The specialty grocery chain — which has built a legion of fervent fans by offering low-priced but high quality and unique items in a fun setting — plans to open stores at Ward Parkway Center in south Kansas City and Leawood’s One Nineteen at 119th street and Roe Avenue.

Trader Joe’s can be a “retail badge of honor” for a center and for a community, retail experts said, and often will attract other big-name retailers.

“They set the gold standard for product innovation,” said Krista Faron, a senior analyst with Mintel, a consumer and product research firm. “They really take pride in constantly updating their offerings of food and drink, and many of their competitors look at them as trailblazers.”

Trader Joe’s already has a strong following of customers who’ve been hoping for years for a store in the Kansas City area. As of Wednesday, Facebook’s “Bring Trader Joe’s to the Kansas City Metro!” had more than 8,000 members wanting stores in downtown Overland Park, Lee’s Summit, the Northland, Midtown, Mission.

Among the comments: “Why is Trader Joe’s not here yet? C’mon people!” and “Honestly... I don’t care where they build it... just bring us our TJs!”

One local company even makes nearly bi-monthly runs to Trader Joe’s in St. Louis to give area customers their fix.

Trader Joe’s, which was founded in Los Angeles in the late 1950s under another name, is tight-lipped about its business, not wanting to tip off its competitors. The retailer was acquired by the Albrecht family (who also own the German-based discount grocer Aldi) in 1979, according to Fortune magazine, which put Trader Joe’s 2009 annual revenues at roughly $8 billion.
The company now has more than 340 locations in 25 states including several in the St. Louis area.

Stores were recently announced for Omaha and Des Moines but that only served to rile up local fans. “They are killing me!!!” said one blog poster.

But perhaps it was worth the wait to get not one but two area stores, albeit located six miles from each other.

RED Development — the managing partner and developer of One Nineteen and the developer and manager of Ward Parkway Center (but not a partner) — said Trader Joe’s sees the centers as two distinct trade areas.

“Trader Joe’s coming in validates a site. It’s like getting an A+ in class,” said Dan Lowe, managing partner of RED Development, who has long desired a Trader Joe’s in one of his area projects. “They are savvy retailers and attract a very desirable customer – well-educated, discerning — but appealing to all income classes.”

More definite opening dates for the two stores may be available in about a month.
The freestanding, 12,000-square-foot Leawood store at 4201 W. 119th St. will not sell alcohol. According to the Kansas Alcohol Beverage Control, Kansas grocery stores can only sell cereal malt beverages (3.2 percent alcohol).

RED Development originally put up the freestanding building so gourmet specialty store Dean & DeLuca could relocate from Town Center Plaza, just across the street. When Dean & DeLuca opted to stay put, RED filed suit but said that suit has since been settled. A 3,000-square-foot space with drive-thru is still available in the south part of the building Trader Joe’s will occupy.

At Ward Parkway Center, at 8600 Ward Parkway, Trader Joe’s will open in a 14,000-square-foot space that was home to Staples until mid-2009. Staples closed a year after opening, saying there were problems including “water leakage and plumbing.” A suit is still pending against the former owner.

“There are some great retailers at Ward Parkway,” Lowe said. “But adding a Trader Joe’s is the beginning of a very significant transformation of that project, a tremendous repositioning,” Lowe said.

Trader Joe’s calls itself a neighborhood grocery, but its products are from neighborhoods regionally and the world over — Arabica bean coffees, craft beers, international frozen entrees like Mandarin Orange Chicken, frozen croissants and crumpets, multi-grain tortilla chips, Thai lime-and-chili cashews, and fresh gazpacho. It also sells some basics like eggs (cage-free) and bread (perhaps fresh baked artisan).

The retailer is also known for its Charles Shaw label of wines (dubbed the Two-Buck Chuck for their $1.99 price tag in some markets). Its 2005 Chardonnay won “Best Chardonnay from California in the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition in 2007.

The stores carry about 2,000 different items, compared to about 50,000 for a typical supermarket, and nearly 80 percent are under the Trader Joe’s brand.

“You won’t find Coke, Pepsi or Tide,” said Faron of Mintel. “There might just be three of an item and chances are it could be Trader Joe’s brands. But Trader Joe’s is known for having the best possible products in those categories.”

With about a dozen new items showing up every week, fans often feel like they are going on a treasure hunt. They also get scoops through the chain’s quarterly mailer, the “Fearless Flyer,” which has been described as a cross between Mad Magazine and Consumer Reports.

Like many customers, Joanne McBride heard about Trader Joe’s by word of mouth from her sister. That prompted McBride to make a special stop while on vacation in Milwaukee, and a recent visit to a St. Louis store.

“Everything is just delicious and the prices are so good,” said McBride, of Prairie Village. “I will be excited to have it as an alternative.”

Employees wear bright Hawaiian-styled shirts and some serve as in-house artists, hand-painting murals and shelf tags so each nautically-themed location looks a little different. At some of the stores, children search out stuffed animals hidden on the shelves and redeem them for prizes.

All the stores have demonstration booths where customers can get free samples, or they can ask to taste any item in the store before purchasing. After buying they still have a money-back guarantee.

Trader Joe’s aims to keep costs low by buying direct. It doesn’t advertise, doesn’t have sales (but low everyday prices), doesn’t offer loyalty cards, and doesn’t offer services like dry cleaners, banks and video rentals.

Along with being an unconventional grocery, the trade publication Shopping Centers Today calls it a somewhat unorthodox tenant. It’s a chain that has far from saturated the market and still has the unpretentiousness of a mom-and-pop. And because it is only opening a few stores a year — five in 2010 according to Fortune — it does a tremendous amount of research before entering a market.

Kansas City Councilwoman Beth Gottstein has visited Trader Joe’s stores across the country, and like many area residents, has long wanted a store for the Kansas City area.
“I think they heard us loud and clear,” she said.

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