Retailers With ‘Cult Appeal’ Let Shoppers Do the Talking

“Cult brands tend to be regional geographic brands that have been around a long time and the consumer has a fondness for. They are names people grew up with, and they know what those brands deliver to them." — Bill McClinton, SVP, licensing, Global Icons

There isn’t any one thing that makes people fall in love with a food store. Though an attraction to food in the first place helps.

For New Yorker Taryn Cooper, Trader Joe’s [4] became a particularly special place because its selection of exotic foods, healthy choices and easy to prepare meals helped to nourish an adventuresome palate — and an aversion to cooking.

“I love food but I despise cooking,” Cooper admitted. “Being busy New Yorkers, it’s so easy to get something quick, cheap and efficient at Trader Joe’s that isn’t just your run-of-the-mill take-out kind of place. My husband, for example, barely knew how to boil water before he met me, and even that was suspect. Now he can whip up a quick Mandarin Orange Chicken package with a side of frozen microwaveable brown rice and broccoli on the side. All from Trader Joe’s.”

Cooper said the ease and selection at Trader Joe’s helped to expand her family’s appetite for items like Thai food and Indian cuisine, which encouraged them to shop there more frequently. Increasingly, she said, Trader Joe’s became a cheaper alternative to ethnic restaurants. Stories about her favorite finds at Trader Joe’s are published on a blog, which she calls “Trader Joe’s Abuse Problem.”

Trader Joe’s [4]
Founded: 1967, Pasadena, Calif.
No. of stores: 375
Sales: $20 billion (est.)
Distinguishing characteristics: Tight selections of discounted, private-label gourmet and specialty foods in a tropical-themed environment.
“Since it’s founding … Trader Joe’s has not only kept people coming back but has also created its own culture and a cadre of loyal shoppers who aren’t the least bit bashful about extolling the store’s virtues to perfect strangers.” — Len Lewis, writing in The Trader Joe’s Adventure

The blog — which Cooper said is augmented with frequent Twitter discussion with like-minded Trader Joe’s fanatics — is hardly unique, at least where Trader Joe’s is concerned. Few food retailers inspire the kind of devotion that Trader Joe’s can, with dozens of fan-written blogs that share recipes and finds (“What’s Good at Trader Joe’s,” “Cooking with Trader Joe’s,” “Tracking Trader Joe’s” and so on).

Then there are the fans petitioning to get an outlet of the Monrovia, Calif., retailer in their town. These petitions — solicited by the company itself on its web page but also running wild on social networking sites like Facebook — illustrate shoppers are making an emotional connection to Trader Joe’s that is deeper than a typical pairing of shopper and store.

Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets [5], with its combination of dazzling stores and low-priced groceries, and Publix Super Markets [6], the Lakeland, Fla.-based chain that distinguishes itself through service and cleanliness — inspire similar devotion from their fans. Not surprisingly the three were top scorers in Consumer Reports magazine’s annual survey of subscribers in its May issue.

'Heart-ing' Publix

Michelle Atwood, a mom living in suburban Atlanta, shopped at Publix for years and loved it for its service and cleanliness. But it wasn’t until she got into couponing that Atwood truly appreciated all the store had to offer. For the past three years, she’s chronicled her search for deals at the website IHeartPublix.com (“where saving you money is my pleasure.”)

There is no other grocery store that can touch Publix as far as customer service, cleanliness and a good shopping experience,” Atwood told SN, “and when I started getting into couponing, I found it was also the cheapest place to shop, which goes against the perception that they’re high-priced. If you shop it correctly it’s not. In fact it’s the lowest-priced shop.”

Publix Super Markets [6]
Founded: 1930, Winter Haven, Fla.
No. of stores: 1,051
Sales: $27 billion (est.)
Distinguishing characteristics: Conventional grocery stores emphasizing service, selection and cleanliness.
"[Founder George Jenkins] always said, ‘If you take care of the product, it won’t come back; if you take care of the customer, they’ll always come back.’ It’s a very simple philosophy that I believe our managers really understand.” — Ed Crenshaw, chief executive officer

Atwood’s site — along with a message board she also hosts — attracts hundreds of responses every day from shoppers throughout Publix’s Southeast store base, who share coupon tips, recipes and stories of their trips. The site in fact is so successful as a business that Atwood capitalized on a market opportunity and launched IHeartKroger.com, covering her area’s other large supermarket chain. (“I love Kroger [7], but I don’t love it as much as Publix,” she admitted.)

