Despite no official announcements from Trader Joe’s about plans for a Bellingham store, the possibility seems past the rumor stage. The gourmet and natural-food chain is most likely the unannounced grocer who will take over about 6,000 square feet of the former Red Apple site on James Street.
Owners of local organic and natural-food businesses are speculating about what effects the national chain could have on their grocery stores.
Jim Ashby, general manager at the Community Food Co-op downtown, said Trader Joe’s would offer tough competition to the organic and natural-food industry in Bellingham.
“Trader Joe’s is going to be an important piece of the puzzle,” Ashby said. “There is nobody like them in really any town where they are. They do a lot of things really well. They’re not trying to be aimed at being a primary grocery store. They don’t want to be a one-stop, grocery store. Nonetheless, they’ll have an impact on us.”
Ashby said the Co-op will compete with Trader Joe’s with certain products, such as the wine and frozen food departments, but stressed that the Co-op’s goal is to be a customer’s main grocery stop with more fresh meat and produce than Trader Joe’s carries.
“We’re less about selling the experience and novelty products,” he said. “They’re sort of the ‘what’s new’ kind of store. They don’t necessarily carry the same product line all the time. They’re more about changing what’s new and interesting; what’s unique. We’re more about day-in-day-out what you can depend on.”
Terra Organica is an organic grocery store within the public market building on Cornwall Avenue. Terra Organica owner Stephen Trinkaus said Trader Joe’s would ultimately help the natural-food industry in Bellingham.
“There is always curiosity when something new opens,” Trinkaus said. “A certain number of people won’t come out as much as they did before. They will add that to their shopping repertoire. And that’s okay. I’m a capitalist. I like competition. It makes me a better business person.”
Trinkaus said one thing Terra Organica and the Co-op offer that Trader Joe’s does not is locally grown organic products. He said this would help them differentiate themselves from the chain.
“Really, whenever anyone comes into the area and sells more organic products, it’s a good thing,” Trinkaus said. “More local sold the better. They’re not going to get their flour from Fairhaven Flour mill. They’re not going to get Goithouse granola or Moka Joe coffee.”
He explained how the multiplier effect — a dollar spent in a local business helps the local economy more than a dollar spent in a business headquartered in another state or city — plays an important role in competing against a chain store like Trader Joe’s.
“Incrementally, the amount of our economy that is locally owned is being chipped away,” Trinkaus said. “So, the last thing I want to see is for Bellingham to look like every other town in America with the exact same stores selling the exact same products. And, Trader Joe’s in and of itself isn’t a problem. It’s kind of that loss of unique character in town. Trader Joe’s would just be one more symptom of that.”
Ashby and Trinkaus said the community involvement their local stores offer is something Trader Joe’s will never be able to duplicate.
“Our community involvement is really important,” Ashby said. “We want people to value us for it. We don’t do it to use it as an advertising unit. It is an end in itself. Frequently, like any national chain all (Trader Joe’s) management is coming from someplace else.”
Trinkaus said the local feel of his store and the Co-op affects not only customers, but also competition within the industry.
“Our community involvement sets us apart,” Trinkaus said. “I think there is a level of cooperation between us and the Co-op that would never exist between us and chain stores.”
Ashby said he was surprised that Trader Joe’s is coming in now, but because of Bellingham’s growth, it was inevitable for the chain to take interest.
“Trader Joe’s is definitely competition, but they’re not the same competition that Whole Foods or Wild Oats would be,” Ashby said. “It’ll affect us in certain areas, and we’ll have to pay attention. We’re not taking them lightly or dismissing them as a competitor. I don’t consider them a threat to our existence by a long shot. Co-ops all over the country compete with Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. We’ve been living in an unusual area where there is no direct competition. We have been preparing for a direct competitor to come in for 10 years.”
Trinkaus said Trader Joe’s has proven itself in other communities and will help Bellingham’s natural and organic food industry grow even faster.
“They’re a very upbeat store,” Trinkaus said. “People love Trader Joe’s. People are driving all the way to Everett to go to Trader Joe’s, so I guess we’ll save on some fossil fuels. I think we’ve benefited greatly by being in a city and in a county that is growing very fast. And part of that is that we become bigger and attract more competition. There’s enough customers for everyone to thrive.”