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Trader Joe’s: Good Food and Good Urbanism

If you follow my writing, you know that I don’t like a lot of things. That list, not exhaustively, includes the DMV [1], tiny hotel rooms [2], most modern movies [3], suburbia [4], and even brunch [5]. A friend of mine recently remarked that I was like the modern Andy Rooney. (I’m not sure what surprised me more—that he knows who Andy Rooney was or that he reads my columns.)

I do like eating, though, and shopping for food. Northern Virginia is actually a great place for that. You can get classic Virginia foods like biscuits and country ham, but you can also find Italian delis, Ethiopian and Salvadoran groceries, large Chinese and Korean supermarkets—really almost any cuisine you want. There are also a bunch of Wegmans and Trader Joe’s locations, both of which are excellent places to shop and the latter of which I’m especially fond of.

But first, urbanism. Two things stand out about Trader Joe’s. The first is the relatively small building; the second is the infamous and equally small parking lot [6] (this doesn’t apply, of course, to strip mall locations, though quite a few Trader Joe’s are freestanding buildings).

The stores, despite their compact sizes, are stuffed to the gills, which remedies one of the biggest problems with suburbia: the inefficient and unnecessary use of land. Earlier this year, I noted a shopping plaza in Northern Virginia that had one of the largest and emptiest parking lots [7] I’d ever seen. This is actually required by zoning in most places; while the minimums vary from municipality to municipality, there are generally ordinances mandating X number of parking spaces for Y square feet of retail space.

So far, so good. For popular businesses, or on peak shopping days like Black Friday and the weekend or two before Christmas, that parking can come in handy. But for most of the year, much of it is empty. Heck, even at peak times a lot of it remains empty [8]. That the minimums are already excessive is compounded by the fact that they don’t take into account vacancies, many of which end up being essentially permanent. (Who’s really going to take over every last Toys “R” Us [9] or, now, Sears [10] storefront? Years after their bankruptcies, it’s still possible to find vacant A&P or Pathmark buildings in New Jersey.) All the dying malls and plazas, and even those muddling along with one missing anchor or a bunch of empty small shops, are saddled with considerably more parking than they need. The environment suffers from a lack of greenery and permeable surfaces for flood control. And, it goes without saying, cracked, pockmarked asphalt doesn’t do much for aesthetics (though you can turn the lots into staging grounds for festivals [11]).

What this has to do with Trader Joe’s is that by keeping things compact and not building more than the minimum parking [12], a Trader Joe’s location takes up about the same land as a CVS while providing at least as much utility as a Safeway, all with lower prices and environmental impacts. (The smaller real estate footprint produces savings for consumers [13].) This is actually something of a throwback—the first fully modern supermarkets, built in the early post-war years, were roughly the size of today’s drug stores. If you do some sleuthing with retail hobbyists and urban explorers, you’ll even find that a lot of modern drug stores actually inhabit former supermarket buildings [14].

Then there’s the distinctive Trader Joe’s motif: the bells, the Hawaiian shirts, the Frequent Flyer [15] circular, the cheeky product names. The Flyer in particular is a treat to read, unlike almost any other piece of advertising or merchandising you can think of.

A page from a Frequent Flyer; it looks nothing like a supermarket circular. Addison Del Mastro

The whole shopping experience evokes a neighborhood or family-owned grocery crossed with a slightly touristy country farm store. It’s one of the only companies I can think of that has a consistent, distinctive aesthetic in both its products and physical stores, at least in the food business (Apple certainly qualifies, as does Dyson and probably Nintendo). If you stripped away the logos, displays, and store-brand products, you’d be hard-pressed to differentiate a Giant from a Safeway from a Martin’s from an Albertson’s from an Acme. You can’t mistake Trader Joe’s for anything else, and that’s probably a big part of their success.

change_me

And, of course, the food [16]. The food items are quirky and very brand-specific [17]. They’re not just generic copies of national brands, like most private labels and almost everything at Aldi, America’s other small-format, discount supermarket. Instead of 20 minutely different versions of everything, presenting an agonizing “paradox of choice,” there’s a wide array of distinct items. And, perhaps most delightful of all, they’re heavily seasonal. Like McDonald’s with its famous McRib, Trader Joe’s carries lots of limited products, for fall or the holidays or Easter or summer. The sample counter—there’s a sample counter in every store serving different products every day, all day—plays up the featured and seasonal items too. October might have hot or cold apple cider, Thanksgiving time might feature a turkey-stuffed puff pastry (one of my favorites), and major holidays might feature various dips or hors d’oeuvres.

