The cozy touch of glazed maple walnut scones baked in an oven, the crust of a ginger spread that awaits Christmas parties, and an apple crumble that’s served up as the perfect Thanksgiving dinner dessert.
At Trader Joe’s, the temptations of these items and more give the Monrovia, California-based retail chain its iconic following. It’s also drawing the attention of city governments, including Mobile, which is taking the unusual step of using social media to woo a particular branded retailer.
The effort raises a question: How much cheerleading should City Hall do to try and land a retail chain that would likely compete with existing grocery stores?
“We’re not recruiting for any location,” said Jason Johnson, spokesman for the city of Mobile. “We don’t even have contact with Trader Joe’s. We just heard from citizens that Trader Joe’s is looking for a location in Mobile.”
The City of Mobile launched a “Bring Trader Joe’s to Mobile” page via Facebook on Thursday. The new page on the city’s official Facebook page has garnered praise from commenters clamoring for a Trader Joe’s deal in Mobile.
Mobile hopes the company will take notice. The focus is on generating grassroots action on social media, leading people to Trader Joe’s website where the public can “request a Trader Joe’s in my city”.
Mobile’s efforts are not unlike those of other cities. A city official in Rockwell, Texas – a suburb of Dallas – is also following Trader Joe’s and shared a similar strategy on Facebook. Grassroots efforts are also being made to open a store in Meriden, Connecticut.
“We’ve seen several other cities doing a similar social media push to get citizens to fill out interest forms, and wanted to let Mobilians know how to register their interest directly with Trader Joe’s,” Johnson said.
Trader Joe’s has more than 560 stores across the US, including two in Alabama (Huntsville and Birmingham), but none in close proximity to Mobile. The nearest store is 150 miles away in Metairie, Louisiana.
Trader Joe’s is a chain of stores that offers an eclectic selection of groceries and snacks at low prices. The company has annual sales in excess of $13 billion and is constantly expanding. In October, new Trader Joe’s opened in cities in Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Connecticut, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
The popularity of the company is reflected in customer satisfaction. Trader Joe’s outperformed the supermarket industry — and all other retail sectors — with the highest score last year in the American Customer Satisfaction Index Retail and Consumer Shipping Study.
For Mobile, the push to land a Trader Joe’s comes after another high-end specialty grocery store closed earlier this year. Whole Foods announced in April that it was closing its Mobile and Montgomery stores — along with four others across the US — as part of a company-wide analysis of performance and growth potential. Located in Austin, Texas, the high-end grocery store opened in 2015 in Mobile at the Pinebrook Shopping Center on Airport Boulevard.
“Nice to hear we’re wanted”
Trader Joe’s understands it’s wanted. A company podcast aimed at answering questions about the company included an episode, “Please Won’t You Be My Neighborhood,” which explored the benefits a Trader Joe’s brings to neighborhoods.
The episode also answers questions about the company’s decision-making process of where to open a store. According to Brian Palbaum, President and COO of Trader Joe’s, two factors are important: distance from a warehouse and population.
Mobile has a population of over 184,000 residents. The population of the Mobile Metropolitan Service Area is over 430,000 residents.
Mobile also has distribution center locations, namely the 1,300-acre South Alabama Logistics Park.
“We’re coming up with those numbers, and it makes sense, we’re opening a store,” Palbaum said.
Another podcast reveals that the company has been considering over 200 website submissions for a potential new Trader Joe’s each year since last year.
Of those website submissions, a company official said that 20% pass a test and undergo an internal review. The company’s real estate staff will then dive in and determine where to open one. Of the 20%, half will become a new Trader Joe’s.
Nakia Rohde, PR manager at Trader Joe’s, said the company is considering “many locations” and confirmed that Mobile “isn’t yet on our list of upcoming store openings.”
“But it’s nice to hear that we’re wanted,” said Rohde. She encouraged people with a specific location idea for a Trader Joe’s to fill out a form on the company’s website.
Social Media Marketing
The City of Mobile’s interest in Trader Joe’s might highlight interest in a particular retailer, but it hasn’t sparked controversy among grocery stores that have long operated in Mobile. Grocery chains in the Mobile area include locally owned and operated Greer’s; Rouses Markets located in Thibodaux, Louisiana; Publix grocery stores based in Jacksonville, Florida; Winn Dixie, also a Jacksonville resident; Walmart; target and others.
“The public announcement via social media that the City of Mobile is looking for a Trader Joe is just a form of social media marketing in my opinion, nothing wrong or unusual,” said Judson Edwards, dean of Sorrell College of Business in Troy University. “This type of posting is usually done for positive affirmation from followers, hoping that generating activity will support the idea and hopefully get the company’s attention.”
Edwards said: “But will this social media activity create a warm and fuzzy feeling from local grocers? Unlikely.”
Samuel Addy, senior research economist and associate dean of economic development at the University of Alabama, said it’s not uncommon for cities to run retail businesses in general, noting that it’s part of an overall economic development strategy.
However, Addy and Edwards said the problem becomes difficult whenever tax incentives are involved in attracting a retailer to a city. For Trader Joe’s, property tax breaks have been offered by cities to find distribution centers, which are critical to opening a Trader Joe’s store.
Mobile hasn’t indicated it’s willing to provide tax breaks to bring Trader Joe’s to Mobile.
“Retail can sometimes replace existing retail and you have to be really careful,” Addy said. “It’s quite common for cities to take care of retail. The only thing is that the incentives for retail should be nowhere near those of a manufacturing company.”
Edwards said it’s certain local grocers will lose “some” business to Trader Joe’s. He said the question “some” needed “due investigation”.
“But before the City of Mobile would even consider offering any form of financial incentive to Trader Joe’s, they would need to determine the strength of the brand and associated commercial territory,” Edwards said. “It essentially boils down to whether the store can attract new buyers from outside the city of Mobile, such as Baldwin County citizens, to spend their dollars at a level that increases the overall sales tax to the point where any form of incentive is warranted.” is?”
According to spokeswoman Denise Curtis, the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, which administers economic incentive agreements for Mobile’s city government, “supports but is not affiliated with” Trader Joe’s social media efforts.
Mobile City Councilor William Carroll, who calls Trader Joe’s a “great” deal, said he wasn’t sure the retail store would qualify for economic incentives if it took one to bring one to Mobile.
He said there is interest in bringing a grocery store to the developing Africatown community north of Mobile, which will attract tourists next year with the opening of the Africatown Heritage House. This museum will honor the community formed by the survivors of the slave ship Clotilda, parts of which were discovered in 2019, and bring new attention to the community.
“It’s very interesting and we’re going to keep working on opening a grocery store out there,” Carroll said.
Addy said incentivising a grocery store makes sense when you bring it to a low-income area like Africatown.
“If it’s a food desert or a low-income area or a place where it can help create other jobs and if it increases diversity in the way a city retails, then it’s good,” he said .