How Trader Joe’s Mini Tote Bags and Stanley Cups Became so Popular

Estimated read time 5 min read

Trader Joe’s mini tote bags are the new Stanley cups. Not in the sense that they’re a thing you should put water in, which obviously would not work great with a canvas bag, but in the sense that they’re the latest mundane item to suddenly become all the rage. They are the “must have” accessory of the season that is in no way even close to a “must,” even if our hyperaccelerated consumer trend cycle makes it feel that way.

Trader Joe’s earlier this year released a limited-edition set of canvas bags that look like its normal-sized bags but are smaller. The bags, which cost $3 and are available in blue, yellow, red, and green, have become a hot commodity. TikTok videos show people descending on stores like packs of hungry wolves to get their hands on them. The media picked up on the fad, especially after a resale market for the bags surfaced. The grocery-store totes are listed for hundreds of dollars on eBay — though just because someone posts an asking price on the website doesn’t mean anyone is actually paying it. (If you’re considering spending $500 on a tiny tote bag from a discount grocery chain, stop it!)

The hullabaloo is very silly. Nobody needs these tote bags. The Trader Joe’s bags are cute, I guess? But they’re not the second coming of Jesus, and chances are you have plenty of random totes inexplicably piled up at home. Plus, while canvas bags are marketed as eco-friendly, their proliferation is bad for the planet.

The mania over the bags is indicative of just how fast today’s consumer fads can come and go. Sure, certain products becoming super popular overnight isn’t a new phenomenon (see: Beanie Babies, Cabbage Patch Kids, Tickle Me Elmo). But don’t be surprised if you find that TJ’s tote bag at the bottom of your closet in six months, or dig the Stanley cup out from the back of your cupboard in a year and wonder when you last washed it. Our ravenous consumer culture and ability to instantaneously share in the phenomenon have us churning through trends at a breakneck pace.

“With social media, it’s a quick up, things go viral quickly, but they also die down pretty quickly,” Charles Lindsey, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Buffalo, told me. The four typical stages of the product life cycle — introduction, growth, maturity, and decline — are expedited.

The acceleration of cycles comes down to a combination of old factors with one factor that’s newer: the internet. People have for centuries been interested in the novel; even if the bags are mundane, they’re new. There’s a scarcity aspect because they’re part of a limited run — Trader Joe’s says that it’s surprised at how fast the bags sold and that more won’t be available until late summer. Finally, they’re affordable. Lindsey explained that consumers feel like the bags help them achieve a certain status — known in marketing as a product’s “badge value” — without breaking the bank. “That’s not really possible when it comes to other areas of life, having perhaps the best house or staying at the best hotel,” Lindsey said.

The fuel to the fire here is social media. Platforms like TikTok and Instagram can kick these microtrends into high gear. Ask someone who’s not very online if they’ve heard about the Trader Joe’s tote bags, and you’ll probably get a “huh?” Valeria Penttinen, an assistant professor of marketing at Northern Illinois University, said social media especially influences younger consumers’ behaviors, including their consumption patterns. She pointed to two key factors.

First, there’s the fear of missing out. “Seeing a new or limited product gain popularity online among influencers, friends, and acquaintances induces a sense of urgency in consumers,” she said. “Not owning these products or experiencing these trends can evoke negative emotions, such as loneliness and exclusion.”

Second is the opportunity to share online. People want to show off that they got the product, which in turn makes it seem desirable to whoever’s watching. “By acquiring hyped products or experiences and sharing them on social media, consumers signal status and belonging to others,” she said. “Given the desire to belong, can we blame consumers for falling into these behaviors promoted on social media?”

Maybe the weirdest thing, though, is just how quotidian the latest viral items are: a bag, a cup. But it’s also the nature of the modern beast. LL Bean bags that could be monogrammed became popular in 2022. Yeti and Hydro Flask walked so Stanley could run. There’s no one solid answer for why these things take off. They become status symbols, they seem to give a nod to sustainability, and they’re relatively inexpensive and easy-ish to attain. We’re social creatures — we want to belong, and we want what others have. We also see consumption as entertainment, and obsessing over these things is something to do.

“Functional products now in the context of our culture are used as fashion items,” said Jaehee Jung, a professor of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware. “It’s almost that people are bored with traditional fashion goods.”

If you got a coveted Trader Joe’s mini tote bag, congratulations. May it live up to all your hopes and dreams. Chances are, however, that you soon won’t feel as excited about it as you do right now. But don’t worry! It won’t be long until TikTok gets everyone riled up about some other random product.

“When you actually have it, you get bored. That’s why people move on to another item,” Jung said. “It’s going to be a continuous cycle. The next product maybe we don’t know, but we’ll hear about it sooner rather than later.”

Emily Stewart is a senior correspondent at Business Insider, writing about business and the economy.