There are now about a dozen Instagram accounts — some of which are making real money — devoted to the grocery store’s latest products.
Dezeray Floyd had been working at Trader Joe’s for a few years when she first had the idea, but she wasn’t sure if she was allowed to actually do it. To start an Instagram account devoted to the corporation that paid her wages — without permission from its legal department — seemed risky. But why, exactly? She wasn’t bashing the company. Quite the opposite: She was praising its products, items she would have bought anyway as a paying customer. She just wanted to share them with everyone else.
And so in the summer of 2016, she launched the Instagram account @traderjoesglutenfree, where she posted photos of every new gluten-free item that Trader Joe’s had in stock. “Look who has decided to grace us with her presence again this year. GET IT WHILE YOU CAN!” reads a recent caption on a photo of Trader Joe’s butternut squash pizza crust that garnered more than a thousand likes and 50 comments. “I didn’t tell anybody [at work] because I was like, ‘They’re going to think this is so lame,” she laughs. Today she has nearly 47,000 followers, many of whom look to her as a primary source on gluten-free products at their local grocery store.
Dezeray is part of a small, but growing, community of Trader Joe’s Instagram influencers, none of whom are associated officially with the brand but all of whom have built a dedicated following over their shared love of the affordable grocery chain. There’s Trader Joe’s Obsessed (150,000 followers), Trader Joe’s Kitchen (215,000 followers), Trader Joe’s Aficionado (16,000 followers), Trader Joe’s Pro (31,000 followers), Trader Joe’s Insider (78,000 followers), and the biggest one of all, Trader Joe’s List, which has more than 950,000 followers.
Trader Joe’s Instagrammers are only one example of how the brand’s cult-like following has created a small cottage industry around it. Earlier this year, Money reported on a couple who makes a significant amount of cash buying Trader Joe’s Everything But the Bagel seasoning at their local store and reselling it on Amazon, sort of like an IRL version of dropshipping; an Etsy search will bring up Trader Joe’s baby onesies, a set of five of the brand’s most popular spice blends, and even dollhouse miniatures of Trader Joe’s paper bags.
Trader Joe’s does not participate in traditional advertising, never has sales, and is known for frustrating product shortages. Despite all this, it’s one of the most beloved brands in the US. Its employees are known for being almost impossibly nice, even in locations where lines and crowds regularly spill outside. The products taste good, and come in delightfully quirky packaging with festive fonts and names like “Gone Bananas!” chocolate-covered banana slices or Candy Cane Joe Joe’s. The prices are low, much lower than normal grocery stores and much, much lower than fancy ones like Whole Foods.
All of these qualities are a direct result of the Trader Joe’s business model: The majority of its products are private label, a.k.a. “generic,” which means it does not have to buy Cheerios from General Mills to sell to the public; their in-house “Joe’s O’s” taste virtually the same (in fact, some of its products actually do come from the same manufacturers that big name brands use). And as the Washington Post notes, while most grocery stores carry about 50,000 units of product in store at once, Trader Joe’s typically only has around 4,000. That difference allows employees to familiarize themselves with each item since there are fewer brands and products to keep track of, while the company saves money on real estate since they need less physical storage space.
But there is also something special about Trader Joe’s that isn’t shared by other “generic” brands, a fun quotient that consumers can’t really explain. “People don’t think of [Trader Joe’s products] as generic,” Mark Gardiner, author of the book Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s told Eater. “[They think] ‘it’s Trader Joe’s — that’s the brand,’ and it’s a special brand that you can only get here. The truth is that almost all of this is stuff that you can probably get at another store within a few miles of that Trader Joe’s in a different package with a different name.”
What goes into designing Trader Joe’s labels, however, along with really any other information about how the brand’s marketing works, is a secret. Trader Joe’s did not reply to a request for comment for this piece, which is highly unsurprising; it almost never comments on itself outside of its proprietary podcast.
