Retailers: The new rock stars.

The objects around which fandom happens are broadening as the internet enables more and more taste-based social organizing. No longer restricted to pop bands, movie stars, television shows, sports teams, and science fiction novels, fans can now unite around retailers! One great example of this is the online fan phenomena regarding Trader Joes, a socially-conscious grocery store. I have a friend who moved recently — one of the things she was most excited about was the presence of a Trader Joes in her new town (though IKEA moving in soon ranked a close second). Another friend has described herself as “in love” with Trader Joes, and a third insisted on taking me there when I visited her town. Trader Joe fans spread their gospel online too: Among the Trader Joe fan sites are Are You A Trader Joe’s Fan? which specializes in recipes that can be made with Trader Joe purchases, Tracking Trader Joes, where fans gather to track store openings and events, and the all-purpose Calling All Trader Joe’s Fans. There are also sites like Nancy Dowling’s Trader Joes: A Love Fest, with links to dozens of articles about the stores but no fan interaction. Media have caught on to the phenomenon, with articles about Trader Joe’s online fans showing up in The York Dispatch, the Twin Cities Pioneer Press (“Trader Joe’s Fans Prove Retailers Are The New Rock Stars”), and elsewhere.

Fandom has jumped the shark from media products to companies. Trader Joes is one example, but there is much more of this going on. Media companies are used to thinking of customers as fans, and even they are facing more challenges than they can count figuring out how to make the most of what fans do online while protecting their intellectual property and creative control. Companies that have never thought of customers as “fans” before will have even greater challenges ahead. But if retail customers can become engaged enthusiastic proponents in the same way media fans have, there’s a gold mine waiting for the companies that figure out how best to work it. Trader Joes couldn’t buy better online advertising.

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