HEWLETT, N.Y. -- Consumers looking for frozen meal solutions that are convenient, variegated and value-priced will find Trader Joe's here a shopper's paradise.
Like all the Trader Joe's stores, the unit here, which opened this past December, puts a lot of emphasis on frozen food.
With about 8,200 square feet, this store devotes an entire aisle, or about 52 feet, to frozen-food coffins. Product selection includes ethnic entrees and dinners, specialty mixed vegetables and meal starters, cleaned and ready-to-cook fish, to name a few categories.
According to Doug Rauch, president of the East Coast division of Trader Joe's, Needham, Mass., the frozen-food section has always been sizable.
"Many years ago, we were very aggressive in developing what the industry now calls meal solutions in our frozen section," he said. "We have not really increased stockkeeping units.
"Managing space is a big challenge, since we are constantly introducing new items and dropping less successful ones, but it's remained relatively constant in the last five years."
Trader Joe's positioned itself long ago as a high-quality, low-priced provider of gourmet and specialty food without artificial flavors or preservatives. Not surprisingly, with all segments of the population -- especially aging Baby Boomers -- equally interested in health and convenience, the company today seems poised for a significant growth spurt.
While the company has traditionally drawn an older, more affluent customer, Rauch and Ira Cohen, vice president for Trader Joe's on the West Coast, say clientele are distributed across the age spectrum.
Trader Joe's maintains its low pricing by stocking store-brand products as the majority of its inventory. In the frozen-food case, Trader Joe's label covers 85% or more of the items.
Rauch noted the company uses the private-label strategy to deliver better value to the customer. Manufacturers who work with the chain do not have to pay the high costs of advertising and marketing associated with branding, Rauch explained, and the lower production costs are passed on to the consumer.
As reported in SN, Trader Joe's hopes to have 50 units open on the East Coast by the year 2000. A left-coast company with headquarters in South Pasadena, Calif., it has 12 stores in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. Another store is set to open May 1 in Merrick, N.Y., the fourth one on Long Island.
SN visited the Hewlett store, as well as the two other Long Island units, in Commack and Uniondale. While there are minor differences in size, all three units have a similar frozen-food selection, with identical prices in most, but not all, cases. The Hewlett store seems to have a slightly larger number of SKUs.
It also has the most attractive merchandising. Selections are neatly categorized. In all stores, prices are often incorporated on the package design, or items have price stickers. In addition, the Hewlett store uses attractive shelf tags along the coffin case, which also give the name and price of almost every item, along with a brief description or explanation of it.
For example, an Indian entree, Chicken Masala, has a shelf tag that reads, "Complete Meal. Fluffy Jasmine Rice." A beef tamale has a sign that reads "Hand crafted. No lard. Microwave or steam."
At the Hewlett store, the bunkers on one side of the aisle begin with a variety of seafood, including scallops, shrimp, crab cake, meat and claws, seafood stews, tuna, salmon, halibut, swordfish, gravad lax, cod, orange roughy, mahi mahi, stuffed crab, and salmon, seabass, and surimi (imitation crabmeat).
Norlax brand gravad lax, from Denmark, is packaged with a Dijon sauce, for $3.39 per pound. Alaskan cod fillet sells for $3.59 per pound; king salmon steaks for $3.99 per pound; halibut steaks for $5.49 per pound; and albacore tuna steaks for $4.69 per pound.
Two types of seafood stew are available in the freezer case: Bouillabaise and Cioppino, both for $4.99 per pound.
Next in line are four kinds of meatless burgers with different spicing, along with real beef burgers and beef. Extra-lean beef is $2.79 per pound, while lean ground buffalo sells for $4.59 per pound. There are also extra-lean beef patties, Philly style shaved beef and Black Angus New York strip steak in the freezer case. Trader Joe's boasts frozen beef that is hormone-free and 93% lean meat.
Chicken, also hormone-free, follows beef. Thigh meat, breast halves and breast meat are available. Prices range from $4.69 to $6.99 per pound (for the boneless meat).
A number of vegetable choices in the freezer case include varieties of potatoes, corn, peas, asparagus spears, soybeans in the pod, broccoli, chopped spinach and green beans, all in 16-ounce bags, with prices ranging from 99 cents (spinach) to $1.99 (asparagus). One or two organic vegetables are also available.
According to Rauch, Trader Joe's customers would prefer organic products, but they are not willing to pay much of a premium for them, so the company currently doesn't have many.
"We're trying to work with manufacturers to develop organic, where there isn't a large surcharge for doing so," Rauch said. "Customers have told us with dollars that they don't want to pay 30 or 40% more for organic."
Vegetable-combination packs include selections like garden vegetable medley, melange a trois (three types of peppers) and mushroom medley (four types of mushrooms, with a sauce packet).
The Hewlett store gives a generous share of space to Hispanic and Asian selections, in-line after the vegetable combinations and bag meals. Burritos, taquitos, enchiladas and tamales, in meat and vegetarian combos, are available.
Indian and "Pacific Shore" entrees provide additional ethnic choices, along with a number of Chinese entrees and noodles, rolls and dumplings.
shrimp gumbo, and Thai noodles with vegetables. A few meals serve a family of four: for example, family size cheese enchiladas, 2 pounds for $3.69.
Some items are also exotic enough to need additional explanation on the shelf tags and packaging: for example, chicken chia siu bao (steamed buns with chicken filling) and gyoza (potstickers or dumplings).
In an 8-foot section on the other side of the aisle, cakes are merchandised, next to a 6-foot upright case with pasta and pizzas. Many of the desserts are gourmet treats, such as pumpkin creme mousse cake, charlotte berries torte, torte aux fruits, caramel/apple walnut cheesecake, tiramisu, and chocolate ganache torte. Some of these are imported (mostly from France) and thus did not carry the Trader Joe's label.
Pricing on desserts ranged from $3.19 (for a deep-dish apple pie) to $8.49 (for a pumpkin cream mousse cake).
Eight varieties of filled and seasoned pastas are in the upright freezer case, with an average price of $1.99 for a 9-ounce package. A sign on the wall encourages shoppers to mix and match them with six jarred pestos.
Gourmet and standard pizza can be found at Trader Joe's, with the gourmet varieties actually made in Italy, although they have a store-brand label. In a breakfast section are waffles, concentrated fruit juices and frozen berries (blueberries, boysenberries, raspberries, mixed berries). Prices range from $1.99 to $2.49 for pound bags.
In all the stores, space on top of the coffin cases is used to merchandise cookies and candy.
The Hewlett store does a meticulous job in not only identifying almost every item with shelf signs, but also in maintaining neat separations between categories and in identifying items that are advertised in the "Fearless Flyer."