Trader Joe’s didn’t even get on Instagram until 2017, seven years after the app launched. It was the brand’s reluctance to maintain a social media presence that helped Trader Joe’s influencers to thrive in the spaces the company had historically ignored.
Natasha Fischer began writing about Trader Joe’s products on her new blog, Trader Joe’s List, in 2008. Shortly before the Great Recession hit close to home and she was laid off from her job, she’d created both a Twitter and Facebook account for the blog, but with more pressing concerns to handle, she turned her efforts toward paying the bills.
By the time she logged back in six months later, she was shocked to find that her barely-used Twitter account had amassed 40,000 followers. She figures they were people who assumed she was representing Trader Joe’s, which didn’t have any social media accounts at the time. The same cycle happened in 2010 when she opened an Instagram account and received 25,000 followers overnight.
Fischer is the only Trader Joe’s social media account owner I spoke to that had ever heard directly from the corporation itself; it came in the form of a legal notice. She’d never claimed to be acting as the brand, but in the early days, Trader Joe’s sent her a letter including pictures from her blog suggesting people were confused about who she was, and demanded she include in her bios that she isn’t affiliated with Trader Joe’s. Regardless, followers sometimes still tag her in customer service complaints.
Fischer isn’t totally sure how Trader Joe’s feels about her or the dozen or so Trader Joe’s Instagram accounts that have since sprouted up in the wake of her success, but she has some theories. “I think they like me posting about the products and giving reviews,” she says. “The heart of Trader Joe’s was always supposed to be word of mouth.” But regardless of what Trader Joe’s thinks, her work is wildly lucrative in its own right: Her blog and Instagram account with more than 950,000 followers earns her more than enough to live off of. She still holds a job, but that’s just because she wants to.
“She’s our grandmother,” says Dezeray jokingly. All of the Trader Joe’s influencers DM each other regularly and repost each other’s photos; there’s a refreshing lack of competition between them outside of the small desire to be the first account to post a new product.
Long Beach-based Patty Castillo of Trader Joe’s Aficionado launched her account last November to take her mind off of some professional struggles at her restaurant chain job as an accounting manager. She uses the account to document what she’s cooking each evening, and even though she says she makes “absolutely zero money” on the five to six hours a day she spends working on it, she’s found her niche. “We’re pretty friendly and we all talk on a daily basis,” she says of the other Trader Joe’s bloggers. “I like that it’s a positive community full of women, if that makes sense.”
It’s no coincidence that a majority of Trader Joe’s influencers happen to live in Southern California, where the company is based. SoCal stores are often the first to get new products; multiple bloggers told me that their East Coast followers regularly complain that they can’t find the items they post about until weeks later.
For now, only Natasha is making a living on Trader Joe’s blogging. Rachael Engelhardt, the 26-year-old who started Trader Joe’s Kitchen in August 2018, says she makes “fun money” off of sponsored posts and partnerships (with brands who aren’t Trader Joe’s but who make food products they hope Trader Joe’s customers might like), but still keeps her day job as a graphic designer for a different food company.
But Rachael echoes pretty much every Trader Joe’s blogger when she says she’s only in it because she loves the brand so much. “I started this account for fun and it’s still fun for me. The moment it becomes a chore and causes stress in my life, I’d have to take a step back,” she says. “I definitely didn’t see it becoming as successful as it is and I didn’t start with a specific goal in mind. I just want to spread the Trader Joe’s love!”
Millions of people shop at CVS and Safeway, but for a store that doesn’t typically advertise itself outside of its social media accounts, Trader Joe’s has, through its friendly-seeming, affordable ethos, sparked a following so devoted that there are now hierarchies of that fan base. And Trader Joe’s influencers are at the top — for the most part, not really reaping much material reward, but creating a space where the only topic of conversation is what everyone’s cooking for dinner tonight and the only real drama is around which of this year’s pumpkin spice products taste the best. If only the rest of Instagram were so nice.
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Author: Rebecca Jennings