For Bon Appetit, by Maggie Lange.
T. J. Maxx’s pantry is chaos. Their edibles section commingles garlic-stuffed olives with organic beetroot powder, Himalayan salt with luxury Tunisian olive oil. The shelves are either recently ransacked or over-stuffed. It’s the height of disorganization: Next to a jar of bacon-flavored spice and a bottle of Sriracha ketchup is an unappealingly misplaced bottle of Poopculture’s Rosewater Spray Toilet Freshener. There is no order, but there’s a scheme behind the mess that makes for a successful, sneaky merchandise model.
Let’s chalk up the toilet-perfume as a shelving accident, but let’s also examine the T. J. Maxx hodge-podge as intentional. The buyers who acquire merchandise for T. J. Maxx call this a “treasure hunt merchandising philosophy,” says Victoria Taylor of Victoria’s Gourmet bacon spice mentioned above. The buyers want the store to run out of items. They order mixed cases from Victoria’s Gourmet because they don’t want too many of the same item. The lower Manhattan store restocks each morning at eight, according to an employee who suggested I arrive earlier if I want to find anything good.
“They do this to create a sense of FOMO”—that’s fear of missing out on your one-time opportunity to buy Sriracha ketchup–says Wharton marketing professor David Bell, and to put “pressure on consumers.” He says that discount retailers like Zara, Trader Joe’s, and Aldi use a similar concept, citing another acronym: WIGIG for “when it’s gone it’s gone.” This establishes an urgency to buy the item cheaply but also to come back to the store, Bell says.
Contrary to the assumption that T. J. Maxx sells overstock or discards from fancy foods stores, like Williams-Sonoma or Macy’s, T. J. Maxx often acquires items that are specially produced just for them. Andy Oliver, the president of jam and condiment company Braswells, says, “They want top quality. I don’t think people realize it’s not blowout stuff. You’re manufacturing for them.” Every manufacturer I spoke to said that T. J. Maxx orders a high quantity from their sources so they can buy at the lowest price. T. J. Maxx, sadly, guards their sourcing like a trade secret and declined to comment for this story.
Taylor says “We package it for them, and then it’s gone.” Oliver gets emails from customers who are upset after they can’t find products at T. J. Maxx the second time. “I really don’t understand it,” he laughs. “I complain to the buyers [at T. J. Maxx]. We could be doing three times the business, very easily! They say, We just don’t do it that way. But gosh, they’re growing like crazy. It’s part of the plan to create that excitement.”
Contrived scarcity is a ploy as old as economics. But, as the host of the behavioral science podcast Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam, says, “Companies have known for a long time, if you provide people with the sense there’s an infinite supply of whatever they’re buying, for some products that will drive down the demand: Why do I buy this today, I can buy this tomorrow?”
But it’s hard to “realistically create a sense of scarcity. There are many, many products for which you cannot do this,” he says. It’s got to be the weird stuff. It’s got to be organic beetroot powder and specialty olive oils. Especially if the items are sold at a discount (i.e. made less special in the luxury goods sense), they must be even more obscure and rare.
T.J. Maxx isn’t the place you go to stock up on standard mustard; that’s everywhere. It’s where you go to even learn that there is such a thing as Honey Horseradish Dijon Mustard, for those that need to have it all, mustard-wise. It’s the place you go to hunt the most special food item; one that you don’t even know exists yet, so you just search through the chaos and hope that it comes to you. It calls to mind a description Joyce Carol Oates makes in Expensive People: “Messes are made by people who want, but don’t know what they want, let alone how to get it.”
At this point, T.J. Maxx is known for this bold COMPARE AT: stickers, which is their self-reported metric for telling you how much you’re saving. Taylor says for the price stickers, “TJM provides those and we apply them.” Their jars, which hover around 4 ounces, are mostly commonly given a sticker that says “$4.99 compare at $8.00” At other stores, Victoria says, these spices usually run $7.99 and $8.50.
This particular transparency, however estimated, is certainly not welcome to the other stores that keep these products on the market. Dan Gross, with herb-sellers Dangold, says, “Williams-Sonoma, Macy’s, some lines don’t like to see product in other places.”
There’s some hesitation on the part of food manufacturers to sell to a store known for discounts, but T.J. Maxx is reliable, both in a high volume and in their payments. Taylor has sold to TJM for 16 years and says they’re “the most important customers.” Braswells has been selling jams and preserves with TJM for 10 years. Oliver says they’ve, “grown significantly with them and, honestly, they pay their bills, which is something in this business.”
He also admires their curatorial pickings, particularly their foreign products. “I live in a small town in the coastal plains of Georgia, and even with a nice grocery store, this is where you can find foreign products you can’t find somewhere else.” Think: tuna imported from the Bay of Biscay in Spain, extra bold peppercorns from Capetown, Sri Lankan curry.
Vedantam compares the experience to that of an art dealer. “Most of the time you would show up at the art dealer and not find what it is that you’re looking for. You have a sense that you’re searching. Over time as I build a relationship with this person, I might stumble onto this masterpiece that I have been searching for 25 years.” A masterpiece, such as the very last jar of the palest Himalayan pink salt, hiding behind a misplaced potpourri satchel.
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