Users of her Publix site are overwhelming in their admiration for the grocer, Atwood said.

“People who shop at Publix love Publix. I mean, they love it tremendously,” she said. “These are the people who refuse to step foot into Wal-Mart [7] because you can’t compare the quality of products or the quality of service. It’s like shopping Niemann Marcus vs. shopping at a dollar store. It’s a completely different experience.

“The people who shop at Publix, while they want to save money, they also want to know they’re going into a clean facility, and they’re going to get good quality meats that are cut with real butchers and not prepackaged. It’s just a different experience.”

Gordon DelGiorno, a filmmaker from Wilmington, Del., is a member of a Facebook group trying to raise his city’s profile as a potential site for Wegmans. DelGiorno said he joined the group — officially known as “We Want Wegmans in Wilmington!! Delaware, that is!” — after having been spoiled by a Wegmans store in his wife’s former home of Downingtown, Pa. The Downingtown outlet is about an hour’s drive north of Wilmington — about the same distance away as Bel Air, Md., the nearest Wegmans’ store to Wilmington in the other direction. Coming to Wilmington, the group argues, would narrow the gap.

“I’m sure Wegmans has their reasons, and they’ve done their homework on locations,” DelGiorno told SN, “but we still feel neglected.”

It’s small consolation, but Wilmingtonians aren’t the only ones who’d like a Wegmans a little closer to their home. The chain in 2011 alone received more than 4,400 store-opening requests from shoppers in 47 states, spokeswoman Jo Natale told SN. For a chain that typically opens two or three stores a year, some of those fans are going to have a long wait.

Regional Cult Brands

While each of these three chains operates a distinct store, they have more in common than just devoted fans, observers note. All three emphasize service through engaged employees who are ambassadors of the brand, and all are tightly held corporations that don’t often discuss their business publicly (Trader Joe’s and Wegmans officials declined comment for this story specifically), preferring to let their stores — and their fans — tell their story.

These businesses in fact share characteristics with iconic brands and companies in other industries, said Bill McClinton, senior vice president of licensing for Los Angeles-based Global Icons.

[8]Wegmans Food Markets
Founded: 1916, Rochester, N.Y.
No. of stores: 79
Sales: $6.2 billion (est.)
Distinguishing characteristics: Big-box  grocery stores with expansive selections  and fresh and prepared foods departments  behind strong emphasis on customer service.
"Wegmans continues to amaze everyone with just how good at execution they are, and how consistently they execute.” — Neil Stern, senior partner,  McMillan Doolittle, Chicago

“Cult brands tend to be regional geographic brands that have been around a long time and the consumer has a fondness for. They are names people grew up with, and they know what those brands deliver to them,” McClinton said. “Food brands tend to be regional. I’m originally from the East Coast in Philadelphia where we had Tastykake. In Cincinnati you have Skyline Chili and in Los Angeles you have In-N-Out Burger. These brands don’t stray too far from their geographic region, and they’ve been there forever. There’s something in those brands that the founder created that resonates.”

Brands can also represent lifestyles, McClinton said.

The degree to which Publix, Wegmans and Trader Joe’s weigh the desires of their most devoted fans in making decisions is a matter of some speculation. None of the three tend to be voluble on the topic, preferring instead to let their stores do the talking. That said, Wegmans can’t please every community that would like one of its stores nearby. The limited selection at Trader Joe’s means some shoppers will always miss an essential item.

“Once a brand becomes a brand that has that [cult] kind of reverence with their consumer they can’t act on every whim,” McClinton said. “But a brand has to have consideration for what brought that brand its longevity. When Coke changed to new Coke it was a disaster.”