Labor rights? Whatever. TikTok frenzy over Trader Joe’s mini tote bags | TikTok

What’s so special about Trader Joe’s new mini totes? Aesthetics-wise, nothing: the canvas bag resembles LL Bean’s ubiquitous totes. The only difference is that these come stamped with the name of a supermarket chain known for its fancy cheeses, frozen dinners – and the fact that it’s currently one of the corporations lobbying to declare the National Labor Relations Board unconstitutional. Union drip, these are not.

Still, there are plenty of people who approach these bags with the same enthusiasm that Trader Joe’s lawyers reportedly reserve for union busting. Young women on TikTok have taken to decorating their mini Trader Joe’s totes with embroidery, patches and paint. It all looks very summer camp. CNN reported that the tote has reached a cult status not seen since … well, just a few weeks ago, when pink Stanley tumblers took the world (or at least Target shopping aisles) by storm.

Though the bag only costs $2.99 at Trader Joe’s, some have hit the resale market. On eBay, you can find Trader Joe’s mini totes going for as much as $500. TikTokers have posted clips showing chaotic scenes on the supermarket floor, with hordes of customers grabbing as many bags as they can carry and running off to the checkout counter.

A representative for Trader Joe’s told the Guardian that the bags “sold more quickly than anticipated”. Anyone who didn’t get their hands on the totes can expect a restock in late summer. A word to scalpers from TJ’s: “Our customers, in our stores, are our focus; we do not endorse the resale of any of our products, anywhere.”

But when it comes down to it, there’s a blurry line between hype and reality – as there often is with seemingly viral products. While there are indeed social media clips of people circling the mini-tote displays like vultures, some on TikTok noted the bags were causing no drama in their local stores, with plenty still in stock.

The mini-tote madness also belies the fact that supermarkets, in general, are a pain point for a lot of folks right now. A Pew poll from January found that the majority of Americans – 72% of us – are “very concerned” about prices for food and consumer goods.

Though inflation has fallen in general, you don’t need an economics degree to know that groceries are expensive these days. True, the most recent inflation numbers show that for the first time since April 2023, overall food prices did not rise. But that doesn’t refute the fact that grocery expenses jumped 25% from 2019, enraging customers – and inspiring the very worst in CEOs like the Kellogg’s head, Gary Pilnick, who recently suggested on CNBC that cash-strapped families resort to eating cereal for dinner.

“Shrinkflation” – when retailers sell less of their goods for more money – earned prime airtime when noted ice-cream lover Joe Biden called out the practice during his State of the Union address last week. “You get charged the same amount and you got about, I don’t know, 10% fewer Snickers in it,” the president said.

Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission has sued to block a potential merger between Kroger and Albertsons. If completed, the $25bn deal would make for the largest supermarket consolidation in history. The FTC alleges this potential marriage would not only close an untold number of grocery stores (the companies own shops including Safeway, Vons, Harris Teeter and Fred Meyer), but it would also eliminate competition, which could drive up food prices even further. Kroger and Albertsons are appealing against the FTC’s decision.

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Turning supermarket merch into this month’s it bag seems to signify a yearning for the grocery store of our youth. Remember when a dozen eggs cost less than $4? Or when olive oil wasn’t considered a luxury purchase? Call it supermarket nostalgia or grocery-core: $2.99 Trader Joe’s bags are a little extra flourish for an errand that’s come to royally suck. At the very least, they’re a distraction from the infuriating task of wondering how you just spent $60 on four items.

Then again, there could be a depressing reason these bags – like all TJ products – are so cheap: according to workers interviewed by the New York Times in 2022, the company rolled back benefits as it evolved from a niche market to a large national chain. Cutting corners when it comes to employee pay and safety certainly would bring down costs.

Most of the people swarming Trader Joe’s to buy a tote to match every outfit probably aren’t making these weighty connections. If anything, Trader Joe’s execs must love how the craze distracts from the whole “attempting to dismantle labor rights as we know it” thing. And the shoppers’ fervor is undoubtedly some good PR for grocery stores at large.

As for the people paying $500 for a mini canvas tote … well, sending love and light on your journey.

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