There are a non-trivial number of local products in most stores (though it can be hard to tell which ones [18]), and while many of the private label products are made by national manufacturers, a large share are unique and made by small contract manufacturers [19]. You’re at least doing a little bit to help small businesses and break up the monotony of national mass manufacturing and merchandising.

My opinion, though, doesn’t mean much to the economy. If it did, we’d still have LaserDiscs and cathode ray tube televisions. But I’m not alone: Trader Joe’s consistently ranks [20] among the most popular grocery chains [21] in America.

All of this makes shopping at Trader Joe’s an activity, not just a chore. If you can’t go to the farmer’s market and your standard supermarket ignores the seasons and stocks harvest vegetables year-round and watermelons in winter, Trader Joe’s is the closest you can get to a livelier and more traditional kind of shopping. It’s a little taste of how—if we had to have it at all—the jungle of highways, parking lots, strip malls, and tilt-up big box stores that comprise so much of America could have been a little more pleasant if retailers had thought more about design and customer satisfaction. Trader Joe’s isn’t a charity or a park. It’s a business, and that makes it all the more remarkable.

Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor of The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro [22].

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "Trader Joe’s: Good Food and Good Urbanism"

#1 Comment By Jen On October 23, 2018 @ 10:03 pm

Don’t get me wrong — I love TJ’s with a deep and abiding passion. But at least in my city, shopping there IS a chore. They could open 3 more stores within a 2-mile radius and they would still be ridiculously crowded. Going down the slim aisles is like playing Frogger. It’s not a fun activity, it’s life or death as I jostle college students and scrawny elderly hippies to get my TJ’s fix.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’m thrilled to live in a city where I can access this amazing supermarket. I just wish they’d expand faster.

#2 Comment By Marie in Vermont On October 23, 2018 @ 10:33 pm

No Wegman’s around here nor a Trader Joe’s, but I do most of my shopping for the food items we don’t grow for ourselves at the small, but wonderful, Lisai’s Chester Market in Chester, Vermont. It’s family owned and small, housed in one of Chester’s 19th century buildings, but the selection is good and it’s not often that I can’t find what I need – and usually at a price comparable to or less than the bigger supermarkets. The folks at the meat counter wrap your selection in butcher’s paper, no styrofoam or plastic. A real gem!

#3 Comment By vato_loco_frisco On October 23, 2018 @ 11:18 pm

Although I occasionally shop at Trader Joe’s, I prefer the local Safeway because the clerks and baggers there make union wages with health benefits. And the quality of the food has improved over the years, with a greater selection of organic produce and healthier offerings overall.

#4 Comment By Gene On October 24, 2018 @ 2:18 am

Those Germans made a great store

#5 Comment By General Manager On October 24, 2018 @ 6:07 am

The politeness and help at TJ in my city are refreshing. Everything is in English. Safeway is often in a foreign language and help is sometimes sparse. I wish a TJ would open near us. It is still, however, worth the effort to go and be treated as in olden days.

#6 Comment By mrscracker On October 24, 2018 @ 6:58 am

Thank you for your articles. I always look forward to reading them.

I’m with you on modern movies. Brunch,too. Seriously, who drinks champagne mixed with orange juice in the morning?
A late family member used to start the day with a gin and coffee mixture and we knew he had a problem. I guess if he’d waited till late morning he could have claimed it was brunch and been respectable.

A couple of my children really enjoy shopping at Trader Joe’s.

