It doesn’t work for everyone.
Trader Joe’s store locations are second-rate and their parking lots are impossibly small. The aisles are cramped, there are so many missing product categories you’ll never knock off a whole shopping list, and the lines at the register rival July 4th at Disneyland. It should all add up to the retail equivalent of waterboarding, but instead, the population of admirers continues to swell.
Trader Joe’s has figured out how to take its many shortcomings and weave them into its mystique.
There’s just one brand of olives and one box size of polenta, but customers will bet that if Trader Joe’s picked them, those olives must be fabulous and it’s the best damn polenta out there. Employees are scruffy, laid-back, and Hawaiian-shirted, but also customer-friendly, always out on the floor to answer questions, and quick to open a package to give you a sample. Beloved products spontaneously disappear from store shelves, but they’re replaced with new and offbeat culinary discoveries that are often a half-step ahead of our palates (anyone for adzuki bean chips and dried green mango?). Instead of a chore, shopping at Trader Joe’s is a cultural experience.
Trader Joe’s carries around 4,000 products, compared to the typical grocery store’s 50,000. It’s a mix of foodie-friendly staples, like cage-free eggs and extra virgin olive oil, plus affordable luxury and exotic items, like frozen truffled ricotta pizza and Moroccan tagine sauce. This is not inexpensive food, but the offerings are unique and the prices are often the lowest in town. If this is not how you shop, cook, and eat, you just won’t get it.
To make sure its customers get it, the company looks at demographics like education levels and cooking magazine subscriptions to divine its next store locations. And they sure do get it: Trader Joe’s has average store sales of $1,750 per square foot—that’s double the sales per square foot of Whole Foods and triple the amount of a typical conventional supermarket. For Trader Joe’s, it adds up to $8 billion in annual sales.
The genius of Trader Joe’s is its marriage of cult appeal and scale. It doesn’t just masquerade as a neighborhood store with its bad clip art and folksy hand-lettered signs; it is a neighborhood store, with a tight customer focus and an ability to curate each store’s offerings to suit local tastes.
With 471 stores and counting, individual store oversight is less manageable, and a buying error can cost the company millions. Let’s hope as Trader Joe’s grows, it can hang on to the quirks and surprises that make it a special place to shop. Although no one will complain if they expand their parking lots.
If you do nothing else today, be sure to watch this video. If I Made a Commercial for Trader Joe’s is one man’s unauthorized tribute. It’s a complete, warts-and-all portrait; a love song celebrating the customers, employees, and eclectic merchandise of his favorite store. And it’s charming and very funny.