Why I Love Trader Joe’s

Trader Joe’s is one of my favorite stores. I love shopping there.

While I was at Caltech for graduate school, I lived in the Catalina Apartments. I can’t describe how happy I was to discover there was a Trader Joe’s where I could do all of my grocery shopping. Indeed, once a week or so, I would make the 0.3 mile trek (see my route) to the Trader Joe’s on S. Lake Street in Pasadena. I’d stock up on drinks, fish, fruits (bananas, and indeed all fruits and vegetables, are sold by the count, not by weight), bread, mochi ice cream, amazing blueberry scones, and so many other wonderful, delectable products. Usually, I’d leave with two bags filled to the top with food.

I am writing this post because of a really great article in Fortune Magazine, “Inside the Secret World of Trader Joe’s”, which I read over the weekend. I encourage you to read it, but I highlight the most notable parts below.

Trader Joe’s is no ordinary grocery chain. It’s an offbeat, fun discovery zone that elevates food shopping from a chore to a cultural experience. It stocks its shelves with a winning combination of low-cost, yuppie-friendly staples (cage-free eggs and organic blue agave sweetener) and exotic, affordable luxuries — Belgian butter waffle cookies or Thai lime-and-chili cashews — that you simply can’t find anyplace else.

Absolutely true. No other store I’ve been to has an equivalent experience. Every week I went to Trader Joe’s, I bought one new product which I hadn’t bought before. It was hard to buy more because virtually everything I bought, I enjoyed. After about a month or so of shopping there, I bought the same items (the frozen tilapia, for instance), but I still loved discovering new items every week.

It’s little wonder that Trader Joe’s is one of the hottest retailers in the U.S. It now boasts 344 stores in 25 states and Washington, D.C., and strip-mall operators and consumers alike aggressively lobby the chain, based in Monrovia, Calif., to come to their towns. A Trader Joe’s brings with it good jobs, and its presence in your community is like an affirmation that you and your neighbors are worldly and smart.

Monrovia is just a short distance away from Pasadena. The store I mentioned (on S. Lake Street) is not the only Trader Joe’s store in Pasadena (the one on Arroyo Parkway, where I shopped once, is the flagship store; trivia: it is the flagship store because it was the first Trader Joe’s to open). Nevertheless, I really like the claim that people who shop at Trader Joe’s have a sense of affirmation of being worldly and smart.

You’d think Trader Joe’s would be eager to trumpet its success, but management is obsessively secretive. There are no signs with the company’s name or logo at headquarters in Monrovia, about 25 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising. But my thinking is this: if it works, why change things?

So how did Fortune Magazine find out about the chain?

To get inside the mysterious world of Trader Joe’s, Fortune spent two months speaking with former executives, competitors, industry analysts, and suppliers, most of whom asked not to be named. What emerged is a picture of a business at a crossroads: As the company expands into new markets and adds stores — analysts say the grocer could easily triple its size in the coming years — it must find a way to maintain its small-store vibe with customers. “They see themselves as a national chain of neighborhood specialty grocery stores,” says Mark Mallinger, a Pepperdine University professor who has done research for the company. “It means you want to create an image of mom and pop as you grow.”

Indeed, I can understand the challenge. If Trader Joe’s expands too rapidly, it loses its vibe and niche presence. I know that people who live in Atlanta drive twenty or more miles to shop at a Trader Joe’s (when a Kroger or a Publix may be a few miles away).

Compared to most supermarkets, Trader Joe’s carries a smaller selection per product (the reasoning makes perfect sense to me):

Swapping selection for value turns out not to be much of a tradeoff. Customers may think they want variety, but in reality too many options can lead to shopping paralysis. “People are worried they’ll regret the choice they made,” says Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore professor and author of The Paradox of Choice. “People don’t want to feel they made a mistake.”

But it’s the small things that matter. This is the most telling paragraph of the entire piece:

A ringing bell instead of an intercom signals that more help is needed at the registers. Registers don’t have conveyor belts or scales, and perishables are sold by unit instead of weight, speeding up checkout. Crew members aren’t told the margins on products, so placement decisions are made based not on profits but on what’s best for the shopper. Every employee works all aspects of the store, and if you ask where the roasted chestnuts are he’ll walk you over instead of just saying “aisle five.” Want to know what they taste like? He can probably tell you, and he might even open the bag on the spot for you to try.