The nearest one to me is an hour’s drive away-assuming the 18 mile bridge over the swamp isn’t blocked by a wreck.

Trader Joe’s employees are very nice but I’ve never seen a single thing that I actually needed to buy. But perhaps that’s because I go so infrequently.

They do have boxes of real German pfferneuse cookies at Christmas time though-if you can get there before they’re sold out.

#7 Comment By Marie in Vermont On October 24, 2018 @ 8:44 am

mrscracker:

I, too, love Pfeffernüsse and Lebkuchen, especially the ones made in my hometown of Nürnberg. The Vermont Country Store usually offers several different selections of imported German cookies by mail order every November/December.

#8 Comment By Kurt Gayle On October 24, 2018 @ 10:50 am

Six years ago Harvard Business Review ran a great piece of in-depth research entitled “Why ‘Good Jobs’ Are Good for Retailers” that turned the widely-assumed business model for successful retail supermarkets upside down. In doing so the study’s author Zeynep Ton praised in detail how well Trader Joe’s (and a few others) treated their employees and how this good treatment was also good for business. Here are a few excerpts to whet your appetite to read the entire article (link below).

“I have studied retail operations for more than 10 years and have found that the presumed trade-off between investment in employees and low prices can be broken. Highly successful retail chains—such as Quik¬Trip convenience stores, Mercadona and Trader Joe’s supermarkets, and Costco wholesale clubs—not only invest heavily in store employees but also have the lowest prices in their industries, solid financial performance, and better customer service than their competitors. They have demonstrated that, even in the lowest-price segment of retail, bad jobs are not a cost-driven necessity but a choice. And they have proven that the key to breaking the trade-off is a combination of investment in the workforce and operational practices that benefit employees, customers, and the company. This article explains those practices…I recently studied…low-price retailers that operate in a virtuous cycle: QuikTrip, a U.S. convenience store chain with more than 540 stores and $8 billion in sales; Trader Joe’s, an American supermarket chain with more than 340 stores and $8 billion in sales; and Costco, a wholesale-club chain with more than 580 stores and $76 billion in sales. These retailers are highly regarded by customers and industry peers. In addition to healthy sales and profit growth, they have substantially higher asset and labor productivity than their competitors. Employees of these retailers have higher pay, fuller training, better benefits, and more-convenient schedules than their counterparts at the competition. Store employees earn about 40% more at Costco than at its largest competitor, Walmart’s Sam’s Club. At Trader Joe’s, the starting wage for a full-time employee is $40,000 to $60,000 per year, more than twice what some competitors offer. The wages and benefits at QuikTrip are so good that the chain has been named one of Fortune’s ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ every year since 2003…These model retailers make an effort to provide advancement opportunities. For example, about 98% of store managers at Costco and all store managers at Mercadona, QuikTrip, and Trader Joe’s are promoted from within, and many executives at these companies started out in the stores. Not surprisingly, employee turnover is low. Quik¬Trip’s 13% turnover rate among full-time employees is substantially lower than the 59% average rate in the top quartile of the convenience store industry. At Trader Joe’s, turnover among full-time employees is less than 10%. At Mercadona, it’s a mere 4%. Turnover for employees who stay at Costco for more than a year is 5.5%. In addition to offering the lowest prices in their industries, these retailers also provide better customer service than their competitors…American retail customers have become resigned to the notion that if they want the lowest prices, they can’t expect much, if any, sales assistance. Trader Joe’s…[doesn’t] accept that. Their employees constantly engage shoppers in conversation and inform them about new products…Trader Joe’s employees are known for suggesting products and recipes. In fact, Consumer Reports ranked Trader Joe’s as the second-best supermarket chain in the United States after Wegmans, which is known for outstanding labor practices but does not compete on the basis of low prices.”

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P.S. to vato_loco_frisco who says: “Although I occasionally shop at Trader Joe’s, I prefer the local Safeway because the clerks and baggers there make union wages with health benefits.”

