So here I am in leafy St Paul, Minnesota on a sunny Saturday morning in the American Fall (that’s Autumn in Oz – but you knew that). Apart from being the home of the US’s largest shopping centre – The Mall of America – the Twin Cities area is a hub for many great retailers.

This morning I am visiting a brand new store of one of my favourite retailers – Trader Joe’s, and I join a happy bunch of customers shopping for Halloween delights and their weekend groceries. For a store that is 100% private label, and owned by German giant, Aldi, Trader Joes offers an entertaining experience. This store is compact, probably around 1,000 sqm – and reminds me a little of the Macro Wholefoods stores we designed in Australia some years ago.

A few things strike me.

The look and feel is familiar, pleasantly rustic and laid back – if it was in Australia you would have to say it is a bit okker.

Cheap timber has been used to good effect to give the store a natural, warm look that breathes value for money. This is an important factor to me as I have seen so many supermarkets look too upscale when they have used timber in the wrong way.

Large bulk stacks of specials are on each gondola end and scattered around the store as free standing displays.

It is then that I notice that pretty much the whole store is selling something to do with pumpkins. If its one thing the American’s do well, it’s a promotional theme. I think I could live with the pumpkin scones, fritters, bagels, muffins, soup, risotto, cakes and doughnuts but I am not sure about the pumpkin ice cream – ah what the hell!

Did I mention that it all looks and tastes great – we had pumpkin muffins at home a few hours later – and they smelled really good for a pre-mix from a packet (I suppose I was expecting something like Betty Crocker).

The variety, range, freshness and appearance of Trader Joe’s fresh produce is excellent. I can’t help noticing that they use no refrigeration at all in produce – a bit like a local greengrocer store back in Melbourne. I assume that they sell out of everything each day so they don’t need to incur unnecessary energy costs (and clearly their customers don’t seem to object).

No way – there is no serviced deli!  What are these guys thinking?

Then I look more closely at the range of deli, seafood, cheese, meat, tofu, antipasto and the like – all displayed in a hang-sell presentation in open multi-tiered refrigerators without a deli assistant in sight – no numbers or tickets – no labour costs – a value for money proposition if I have ever seen one.  I am thinking to myself – ‘these guys are up to something – and it seems to be working better than many supermarkets back in Australia’ – Aldi clearly recognised this when they acquired the business.

The next thing to catch my attention is the signage and graphics around the store.

It looks hand written (and it is) and looks like it might have been done by some school kids in their art class (but it wasn’t).  It’s not far removed from graffiti – and you could not imagine anything as far from head office corporate design – but it adds to the laid back, informal character of the store. It is all relevant, topical and informative – and is executed in colour chalk on blackboards in a cartoon style that is a little quirky – even corny.  But again – it seems to work!

The cashiers are friendly in that casual way that I find endearing in Americans (most of them anyway) and on leaving the store I noticed 8 large pallets of pumpkins outside the store on the sidewalk – not too many chain stores do that any more.

I always enjoy visiting Trader Joe’s – and today was no exception.

So what are the messages I take away?

You don’t have to sacrifice quality, taste and freshness in a value-for-money offer

You can’t have too much private label – provided each product is really good

You can ask customers to self serve in many departments that are traditionally serviced

Talking to your customer at every point of the shopping journey is vital – and content is more important than the style of delivery

Smaller store formats can work for supermarkets

Building the brand is more important than constructing the building

The store is the brand and the brand is the store

Later that day I come across a Trader Joes cookbook in a funky Urban Outfitters store – each recipe uses a private label product from the store – and I think fleetingly of Masterchef. No celebrities here – just good down to earth cooking – the way it used to be done.

Its great brand building – go Joe go!