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The recent news that Trader Joe’s is looking to open a South Burlington store kicked off an enthusiastic response from many of the stores local devotees.  That’s not surprising considering the cult-ish following the grocery chain has among shoppers coast to coast.  Amid the enthusiasm, questions about competition to local grocery sellers emerged, specifically the impact of Trader Joe’s aiming for a location next door to Healthy Living.  The confident, almost welcoming, response from the Healthy Living purveyors allayed some fears, but had me wondering:  What are the ramifications to our local food system?

Here are the four primary areas where I see Trader Joe’s impacting the Vermont food system. (1) Growth potential/opportunity cost for local food producers (2) Other local/national store expansion (3) Long term area shopping trends (4) Independent store management and food politics.

(1)    Trader Joe’s has cultivated a loyal following for its low-cost but high quality products.  Their offerings feel on par with products available at natural food store or co-ops; interesting snacks, semi-prepared foods, frozen meals and inexpensive wine.  Their stores fit into neighborhoods, have fun paintings of local landmarks and culture (which often are blended into their sales pitch) but yet one thing they don’t do well is local.  That becomes a problem for local food producers who are looking to grow, and need their products on more shelves.  The lost opportunity isn’t so much that a new store coming in is a chain versus an independent store, it is that there’s no opportunity for local foods to get on the shelf in front of shoppers.  As we grow the pipeline for local producers by increasing commercial kitchen space and food-hubs, we need to increase the outlets for those products at the retail level.  A new store that sucks up local grocery dollars with no local food offerings hurts the growth of the local food system.

(2)    No big surprise that the owners of Healthy Living don’t see TJ’s as a major threat for peeling off their shoppers. They have an established customer base, and if you’re buying local food and organic products from them now, you’re not likely to shift the bulk of your food purchases elsewhere.  Same goes for City Market’s downtown store.  But what is the potential impact on City Market’s planned second location in the South End?  Or on the now dormant Whole Foods plans for a store in the Burlington area?  Assuming that City Market’s plans for the South End store rely on two primary shopping groups – (a) neighborhood residents (b) downtown and area workers that commute from outside of Burlington south on Route 7 – then the impact would be minimal.  But if City Market is factoring in South Burlington/Shelburne/Charlotte weekend shoppers as a significant portion of their base, the Healthy Living/TJ’s co-location then might be an issue.  Same for any resurrection of a Whole Foods proposal.  With the Williston Road option off the table, Shelburne Road and Williston would be the next likely locations for a store.  Putting a TJ’s on Dorset Street has the potential to impact either of those proposals, if the idea got new life.

(3)    We are all creatures of habits.  I’d venture a guess that our shopping habits are at least a little bit, and most likely largely, influenced by the shopping patterns of our parents.  From when you shop, to how many stores you shop at, even to how you navigate the store, many of these habits are formed before you make these decisions for yourself.  From the standpoint of the local food system, this could be an issue for the long term buying habits of young Vermonters.  There’s nothing terribly exciting about shopping at Shaw’s, Hannaford or Price Chopper.  They’ve all worked to create a shopping experience that feels more intimate by imitating the co-op feel in their produce sections and adding natural food sections. That window dressing doesn’t eliminate the fact that you don’t feel a connection to the food when you shop.  Conversely, Vermont’s Co-Ops and natural food stores have a personality.  Product availability and location change, the aisles are close together (creating an intimate shopping experience) there’s the ownership aspect of co-ops, and so on.  While the feel of shopping at Trader Joe’s is different than a co-op, the identity is there.  The connection and loyalty of brand certainly is too.  So the issue for Vermont’s food system again returns to what’s on the shelf.  If shoppers are creating a connection with a store with no local food options, how does that impact their long term buying habits?  Perhaps not at all, I don’t know.  Or perhaps, in a small way, having a Trader Joe’s will be an addition that helps keep young people in Vermont.  Does Vermont adding more chains like Trader Joe’s, Chipotle and Five Guys means it competes better on the great things to offer rather than what it lacks?  Or perhaps it still comes down to jobs and as long as folks believe they can’t find work here, they’ll head elsewhere.

(4)    The thing we import the most in Vermont is food.  What do we export the most of?  Money.  Our main agriculture commodity is dairy, and we don’t manufacture much in the state.  Which means when we buy things we send our money away for other people to decide what to do with it.  Will a Trader Joes be anything but a blip on the register of our receipt for purchase of goods that come from afar?  No.  But it continues a practice of letting others decide what to do with our food dollars.  Compare the success of Trader Joes and City Market/Healthy Living.  The success of Trader Joes in California & Boston (and everywhere else they are) allows them to expand.  They are looking to open stores in Vermont, New Hampshire, Colorado and so on.  City Markey and Healthy Living are planning to expand too, but regionally in a way that will serve both existing and new customers.  Only the latter expansions will help support local farmers and food systems.  This is important because beyond the pipeline for local, it’s the City Market’s and Healthy Livings that are driving (and enabling) the conversation about our food to take place.  Being privately owned may allow Trader Joe’s to be a reasonably good actor on issues like sustainable seafood and GMO’s, but that doesn’t replace the accountability that is inherent in independent stores.  Hanover Co-Op recently pulled Horizon products off their shelves because Horizon milks are no longer organic.  Last year Hunger Mountain Co-Op dropped Cabot butter because of concerns that it wasn’t rBGH-free.  Do you think there was pink slime on the shelves of City Market or Healthy Living before a national outcry?  Nope.

Perhaps Trader Joe’s impact on the local food system will be nil. Time will tell.  And I’m sure I’ll find myself inside their doors at some point.  I’ll be doing my best to buy things I would otherwise have purchased at Hannafords or Shaws, rather than shifting my food dollars from a local store.

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