A pleasant shopping experience, combined with personal attention, means you’re not only going to remember your purchase, but that you’re likely to become a loyal customer and keep coming back. As cliché as it sounds, shopping at Trader Joe’s is an experience. Like the food you purchase there, the experience is to be savored.

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Have you ever shopped at Trader Joe’s? Do you have one in your area? Was your experience similar to mine?

You Are the Victims of This Enormous Cheat…

The other day, I finished reading this powerful, moving letter from Michael O’Hare, addressed to his students at University of California, Berkeley. I think it’s a must-read, even if you don’t care about politics or education.

Immediately into the essay, I was taken aback:

Welcome to Berkeley, probably still the best public university in the world. Meet your classmates, the best group of partners you can find anywhere. The percentages for grades on exams, papers, etc. in my courses always add up to 110% because that’s what I’ve learned to expect from you, over twenty years in the best job in the world.

I have never taken any course where a professor was so forthcoming and expected so much. Of course, I’ve never taken a college course where we were graded on a 110% scale.

And then Professor O’Hare goes for the gut:

The bad news is that you have been the victims of a terrible swindle, denied an inheritance you deserve by contract and by your merits. And you aren’t the only ones; victims of this ripoff include the students who were on your left and on your right in high school but didn’t get into Cal, a whole generation stiffed by mine. This letter is an apology, and more usefully, perhaps a signal to start demanding what’s been taken from you so you can pass it on with interest.

And what is wrong with their world? Succinctly, O’Hare explains:

I’m writing this to you because you are the victims of this enormous cheat (though your children will be even worse off if you don’t take charge of this ship and steer it). Your education was trashed as California fell to the bottom of US states in school spending, and the art classes, AP courses, physical education, working toilets, and teaching generally went by the board. Every year I come upon more and more of you who have obviously never had the chance to learn to write plain, clear, English.  Every year, fewer and fewer of you read newspapers, speak a foreign language, understand the basics of how government and business actually work, or have the energy to push back intellectually against me or against each other. Or know enough about history, literature, and science to do it effectively!  You spent your school years with teachers paid less and less, trained worse and worse, loaded up with more and more mindless administrative duties, and given less and less real support from administrators and staff.

I can’t comment on the students at Berkeley, but I do think this effect is prevalent all across America. The education budget keeps getting slashed and the students aren’t learning as much as they used to. But I don’t think that’s the entire story either…

What I loved about the letter was a challenge at the end:

You need to have a very tough talk with your parents, who are still voting; you can’t save your children by yourselves.  Equally important, you need to start talking to each other…

I can only hope the students in Professor O’Hare’s class(es) heed his advice and do something about it. Today is the day.

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Professor O’Hare also blogs at www.samefacts.com, and you can find that letter here. Do read through the comments, as there is a healthy discussion there as well.

Readings: Isolated Man, Straddling Bus, Truthful Airline Magazine

Here are the three most interesting articles I’ve read over the weekend:

1) “The Most Isolated Man on the Planet” [Slate] – we don’t know his name, or whether he even has one. He is the most isolated man in the world and happens to live in the Amazonian jungle. Slate has an excellent piece profiling his existence:

He eats mostly wild game, which he either hunts with his bow-and-arrow or traps in spiked-bottom pitfalls. He grows a few crops around his huts, including corn and manioc, and often collects honey from hives that stingless bees construct in the hollows of tree trunks. Some of the markings he makes on trees have suggested to indigenous experts that he maintains a spiritual life, which they’ve speculated might help him survive the psychological toil of being, to a certain extent, the last man standing in a world of one.

2) “A ‘Straddling Bus’ Traffic Solution in China” [New York Times] – a novel idea about a bus which takes up no road space. It’s a fascinating look at what one company in the southern Chinese town of Shenzhen has proposed:

Though it is called the “straddling bus,” Huashi’s invention resembles a train in many respects — but it requires neither elevated tracks nor extensive tunneling. Its passenger compartment spans the width of two traffic lanes and sits high above the road surface, on a pair of fencelike stilts that leave the road clear for ordinary cars to pass underneath. It runs along a fixed route.

