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How Trader Joe's Does It


MarketStEl
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I imagine that many of you out here have either heard of or shopped at Trader Joe's by now. And just about everyone who has likes the place.

An article in the December 2004 issue of Philadelphia ("The Cult of Joe" by Maureen Tkacik) explains why. What Trader Joe's has done, if I understand the article right, is apply the Aldi/Save-a-Lot formula to specialty foods: Stock only private label merchandise and keep the selection of items limited (2000-2500 per store).

TJ's may also contribute to the bottom line of some national food manufacturers as well. Quoting from the article: "As food brands became more varied and important in the '70s and '80s, the 'private label' strategy drove Trader Joe's success. If a maker of marinara sauce, for instance, wanted to sell to Joe's in bulk for a price that would piss off other grocers, he'd just let Joe [Coulombe, the chain's founder] make it a 'Trader Giotto's Marinara.' As Trader Joe's became more and more popular for food-makers to work with, the company established an official 'tasting panel' that would choose the best example of an item for the price and anoint that 'Trader Joe's.' The private label became a mark of quality."

What this does, the article states, is free the shopper from the tyranny of too many choices. For all that our capitalist cheerleaders prattle on about choice as an essential value, the truth is that for most of us, too many choices prove frustrating. We don't have the time or the ability to evaluate them all, so it's easier when someone--like Trader Joe--comes along and weeds stuff out for us.

People apparently love this approach (and at least can put up with the hokey decor), for the chain is expanding at a rather rapid clip.

How about you? Would you rather have 100 different balsamic vinegars for you to choose from or just two--aged and non-aged?

(As Philadelphia does not post the full text of articles on its web site, I cannot provide a link to the story. If you want to read it all, you will have to find a copy at your local newsstand.)

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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What this does, the article states, is free the shopper from the tyranny of too many choices.  For all that our capitalist cheerleaders prattle on about choice as an essential value, the truth is that for most of us, too many choices prove frustrating.  We don't have the time or the ability to evaluate them all, so it's easier when someone--like Trader Joe--comes along and weeds stuff out for us.

How about you? Would you rather have 100 different balsamic vinegars for you to choose from or just two--aged and non-aged?

There was a neat essay about this subject in the NY Times magazine a few weeks ago:

Über Market

Freedom of choice might be the fuel that powers democracies, but limitless choice can also delete years from an average consumer's life.
....[a] radical rethink of the whole supermarket experience [to] come up with a food store that woos customers not with endless aisles of competing labels, but with a limited assortment of both essential and exclusive products.
My most pleasurable food-shopping experiences have always involved small-scale retailers that fully embrace the definition of focus

I like Trader Joe's and other small, focused markets, but also the Uber-markets (not that I shop in either regularly, nearby to me are the garden-variety Pathmark, ShopRite, Waldbaums.)

The Uber-markets are appealing not for the 300 different varieties of Oreos and their variations and permutations, but for the unique and different products, just like TJ's in a way ('cept that the Uber-markets don't cull the wheat from the chaff, so you have to dig through 300 varieties of Oreos, and their permutations, to find the one unique and exceptional item.)

Thinking about it, I realize that there's something appealing about the sheer size and overwhelmingness of the Ubers also, perhaps because it's a very occasional experience for me, so each time it's a EXCITING BIG BRIGHT SHINY NEW TOY experience, whereas if I shopped Uber all the time perhaps it might also become DULL TARNISHED BORING TOY like my local Pathmark is.

I'll generalize here and conjecture that it's the intrinsic human (or is it exclusively American?) desire for NEW and/or BIGGER makes the Ubers very appealing from the distance at which I usually gaze at them, appearing perhaps like a shimmering mirage in a dessert.

There's also the sheer theatricality of the places. Exurban theater mostly takes place in the malls and the Ubers, no? Since there's usually no street life to allow urban theater, that's where the fun of watching people acting peopleish is gonna go down.

Edited by hillbill (log)
Gustatory illiterati in an illuminati land.
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I went into a TJ's once, earlier this year - there are none in my immediate vicinity but I was up in a part of Jersey that has one - & was severely disappointed.

They had one dinky little fish counter & all the fish was frozen. Nice variety, but no fresh fish?

I couldn't find one box of cereal there that didn't have too much salt in it. Thoughtful of them to make THAT choice for me.

I'll admit that some of their prepared dinners looked pretty darn good, I'd be tempted if I lived that kind of microwave lifestyle. But I don't.

There's such a thing as too little choice too.

Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea!

- Sydney Smith, English clergyman & essayist, 1771-1845

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Our Trader Joe's opened about twelve or thirteen years ago, and has quadrupled in size, taking over store after store that failed in the mall where it sits. It has a fresh fish and meat section, filled with selections from Niman Ranch and other respected producers of meat. There is a sizable organic produce section (people in Santa Cruz being pretty adamant about having access to things organic). And there is one whole wall with artisanal, organic tequilas (over 300 kinds!) that benefit co-ops of people of Mexico and Central America.

Okay, I'm kidding about the tequila.

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They had one dinky little fish counter & all the fish was frozen.  Nice variety, but no fresh fish?

Though what they would tell you, and I think this is right, is that the "fresh" fish at your local supermarket has all been frozen, too. The supermarket has done the work of thawing it for you, but you can't know how long ago it was defrosted. By thawing it yourself, you have more control over its freshness.

