve run across online are fan-based.

“We prefer one-on-one dialogues from consumers with crew members (store employees),” corporate spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki said in a recent phone interview with The News Tribune.

Do any of those “Bring Trader Joe’s to Our Town” Facebook pages have any effect?

“Our decisions are not specific to social media,” Mochizuki said, but would not disclose what exactly goes into their decision-making process.”

In the meantime, there’s always filing an official request on the chain’s website at http://www.traderjoes.com/contact-us/location-request.

Good luck.

Debbie Cockrell, staff writer

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