I worked in a big supermarket and was a member of the United Food and Commerical Workers Union (the largest retail store union in the US) for ten years—and I’m a union guy to the core—but I suggest that you do some snooping around and compare the wages and benefits at your local Safeway with wages and benefits at your local Trader Joe’s. I think you’ll be as surprised as I was when I compared them. The question I have is this: Why can’t the big chain supermarkets like Safeway be persuaded to adopt the Trader-Joe’s-type business model?

#9 Comment By mrscracker On October 24, 2018 @ 11:27 am

Marie in Vermont,

Thank you for the correct Pfeffernüsse spelling!
🙂

#10 Comment By kenziegirl On October 24, 2018 @ 11:38 am

@vato_loco_frisco, Trader Joe’s treats their employees phenomenally well – that’s why they’re always so chipper! Robust health and dental insurance, paying into a 401K fund *even without the employee matching it*, allowance for days off, and probably the best hourly pay a person could get bagging groceries.

#11 Comment By mrscracker On October 24, 2018 @ 12:31 pm

Kurt Gayle ,
I shop at a Costco over in the next parish but outside of the manager & a door greeter, I never seem to see the same employees twice.
I’ve heard Costco pays well but it’s not an easy place to work. Maybe that speaks partly about where we live, but most folks here are pretty hardworking. I noticed when Costco first opened they brought a lot of workers in from TX.
Truthfully, I’ve been tempted to go back to shopping at Sams Club. Costco has been offering stranger & stranger provisions lately. Sort of like a bulk Whole Foods.
It’s not at all the store I remember from 20 yrs. ago. They even dropped the chocolate frozen yoghurt & substituted some ghastly healthfood, fruit based stuff that tastes like plastic. Yuck.

#12 Comment By Jon On October 24, 2018 @ 12:35 pm

Where I used to live there were no TJ’s around. The big deal was Price Chopper which was a good 45 minutes to an hour away. And living up in the mountains, the TJ’s were always crowded with very long lines. In fact they were so crowded when I lived in NYC that I rarely had set food in them. Where I live presently they are a dream come true without the crowds and super long lines.

The only downside, if one can call it a disappointment, is that most of their sugary goodies contain dairy. I am sensitive to milk products. However, if it were not for this one impediment I would have a serious weight problem.

#13 Comment By Sam M On October 24, 2018 @ 12:39 pm

You know anybody with little kids? Go borrow two or three and try to shop at Trader Joe’s. You will instantly hate Trader Joe’s.

I would shop there if I was alone. My wife really likes a lot of the products. But we took our kids in there one time, and one time only. The parking lot, the crowded aisles… not so good for a family trip. The wife has had much better luck at Aldi’s.

Either way, I would suggest that the author try to take a gander at some small towns that still have stores. Many of them struggle in such a low margin business, but the ones that have survived are pretty adept at providing value in limited spaces and fending off competition from mega-marts 10, 20 or 30 miles away. I live in Ridgway, PA, and we are lucky to have Elk County Foods. It’s a tremendous store. [24]

#14 Comment By Kurt Gayle On October 24, 2018 @ 2:03 pm

Re: German-made Pfeffernüsse cookies: Walmart sells a good brand – Bahlsen Pfeffernüsse cookies – at Christmas time. (But they’re currently out of stock on-line.)

@ mrscracker: I met two people at our supermarket who used to work at Costco and reported the same issue: That they work you pretty hard at Costco and are strict about coming back late from breaks and lunch. (I personally don’t have a problem with that.) But the same two concur that staff turnover at their Costco was very low, because the pay is so high, and that staff is definitely local–not brought in from Texas or anywhere else.

#15 Comment By Addison Del Mastro On October 24, 2018 @ 2:15 pm

Great comments. Sam M – it’s about a 30 minute trip out to areas of VA that have these stores. I’ve got one that sells all sorts of local meats (amazing whole chickens) and some Amish-style canned and jarred stuff. I try to support those places but it’s a trip and the selection isn’t always equivalent to what you get in a supermarket.

