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