To match Houston’s awesome selection of cheap beers, it looks like we may have a proper source of ultra-cheap wine, as Trader Joe’s comes to the Lone Star State with its three buck chuck, not to mention limited selection but inexpensive groceries.
The story, broken by the Dallas Morning News and Swamplot, should be music to the ears of cost-conscious foodies, spendthrift winos, and the 713’s collective Napoleon complex. Finally! We can join the ranks of those supposedly superior California and Northeast locales with their ever-so-hip TJ’s. This is even bigger news than the time Cleveland learned it was getting an Ikea.
But there are a few little points of doubt in this otherwise good news.
1. Does Houston have enough out-of-work youth to work at a Trader Joe’s?
If I’ve learned anything from my shopping adventures at the NYC Trader Joe’s, it is that the only people who work there are slightly charming, definitely surly, urbanesque attractive 20- and 30-somethings. I’m simply not convinced that Houston has enough of this visually important demographic to properly stock a TJ. And if they do work at Trader Joes, then who will work at Whole Foods, or Moon Tower Inn, or any bar along lower Westheimer?
Furthermore, with Trader Joe’s salary starting at $40–60,000 per year, store managers earning in the low six figures, contributions to a standard 401(k) plan, pay for entry-level part-timers at $8 to $10 an hour, and health insurance benefits to part-time employees and their dependents, TJs is certainly a tempting employment option.
2. Trader Joe’s is going to Dallas first.
Dallas? Really? Screw Dallas.
3. Will Houstonians like the Trader Joe’s style?
The huge appeal of Trader Joe’s in places like New York City is that it is quality food at megacheap without going to a club store. TJ’s can pull this off by carrying fewer goods and extremely few outside brands, opting instead for its own private labels.
This policy does help nix those fallacy of choice issues where consumers spend hours contemplating their ketchup-catsup problems.
However, Houston’s modus operandi seems to be consumer freedom at all costs. Houston is the home of no zoning, Enron’s deregulation fantasies, and 26-lane freeways instead of public transportation. Houston has the reputation as a place where people will drive through 2-hour traffic rather than even contemplate mass transport, because personal choice and control is preferable to any sort of top-down dictation.
Through that philosophy, why would Houstonians want to shopwhere there is only one brand, when they could go to Kroger’s (not that Kroger’s lets go to the good Kroger’s) and choose among three trillion different types of cereals with marshmallows in them.
Furthermore, Houstonians already have the option of this sort of top-down, limited option shopping at Whole Foods or Central Market, and those places have higher quality, more options, and shorter lines.
Trader Joe’s will have to find some other way to stand out. I can think of three key niches that Trader Joe’s could fill in Houston
1. poor-man’s, less organic Whole Foods
3. The cheaper of a Whole Foods-Central Market-Trader Joe’s trifecta of yuppie grocery stores.
Which brings this blog entry to point number 4
4. Will Trader Joe’s really be that much cheaper?
In New York City, grocery shopping at TJ’s can cost nearly half as much as shopping at a normal grocery store. The lack of cars means that people are less able to drive for a deal, and thus usually only shop at places near them. This means less competition between stores. Furthermore, a premium cost for space means that prices are higher all around.
However, Houston has giant grocery stores that, due to cheap land and nearly-total car saturation, are in nearly constant competition. Options are abundant and prices are low in this open market fantasy land of giant parking lots and free samples. In NYC, people are willing to walk and wait in long lines to save money, but how much cheaper can things actually get in Houston?
Maybe applying TJ’s methods to a different style of city will still work, driving prices even lower. And people do go out of their way to get some of Trader Joe’s private labels. (I hear stories about people who will bring empty suitcases when visiting locales with TJs so they can bring home some of their favorite Trader Joe’s cereals). But that stark difference between Trader Joe’s and other grocery stores in New York City won’t exist in Texas sprawl towns. Trader Joe’s will have to stand on its own merits.
On that note, where will Trader Joe’s go in Houston? It will need a place with a large parking lot, probably near the more youthful inner loop neighborhoods. Maybe it will go in some of the less developed areas of Montrose, near Allan Parkway, or somewhere in the Heights? Then again, maybe it will take the Five Guys approach and start outside the loop along the I-10 energy corridor.
And if I remember correctly, the first Whole Foods in Houston was in a small shopping center along Bellaire at Stella Link. (Edit: I remembered poorly. The first one was on Shepherd, south of Westheimer, next to the Bookstop. Now it is a pet store).
Much like the lines at Trader Joe’s, I guess we’ll have a long wait.