Trader Joe's small coolers are selling like hotcakes. Why and how do products go viral?

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A few months ago, Thaddeus Yan heard that Trader Joe's was planning to sell a fairly mundane new item: an insulated mini cooler bag. He immediately started looking. When he was on a trip to London, he even enlisted his mother to keep an eye out for the bags.

After months of waiting, Yan drove to a Trader Joe's at 7:30 a.m. one morning this month and bought as many as he could given the store's shopping limit: two in bright teal and one in pink, both with bold TJ's branding. Yan, a social media content creator, paid $3.99 for each of the small bags (too small for his Stanley Cup, he noted in a TikTok video on his “thaddybearz” account — but big enough for a six-pack). Others may not be so lucky. The mini coolers have been listed on eBay for several times that price.

Yan is part of a band of influencers who have changed and even accelerated the way certain retail products go viral. They not only rush out to buy as many items as possible, but they spread the message through their popular social channels, where trends spread quickly.

Before social media, it took a lot more to make a niche product successful. “You had to see people in public,” so trends were much more local, says Colin Campbell, an associate professor of marketing at the University of San Diego's Knauss Business School. But today, “anything can happen across the country instantly.”

That is not even the first time Trader Joe's small bags went viral. In March, Trader Joe's small canvas tote bags were a big seller and sold out quickly.

Most brands don't experience this kind of success for their products, especially not twice in a row. On these rare occasions, companies make the most of it: they talk to their fans online and develop new marketing campaigns to make the most of this moment of great success.

But Trader Joe's doesn't have much of a social media presence. The company is (mostly) silent has allowed content creators, especially on TikTok, to fill the vacuum, making the articles – which might have been popular on their own – even more successful. These creators play a Key role in the world of retail marketing.

Talia Heskett, for example, has more than 134,000 followers on TikTok as of Friday and about 146,000 on Instagram, as well as about 68,000 on Facebook for her “Trader Joe's Talia” accounts. Since Trader Joe's doesn't exactly boast a large official online presence, “I've kind of taken on that role with these pages,” she said. Heskett is a fan of the grocery chain and has turned her interest in the brand into something lucrative. Her channels are so popular that she makes money on TikTok.

She's not the only one posting such content. Christy Vetere runs her own TikTok account, “Trader Joe's and Target Finds,” where she highlights products from the stores. As of Friday, it had more than 54,000 followers on the social platform. Heskett, Vetere and others keep shoppers up to date with TJ's news, leveraging an existing fan base to grow their own following.

When TJ's mini canvas tote bags went viral last March, the chain seemed baffled by their popularity.

“What's going on with these tote bags? They're something we didn't plan for,” Tara Miller, co-host of the company's Inside Trader Joe's podcast, said in a March episode. “I'm still a little stunned at how quickly that excitement turned into a kind of frenzy,” she said.

Christina Paciolla/AP

A Trader Joe's mini tote bag is seen in Palmyra, NJ, on Wednesday, March 13, 2024.

“We thought we had bought enough of these mini canvas tote bags to last several weeks, maybe a whole month,” said Matt Sloan, who hosts the podcast with Miller. “We had no idea they would become so exciting to so many customers so quickly. In fact, hundreds of thousands of bags arrived and went within a week.”

This time, the brand with the colorful cooler bags seemed better prepared. “Be warned: These totes are guaranteed to be the next trend!” screams a product description on the grocery chain's website.

Aside from the forecast on its website, Trader Joe's hasn't said much about the fast-selling seasonal produce. Article. A Trader Joe's representative told CNN that the brand is always looking for new products that its customers will like – and that it plans to offer more of the mini insulated bags this summer.

Currently, if you search for “Trader Joe's mini insulated bag,” you'll be presented with a seemingly endless stream of videos featuring the colorful items. Some people may simply decide to pick one up the next time they go shopping because they saw it online. Others may specifically search for the item and rush to stores before it sells out.

“If you can get something that not everyone else has, it makes you look cool, it makes you look like an insider,” says Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Contagious: Why Things Catch On.”

This desire does not only concern expensive or extremely rare luxury items, he noted.

“You often see … trends and things catching on or going viral in what I would call low-cost public consumption goods,” Berger said. Think Stanley mugs, Owala water bottles and Nike socks – all items that are in the public eye.

These items “can be affordable luxuries and allow people to either show their uniqueness or show that they are part of a particular group,” Berger added.

For some, the treasure hunt may even be part of the fun – especially when the end result is not only the coveted item, but also the chance to publish proof of success online.

UCG/Universal Images Group Editorial/UCG/Universal Images Group about G

Various reusable burlap and fabric tote bags at Trader Joe's supermarket, Queens, New York. (Photo: Lindsey Nicholson/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Yan, who drove to Trader Joe's at 7:30 a.m. am to find the bags doesn't run a Trader Joe's-focused account like Vetere and Heskett. His videos on Instagram and TikTok are mostly devoted to pop culture and Disney. But he likes the chain and likes to post about what he buys there.

“You never know what they're going to put out. It could be some random, really cool thing that everyone wants to see or have for themselves,” he said. “It's always a surprise.”

The chain's unusually loyal fan base is eagerly awaiting more Trader Joe's brand products Merchandise, said TikToker Heskett, but Trader Joe's doesn't offer much of it.

“You can't buy a hat from Trader Joe's, you can't buy a sweatshirt from Trader Joe's,” she said. That's why, she believes, the branded bags are such a success. “People want to carry a little piece of Trader Joe's with them.”