Read the article for more or watch the video below:

3) “An Airline Magazine That Makes Travelers Want to Pull the Rip Cord” [Wall Street Journal] – this isn’t your ordinary in-flight magazine. The in-flight magazine for Safi Airways tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth:

One recent edition featured a long, approving piece headlined, “Live Entertainment in Kabul: Dog Fighting.” The writer says dogs in Afghanistan don’t fight to the death, just until one proves dominant. “They are usually pulled apart before they can inflict serious damage on each other,” the article assures passengers, despite the photo of two worried Afghans carrying away a limp black-and-white behemoth from the fight.

And who would be interested in advertising in such a magazine?

The magazine’s audience attracts advertisers as specialized as its content. There are an Australian firm that offers medical services in scary places; a Middle Eastern satellite-communications company whose gear works in the phoneless hinterlands; and a war-zone car-repair service with outlets in Kabul, Baghdad and Monrovia. The ad for Alpha Armouring Panzerung, a Munich company, shows an armored Mercedes SUV cruising through the flames of a roadside bomb.

In a world where in-flight magazines only taut the beautiful and the flashy, this magazine certainly sets itself apart from the competition. No word on whether the magazine is planning a SkyMall expansion.

Editor’s note: more posts are coming this week. In the meantime, feel free to subscribe by email using the box on the right.

Readings: End of the Web, Apologizing, Dubai, Happiness

I’ve been away from this blog for nearly a month, but here’s what caught my attention recently:

1) “The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet” [Wired] – the most sensationalist piece of writing I’ve read in a long while. Many have labeled this piece on the demise of the web as trolling by the lead author (and editor of Wired) Chris Anderson. Read the piece for yourself, but then read Alexis Madrigal’s brilliant retort in The Atlantic; especially notable is this point from Alexis:

[I]t’s impossible not to notice — if you worked at Wired.com like I did — that Anderson’s inevitable technological path happens to run perfectly through the domains (print/tablet) he controls at Wired, and away from the one that he doesn’t.

2) “How to Apologize” [Research Digest Blog] – there are three main types of apologies, as explained:

The three apology types or components are: compensation (e.g. I’m sorry I broke your window, I’ll pay to have it repaired); empathy (e.g. I’m sorry I slept with your best friend, you must feel like you can’t trust either of us ever again); and acknowledgement of violated rules/norms (e.g. I’m sorry I advised the CIA how to torture people, I’ve broken our profession’s pledge to do no harm).

Read the post to find out which apology to use in which situation.

3) “Good-Bye to Dubai” [The New York Review of Books] – this is an excellent summary of the rise and (relative) fall of one of the most prosperous cities in the Middle East (and the world). The piece is actually a nice summary of three books: Dubai: Gilded Cage, Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success, and City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism. A telling paragraph of how things were built in Dubai:

Moreover, the real estate boom was kept going by a Dickensian labor system that was bound at some point to self- destruct. At the height of the boom, tens of thousands of Southeast Asian laborers, banned by Dubai’s labor laws from forming unions, were put to work for eighty hours a week to build the Dubai fantasy and obliged to live in squalid residential camps in the desert. There, according to a report in the Guardian, they were packed “twelve men to a room, forced to wash themselves in filthy brown water and cook in kitchens next to overflowing toilets.” Before the crash, workers had begun to agitate for reforms; one target has been the kafala system, which requires foreign workers to have “sponsors” to obtain a visa and mandates their immediate deportation if they lose their jobs. A Kuwaiti government minister called this system “human slavery.”

4) “But Will It Make You Happy?” [New York Times] – a great case study of a couple who gave up their jobs and a number of materialistic possessions in their quest to become happier. The outcome?

Today, three years after Ms. Strobel and Mr. Smith began downsizing, they live in Portland, Ore., in a spare, 400-square-foot studio with a nice-sized kitchen. Mr. Smith is completing a doctorate in physiology; Ms. Strobel happily works from home as a Web designer and freelance writer. She owns four plates, three pairs of shoes and two pots. With Mr. Smith in his final weeks of school, Ms. Strobel’s income of about $24,000 a year covers their bills. They are still car-free but have bikes. One other thing they no longer have: $30,000 of debt.

If you’re interested about the topic of happiness, I highly recommend checking out Gretchen Rubin’s excellent blog The Happiness Project. She also came out with a book of the same name late last year.