Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Buy BS with your Bananas at Trader Joe's!

I'm as much of a sucker for slick marketing as anybody else, but when I look at Trader Joe's house brands I wonder whether my ingenuousness has gone too far.

I'm talking about bananas and peanut butter.

Elvis Presley wouldn't have had a problem. He'd just put 'em on bread and fry 'em up. Wouldn't notice a thing. Most of us, though, look at what we eat.

TJ's bananas are wonderfully cheap at 19 cents apiece, about 2/3 what you'd pay in a chain grocery store. Grocery-store bananas sometimes make my tongue feel as if it's swelling. Is it irradiation? Who knows? Trader Joe's bananas generally don't. They do, however, hatch fruit flies.

We had an infestation last year that we thought was in the kitchen wastebasket. We have a metal one with a lid and a foot pedal. We cleaned it up, sprayed it down, aired it out. Didn't work. We tried again. Didn't work.

Then I noticed that if you leave TJ's bananas in a closed-up bag, fruit flies flutter out when you open the bag back up. I took to putting the bananas in the fridge overnight, just to kill the bugs fast, when I brought them home. Until I thought--geez, what else is wrong with these things?

Then there's the peanut butter. It's ground-up peanuts and salt. Simple stuff. $1.79 a pound at TJ's versus $2.78 at the chain grocery store. But the consistency at TJ's varies from jar to jar--a lot. Some of it I couldn't spread with a carmelizing torch and a spackle blade, it's that dry. It must come from the bottom of the vat. Lately we've had runny stuff that dribbles clear oil down almost to the last dregs. The color varies too. Some jars you can stir and see whorls of dark and light brown.

What's scary is that I don't really know it's okay to eat, because our toothless consumer protection laws are unenforced unless something shows up on the news.

Early this year, a peanut butter factory was closed down in Blakely, Georgia, for peccadillos like, oh, roof runoff dripping from the ceiling onto the equipment, food utensils being washed in the same sink as floor mops, and, well, you know, cockroaches and stuff. Peanut butter rolling out of this factory went to hospitals and free-lunch programs for school kids and into more than 1500 different products.** And yet the factory wasn't closed till after about six people died from salmonella.

I bet that peanut butter wasn't nearly as inconsistent as what I buy at TJ's.

I'm not saying TJ's peanut butter is going to kill someone. It takes a fool to ship out food that's tested positive for salmonella the way Peanut Corp. did, and nobody running TJ's is a fool. Still, TJ's gets a lot of coasting distance from good will.

TJ's is fun. I like the silly signage with puns everywhere. I like the Hawaiian shirts on the staffers. If it weren't so entertaining, nobody would put up with the crowds.

So you might think. But the floor space is tiny because tiny makes the crowds. Go there and you feel as if you're at a party (whether it's a good or bad one I couldn't say). You feel connected to the rest of the world. It's therapeutic, I bet, if you're single or lonely or you hate being at home. It's perfect for college kids.

You can see the strategy right there on the walls. A blanket of team-spirit blather lies over the place, whose staffers, I understand, are told that they're the store's chief draw. Shoppers come because TJ's people are so cool that everybody wants to be them, or at least, be near them.

I wonder how cool you feel, though, after four/six/eight hours of unloading boxes, stacking them, unstacking them, and restocking the shelves--after that hibiscus shirt starts smelling like your armpits. You'd start to see things you hadn't noticed before, like the fact that you aren't making much money.

I'm just guessing. Still, those staffers who are so cool probably aren't so dumb either, especially after the first few months of standing around with a sign saying "Line for 12 items or less starts here!"

Clear-eyed people can spot BS fast. But then, not a lot of college kids are quick to spot marketing BS that's aimed straight at them.

I can see the BS just fine, but as I said, I'm a sucker for slick marketing. For the right slogan, I'll overlook a lot.

TJ's peanut butter and bananas are cheap. I won't stop going there just yet.


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