Ben Parker / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

The California-based grocery chain Trader Joe's is set to open a new store in Ithaca on Feb. 19.

February 9, 2021

Arrival of Trader Joe’s Shakes Up Grocery Shopping Competition

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Shoppers looking for specialty items like Scandinavian Swimmers, Everything but the Bagel Sesame seasoning and dark chocolate peanut butter cups are counting down the days until Feb. 19, when Trader Joe’s is set to open in Ithaca.

The new store, located on Meadow Street southwest of Cornell’s campus, will open next Friday after the pandemic delayed its arrival, which was first reported in March of last year. The opening will make the Ithaca location the 29th Trader Joe’s store in New York State and the 515th location in the country, according to The Ithaca Voice, which first reported the opening date.

For Ithacans and Cornellians looking for organic options and fun snacks, the arrival of a Trader Joe’s — the California-based grocery store known for its specialty products — is years in the making. The Facebook page “Ithaca Needs a Trader Joe’s” launched 10 years ago and the local push for a store gained steam after one opened in Syracuse in 2014.

Allison Herstic ’21 said she is excited to cut down on gas costs from her every-other-week trips with friends to Syracuse, previously the closest branch of her favorite grocery store. She loves the Brooklyn Babka, and is hoping Trader Joe’s brings back her favorite gorgonzola crackers.

The site will open in a crowded shopping corridor in Ithaca’s West End — down the road from Wegmans, the upstate New York-based go-to, as well as the new flagship store for the co-op GreenStar. Walmart, Tops and Aldi are also nearby, as is a Ren’s Mart, a new Asian market that occupies GreenStar’s previous location.

Prof. Edward McLaughlin, applied economics and management, who studies marketing and retail in the food industry, said Aldi and GreenStar will feel the impact of introducing Trader Joe’s, which carries about 4,000 products, to local competition more than a larger retailer like Wegmans, which carries more than 50,000 items and is around 10 times the size of a Trader Joe’s.

“It’s a radically different concept than any other store we have in Ithaca,” McLaughlin said, citing the focus at Trader Joe’s on organic and local-oriented food, and the use of a private label.

“We warmly welcome Trader Joe’s to the Ithaca neighborhood as a new business that will surely support our local economy and offer new food choices to the community,” Brandon Kane, GreenStar’s general manager, wrote in a statement to The Sun, mentioning GreenStar’s sustainability efforts and use of a living wage. “We’re confident customers will continue to support GreenStar for our unique features and the values that distinguish us among food retailers.”

Trader Joe’s is a fast-growing player in the grocery industry. The chain has locations in 42 states and opened 21 new stores in 2019. 

The Director of the Cornell Food Industry Management Program, Prof. Miguel Gómez, applied economics and management, said Trader Joe’s alternative approach — high-quality products at low prices — makes it one of the nation’s most successful retailers. 

He said the store will benefit from local buzz and word-of-mouth advertising. Furthermore,  it will benefit from the fact that many in Ithaca are already familiar with Trader Joe’s from other cities, according to McLaughlin.

“They are going to be very successful because they are basically successful wherever they open stores,” Gómez said. “Ithaca has the right demographic composition for Trader Joe’s to open because Trader Joe’s [provides] a fun environment to shop and very good prices with fairly high-quality products.”

Ithaca is smaller than most markets Trader Joe’s has entered, but checks a number of the company’s boxes: It caters to college students, faculty and locals who want organic products. Gómez said he expects Trader Joe’s to increase the number of shoppers in Ithaca, since customers from towns outside Ithaca might flock to the new grocery store.

While Trader Joe’s might threaten a locally-operated co-op like GreenStar, customers like Trader Joe’s fans on the Facebook page are hopeful that the community can sustain both retailers. GreenStar has felt the impact of the pandemic even more than other small businesses — it opened its new, larger store right as the coronavirus upended normal operations.

Matt McLaren, GreenStar’s prepared foods director, said GreenStar’s support of local farmers, workers and businesses makes its success important to the community. 

“Bringing in that kind of competition, which offers unrealistically low pricing in certain areas of their product line, is really going to be tough on us as a business,” McLaren said of Trader Joe’s. “Why I think that’s not so great for Ithaca as a whole is GreenStar plays a vital role in supporting local farmers [and] local businesses.”

While it’s unclear how Trader Joe’s will challenge other well-established shopping options, especially in its first few weeks, it also remains to be seen whether the establishment can succeed in a smaller market than it’s used to — and in a part of town saturated with grocery stores. 

The pandemic adds to the already long list of challenges facing a new store. But Trader Joe’s has been successful elsewhere because it identifies promising markets and appeals to people who want a different type of shopping experience, McLaughlin said.

“I am ecstatic. It has been a long time coming,” Herstic said. “I have always wanted there to be a Trader Joe’s in Ithaca. … I couldn’t welcome it more with open arms, couldn’t be more excited.”

The new Trader Joe’s location is at 744 S. Meadow Street. The store will be open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Christina Bulkeley ’21 contributed reporting.