Trying to Get a Handle on the Cult of Trader Joe’s
There are few large-scale businesses that evoke such adoration and loyalty as Trader Joe’s. Think about it. Name an airline, a car company, a department store, or an electronics brand (ok, maybe Apple qualifies) that is able to elicit even a fraction of the devotion and acclaim that Trader Joe’s (or “TJ’s” as its devotees like to call it) can boast. Followers of the grocery chain are known to lobby hard for expansion into new neighborhoods, for convenience sake or simply just access (Trader Joe’s currently boasts 344 stores in 25 states), and fandom extends from the reverent to the obsessed.
I am from Southern California (the birthplace of Trader Joe’s), and a pantry full of Trader Joe’s provisions is just anticipated, if not expected. The food is relatively cheap, comparatively healthy, and consistently good, but there are always exceptions (I am looking at you TJ’s Roasted Vegetable Pizza!). The vibe of the place is funky with a pervasive nautical theme (Hawaiian shirts are customarily worn by management, and life savers and fish netting are usually festooned about the store) and the company’s catchphrase is your neighborhood grocery store.” But humble appearances aside, Trader Joe’s beyond being a cultural phenomenon, is a multi-billion dollar business. Supermarket News estimates that Trader Joe’s total sales for 2009 were $8 billion, with no sign of a decline in sight (even in this flagging economy). With all of this apparent success, one would think that the Trader Joe’s model would be an ideal business model to study and emulate. This is probably true, however, besides being successful, the Trader Joe’s company is notoriously secretive and mysterious.
In a somewhat dissatisfying attempt to blow the roof of the whole operation, Fortune magazine recently published “Inside the Secret World of Trader Joe’s,” which is less of an exposť and more of an object lesson in how an exposť can stumble (You are best off reading it yourself). Criticism aside, the Fortune magazine article does provide a bit of history (the chain was originally started 43 years ago by Californian Joe Coulombe, and then later sold to Theo Albrecht, a German grocery mogul) and ultimately draws attention to the singular cult of the grocery chain, and how they are able to, not only deliver a remarkably good product, but maintain such rabid loyalty among consumers.
If I were to place myself at the exit of any Trader Joe’s in the country and start asking customers why they had just dropped $150 on soy chips and vegetable Shu Mai, I would probably get arrested. However, if given the chance I am sure many customers would just pledge blind devotion, or talk about the virtues of a $5.99 six pack of beer. But in lieu of driving all the way over to the closest Trader Joe’s, I thought I would informally poll the vast, and vocal, Care2 community. If you are in fact a fan of TJ’s; what is it about the product, the experience, et al, that makes it worthwhile for you? If you are not a fan; what is it about TJ’s that pisses you off so? Does their lack of transparency raise any red flags? Do you find yourself eating more healthily when you shop there, or is it just glorified (and slightly more nutritious) junk food? Why all the hype?