COLUMBIA, SC — From its frozen pizzas handmade in Italy to its organic applesauce, Trader Joe’s might strike customers as a high-end grocery store with price tags to match.
But Columbia’s first Trader Joe’s, opening Friday at 4502 Forest Drive, aims for a laid-back atmosphere with a focus on fun. And those pizzas? Prices range from $3.99 to $4.99. The applesauce? $1.99 per four-pack.
The grocer keeps its prices low by carrying mostly store-brand items that come straight from the vendor, store captain – think “manager” – Anthony Benson said. About 80 percent of the chain’s inventory carries the Trader Joe’s label, he said.
Trader Joe’s is the latest national chain with a cult-like following to fill in a missing piece in the Midlands’ retail scene. Columbia-area consumers have long clamored for stores that entered the state in Greenville and Charleston, but always seemed to skip the Midlands – turned off by divided shopping clusters, which pit Harbison Boulevard against the Northeast, and both against downtown and Forest Acres, or set back by the Great Recession’s flagging economy.
But the trend started reversing itself less than two years ago, when Mast General Store opened a new store along Columbia’s Main Street in the midst of its revitalization. Since then, Whole Foods has opened a long-anticipated store along Fort Jackson Boulevard, near where it meets Devine Street. Trader Joe’s will open less than three miles away in Forest Acres. And Urban Outfitters recently said it would open a store this summer along Gervais Street in the Vista.
None of the retailers chose to locate in either of the suburban corridors that traditionally attract new retailers – Harbison and Northeast Richland.
“I don’t think that it’s a rejection of the traditional shopping corridors. But it is a different type of store than Columbia is used to,” said Ben Johnson, research and marketing director for Columbia’s CBRE commercial real estate company. “They’re all looking for urban dwellers.”
Some national retailers still are choosing the suburban corridors – including Academy Sports and Home Goods in Northeast’s Village at Sandhill, and Forever 21 and Best Buy Mobile at Harbison’s Columbiana Centre. But the downtown area has become another option for retailers as the economy improves and an urban-living trend begins to spread.
The momentum of attracting more desirable national retailers to Columbia “really is moving forward,” said Marianne Bickle, director of the Center for Retailing at the University of South Carolina. “What is critical, though, is to keep that momentum going. It’s imperative that you not ease up on that.”
Beer, wine and healthy
Trader Joe’s also will ramp up competition in the Midlands’ grocery scene.
Within a five-mile radius are numerous competitors – from the new Whole Foods to Earth Fare on Devine Street, and Fresh Market and Publix in nearby Trenholm Plaza. There are also two Piggly Wigglys, a Kroger, the independently owned Rosewood Market and a Walmart, which holds the largest grocery market share in Columbia.
At least two of those grocers, Earth Fare and Fresh Market, undertook renovations and new marketing campaigns as Whole Foods prepared to open last fall.
That’s smart, said Bickle.
“If they don’t spruce up their stores (in the face of competition), then people will go right past them,” she said.
Trader Joe’s will bring a different kind of competition to Columbia’s grocery wars.
Unlike Whole Foods, the Monrovia, Calif.,-based retailer is known for its low prices. Its bread-and-butter business is its extensive beer-and-wine selection – including a $2.99 store brand Charles Shaw, known as “two-buck chuck” – and healthy and convenience foods.
Take its multigrain toaster waffles, for instance. An eight-pack is $1.99. A liter of sparkling spring water is 79 cents. A five-ounce bag of organic popcorn with olive oil is $1.99. A 15-ounce bag of frozen sweet potato fries is $2.29.
None of Trader Joe’s store-brand foods have MSG, artificial trans-fats, genetically modified ingredients or artificial flavors, colors or preservatives. It also carries selections of vegetarian, gluten-free and kosher products.
And if you’re not sure you will like the taste, just tell an employee. They will open up any package – minus the alcohol – for you to have a taste test.
‘We like to have a lot of fun’
The store also is attractive to some customers for its quirkiness. The new Columbia store features murals on every wall from around the city – including the State House, Williams-Brice Stadium and the Gervais Street bridge.
Workers wear Hawaiian shirts and don’t use the intercom system during business hours. Instead, they ring a bell: a signal that could mean another cashier or manager is needed or a customer needs help with a wine selection. The store is small enough, at 13,800 square feet, that employees don’t have to run far to help out.
Also, there are no self checkout lines.
“It’s all about the customer experience. So you’ll always deal with people,” Benson said earlier this week, as Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out with Him” played over the sound system and a cashier mouthed the song’s words while she practiced scanning groceries.
“We are pretty laid back,” Benson said. “But we like to have a lot of fun.”
If you go
What: Trader Joe’s store opening
Where: 4502 Forest Drive
When: 8 a.m. Friday is the “lei cutting;” store giveaways and demonstrations will continue until 9 p.m.
Filling in the missing pieces
Columbia has long been missing some of the national retailers found in Greenville and Charleston, but that trend is starting to change. Here are some of those retailers who have found homes in the Midlands – and a wish list of some still missing:
• Mast General Store, opened in May 2011 on Main Street
• Whole Foods, opened in October on Fort Jackson Boulevard
• Trader Joe’s, opens Friday on Forest Drive
• Urban Outfitters, will open this summer on Gervais Street in the Vista
What’s still missing? Columbia-area consumers still are clamoring for a Costco, an Apple store and an IKEA, among others.