I do try to avoid Trader Joe’s at peak times. I’m five minutes from one, so I often do a just-before-closing nighttime run and you have the place, and the sample counter, to yourself. That’s fun, but the lack of locations makes it tough for many people.

#16 Comment By mrscracker On October 24, 2018 @ 3:36 pm

Kurt Gayle ,
Thank you so much. Unfortunately I haven’t seen those Pfeffernüsse at our Walmarts here but oddly enough, they do carry McVitties digestive tea biscuits-plain & chocolate covered. Perhaps because we have a few North Sea Scottish oil workers in the area.

I’m not sure about the employee turnover reason at our Costco. Cajuns are hard workers but they do enjoy a party from time to time. Perhaps it’s a lifestyle mismatch.

#17 Comment By One Guy On October 24, 2018 @ 4:12 pm

Trader Joe’s has (generally) happy employees because they are treated well. It’s a nice place to work. My wife has worked there for over 10 years. The employees are like family. There is low turnover, which is good for business.

#18 Comment By Sarah On October 24, 2018 @ 11:45 pm

I look forward every year to Trader Joe’s Thanksgiving Wraps!!!! I wasn’t initially certain that most of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner — turkey, stuffing, and cranberries, slathered in gravy dressing — belonged in a whole wheat burrito, but OH how it does.

I was surprised and delighted to see this article.

#19 Comment By Monkey Puzzle On October 25, 2018 @ 5:33 am

Re: Pfeffernüsse cookies

I’ve never tried any of the store-bought brands, though I’m curious, just to see how they compare to an old family recipe that I have. My mom did remark once that she’s tried several different ones, that she described as “adequate.”

#20 Comment By mrscracker On October 25, 2018 @ 11:04 am

Monkey Puzzle ,
I’ve tried to make German Christmas cookies at home but some ingredients are hard to find if you want them to taste authentic. I think hartshorn (baker’s ammonia) is used for crispness. King Arthur Flour might have that in their catalogue.
They have springerle molds, too.

#21 Comment By Captain P On October 25, 2018 @ 2:00 pm

I do enjoy Trader Joe’s for the distinctive items, but the store with the best shopping experience (and best treatment of employees) is Publix. Y’all up in Northern Virginia don’t have it yet, but you might soon.

#22 Comment By Mark B. On October 26, 2018 @ 12:23 am

How nice to read. Just ate a whole pack of Aachener Lebkuchen (Printen) my good woman brought me from Aachen, Germany.

BYW: German Pfeffernüsse are nice for sure but so are the Dutch: Pepernoten. You can order them from some shops in Holland, Michigan when Christmas is coming.

BTW: Trader Joe sounds a lot like Lidl, another German discounter, don’t you have Lidl in the US? Far better than Aldi.

#23 Comment By Frank L. On November 1, 2018 @ 8:19 am

Trader Joe’s is a subsidiary of Aldi, specifically Aldi North. Aldi South operates as Aldi in the U.S. Aldi was founded in Essen, Germany and both North and South are based in North Rhine Westphalia. The Aldi corporation is divided into North and South because the founding brothers divided the company after some disagreements (there is actually something informally known as the “Aldi equator” in Germany). They do not however compete directly, but coordinate their operations in many respects. For example, the U.S. is the only market shared by Aldi North and South. In other countries, it is either one or the other by agreement. For instance, the Hofer chain in Austria is a subsidiary of Aldi South. In any case, that is why Trader Joe’s features excellent German cookies, and why Aldi North in Germany often features “American Style” products that carry the Trader Joe’s brand. So to compare Aldi to Trader Joe’s is really comparing two different strategies of two different Aldis that operate symbiotically. It also explains the “small-format” model they both share and the better benefits they offer employees. Both strategies aren’t only specific to Aldi, but are also based in German culture/business style. The unique aspect of this approach is that they maintained it while expanding into the U.S. and it’s working well—the smaller stores and efficient use of space and resources and the way employees are treated.