TRADER JOE'S KEEPS IT SIMPLE

The demand for specialty food products has spread beyond the rarefied confines of the cosmopolitan kitchen, stimulating the growth of gourmet private label lines. However, a certain lack of clarity remains, and the term "gourmet private label" can be hard to define. At the southern California based-Trader Joe's, the segment comes to fruition.While several major chains have established lines of their

The demand for specialty food products has spread beyond the rarefied confines of the cosmopolitan kitchen, stimulating the growth of gourmet private label lines. However, a certain lack of clarity remains, and the term "gourmet private label" can be hard to define. At the southern California based-Trader Joe's, the segment comes to fruition.

While several major chains have established lines of their own -- Kroger, Harris Teeter and the Canadian Loblaw Cos., to name a few -- gourmet private label is not often seen as a separate component within the store, according to Brian Sharoff, president of the Private Label Manufacturers Association, New York.

"What Trader Joe's basically does, it shows you exactly what one is talking about with specialty and gourmet products," said Sharoff.

The chain currently operates 131 stores in nine states, concentrated primarily along the coasts. However, the retailer is expanding rapidly with a methodical eye toward America's heartland, already a presence in Illinois and Nevada.

As the chain grows with the rising demand for affordable specialty foods, traditional retailers must take note of Trader Joe's signature, humble style as the first successful attempt to use this niche as a freestanding store.

Shunning elaborate display and ostentatious decor, the retailer achieves maximum profits with this minimalist creed.

The stores' simple layouts are reminiscent of the box store format seen in the discount stores of parent company Aldi. The products are displayed au naturale with that most basic of retail precepts in mind -- letting the product speak for itself.

In another move toward fiscal restraint, the retailer does not stock many sizes of the same product, or many closely related products, making for an exclusive shelf mix. However, the items that do make the cut are sure to be innovative departures from standard grocery fare.

"What's unusual is the marriage of this very simple presentation with unique private label," Sharoff said. The company Web site boasts 800 grocery items in the Trader Joe's label, including the Trader Giotto's and Trader Jose's ethnic variations. Their products embody that exotic take on the victual mundane that has come to define the gourmet category. Artichoke salsa and seven mushroom marinara are the kinds of products that Trader Joe's is built on, and loyal customers know they can't find find them anywhere else.

Part of the chain's success can be attributed to the lack of pretense when it comes to the competition. The stores are not found in upscale areas -- leaving the high rent districts to the more sumptuous gourmet retailers -- and the products are not playing against national brands.

"What you have is specific and special unto itself," Sharoff said.

In accordance with the trend toward natural living, much of Trader Joe's product assortment is all natural or organic. In fact, according to a store associate in Larchmont, N.Y., all products with the Trader Joe's label adhere to all-natural standards, playing to the overlap between the wellness and gourmet consumers.

Consumer information is a key component of the wellness movement, and some health food stores harbor a veritable library of educational materials. Trader Joe's operates on this general principle, offering consumers fliers and pamphlets about their products, such as a listing of available gluten-free foods for those with restricted diets.

While the chain does not offer the traditional weekly, or even monthly, circular, Trader Joe's Fearless Flyer is produced three to four times a year, and is representative of the chain's no-nonsense approach to fine foods.

The February edition was 24 pages long, and featured items such as a 12-ounce box of Trader Joe's frozen French Bread Toast with four grain bread for $1.99.

The flyer advertises the lack of fleeting sales and discounts, playing up everyday low prices.

"No sales. No discounts. No top secret handshakes," states the flyer. "Just great prices."

And that is precisely the point.