What Is Trader Joe’s? A Primer for the Uninitiated

What is Trader Joe’s? I mean aside from being where I go instead of therapy (jk kids, please actually go to therapy, but I’m just sayin’, a trip to Trader Joe’s never hurt no one), it’s a grocery store.

But it is so much more than a simple grocery store, and I mean this in a personal emotional way but also in terms of their business model. Trader Joe’s definitely has a few tricks up their sleeve that make people love the store all the more.

Who is Trader Joe?

An actual real person, believe it or not! Joe Coulombe (who passed away in 2020 at 89) owned a small chain of convenience stores in Los Angeles back in the 1960s, but he was struggling. Then he had the idea of buying low-cost, high-quality foods in bulk and selling them at low prices to consumers. First he did it with some eggs from a local farmer; that venture went so well that he opened the first Trader Joe’s grocery store in 1967 in Pasadena, where he tried the whole “buy nice international wine abroad and sell it for cheap in the U.S.” thing with some high-quality French wine, and the rest is history. 

What is Trader Joe’s?

Speaking of history, what’s with Trader Joe’s? Why the nautical theme? Who makes the Trader Joe’s branded foods? Or is it simply an act of providence? Is Trader Joe’s literally divine? Ultimately, Trader Joe’s went from a small convenience store to “more than 530 locations across the U.S., with 10,000 employees and an estimated 2020 revenue of $16.5 billion,” according to Supermarket News and U.K. research firm IGD. How? The answer to this has several components, but a large part of Trader Joe’s success is its embrace of private brand items—that is, things that have no branding on them other than good ol’ Trader Joe’s branding. Trader Joe’s makes these house brand items look unique and fun, when, in reality, they are often name-brand products Trader Joe’s buys at a discount without the brand name on them, and then rebrands as a Trader Joe’s item to be sold to consumers. The fact that we aren’t paying for the names of the brands—or the marketing bucks behind those names—makes everything cheaper for us, too. Aldi takes the same tack. As for the nautical theme, Joe knew the release of the Boeing 747 back in the ’70s was going to make international travel extremely popular, so he named the store Trader Joe’s and chose this nautical theme “to evoke exotic images of the South Seas.” Kind of a funky choice, but, hey, it worked, didn’t it?

Why is Trader Joe’s?

What is so appealing about this store full of generic food, plants, and alcohol? Why do shoppers (myself included) love this place so dearly? Why does it feel like a fun li’l treasure hunt every time we walk in? Because Joe is a genius, that’s why. I remember reading an article about this years back and thinking this one quote from Coulombe was absolutely brilliant and 1000% accurate: That Trader Joe’s is aimed at the “overeducated and underpaid” consumer—people who want gourmet foods and a farmer’s market-like shopping experience but with Walmart prices. And not only are the prices great at Trader Joe’s, but the experience is too. Employees hand draw signs inviting you to try new seasonal items; products come and go, so you feel like you have to stock up when you see the chips or ice cream you like come back into stores; and the cashiers are literally encouraged to compliment at least one thing in your cart every time you check out. All of these tactics are a part of the goal of making your shopping experience feel special, and, here’s the thing, it works. I know exactly what they are doing, and the psychological manipulation that they aim to achieve, but do I still fall for it hook, line, and sinker (get it? nautical themed)? I certainly do. I let myself fall for it. Much like when watching a fantasy movie or reading a fictional novel, I suspend my disbelief and let myself get immersed in the strange, happy world that is Trader Joe’s, and for 30 minutes every week, I get to feel like a fancy broad in a farmers market instead of a struggling twentysomething who “forgot to wash the dishes” for the third day in a row.

Anyways, thanks Joe.

About the Author

Jessica Block

Jessica Block is a freelance contributor to Sporked, a comedian, a baker, a food writer, and a firm believer that Trader Joe's may just be the happiest place on earth. She loves spicy snacks, Oreos, baking bread, teeny tiny avocados, and trying new foods whenever she can. Also, if you give her a bag of Takis she will be your best friend.

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