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Our Trader Joe's opened about twelve or thirteen years ago, and has quadrupled in size, taking over store after store that failed in the mall where it sits. It has a fresh fish and meat section, filled with selections from Niman Ranch and other respected producers of meat. There is a sizable organic produce section (people in Santa Cruz being pretty adamant about having access to things organic).  And there is one whole wall with artisanal, organic tequilas (over 300 kinds!) that benefit co-ops of people of Mexico and Central America.

Okay, I'm kidding about the tequila.

That's evil, because my heart nearly fell through the floor when you said you were kidding about the tequila. I was almost out the door, on the way to TJ's.

There's no fresh meat or fresh fish at my TJ's. The frozen fish ain't bad, and there's a lot more variety in fish types than I can usually get around here. I've never seen any Niman Ranch meat.

Having said that, I never go to the damn place, because it's always packed to the gills with ignorant people that can't remember to keep their cart out of the middle of the aisle. Pure chaos.

...wine can of their wits the wise beguile, make the sage frolic, and the serious smile. --Alexander Pope

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They had one dinky little fish counter & all the fish was frozen.  Nice variety, but no fresh fish?

Though what they would tell you, and I think this is right, is that the "fresh" fish at your local supermarket has all been frozen, too. The supermarket has done the work of thawing it for you, but you can't know how long ago it was defrosted. By thawing it yourself, you have more control over its freshness.

That's always an open question, granted, but when some fish at my local Stop & Shop is labelled "fresh" while others are labelled "previously frozen," & my eyes, nose & taste buds tell me that the labelling is accurate time after time, I tend to trust the labels after a while.

As far as they go. There's also the issue, which came up in another thread, of how long the "fresh" fish was soaking in industrial metal cleaners & whatnot during transport.

It's a minefield out there.

Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea!

- Sydney Smith, English clergyman & essayist, 1771-1845

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How about you?  Would you rather have 100 different balsamic vinegars for you to choose from or just two--aged and non-aged?

It's funny you use this example because as I was reading I was going to use it.

I love taking that little bottle of 10-year old balsamic and reducing it to 1/3 its original volume. Talk about complexity of flavors!

Regarding meat and fish. I'm always hesitant on purchasing prepackaged meat and fish; especially when the store doesn't have a meat or fish department. Although with their prices, I wouldn't hesitate to purchase duck there should they ever decide to bring it back.

Drink!

I refuse to spend my life worrying about what I eat. There is no pleasure worth forgoing just for an extra three years in the geriatric ward. --John Mortimera

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I usually go early on Sat morning right around opening. I started to notice that the same group of men every Sat each with one or two bottles of wine. That's all they bought. Then one day as I was leaving I saw them doing a wine tasting in the parking lot. They pick what they like and go back for cases. Always something new to try they said. :biggrin::wink::cool:

Bruce Frigard

Quality control Taster, Château D'Eau Winery

"Free time is the engine of ingenuity, creativity and innovation"

111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321

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I usually go early on Sat morning right around opening. I started to notice that the same group of men every Sat each with one or two bottles of wine. That's all they bought. Then one day as I was leaving I saw them doing a wine tasting in the parking lot. They pick what they like and go back for cases. Always something new to try they said. :biggrin:  :wink:  :cool:

Yow, you can have open containers in parking lots? Not here!

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I usually go early on Sat morning right around opening. I started to notice that the same group of men every Sat each with one or two bottles of wine. That's all they bought. Then one day as I was leaving I saw them doing a wine tasting in the parking lot. They pick what they like and go back for cases. Always something new to try they said. :biggrin:  :wink:  :cool:

Yow, you can have open containers in parking lots? Not here!

Discretion, my Dear, allows alcohol almost anywhere. And yes I could do it at your local Trader Joes. And probably have in my travels. Pickups with camper shells and Vans have their uses. :laugh::laugh::laugh:

Edited by winesonoma (log)

Bruce Frigard

Quality control Taster, Château D'Eau Winery

"Free time is the engine of ingenuity, creativity and innovation"

111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321

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The manager of my local TJs told me that the size and selection of fresh produce and meat is at the discretion of each store manager. In the 3-4 years that I've been shopping there the produce section has doubled, although it's still small. When I shopped at my daughter's (much larger) Trader Joe's in LA, it was more laike a full-service grocery store.

TJ's has the best frozen fish and desserts I've found anywhere, at the best prices. I would never think of it as a one-stop shop groceteria - it's where you go for fun stuff.

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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Trader Joe's is the reason why I am able to eat as well as I do.

We have to make a hundred choices every day. Not having to make one while shopping is a pleasure. I get my olive oils, vinegars, artichoke hearts and organice powdered sugar (to name a few) at prices that allow me to afford such luxuries. Their bottled water, which isn't a TJ brand is also much cheaper for some reason.

My local store is tiny and drives me crazy. But about once a month I have "a doctor's appointment" and leave work a bit early to beat the rush :smile:

True Heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic.

It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost,

but the urge to serve others at whatever cost. -Arthur Ashe

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I usually go early on Sat morning right around opening. I started to notice that the same group of men every Sat each with one or two bottles of wine. That's all they bought. Then one day as I was leaving I saw them doing a wine tasting in the parking lot. They pick what they like and go back for cases. Always something new to try they said. :biggrin:  :wink:  :cool:

Yow, you can have open containers in parking lots? Not here!

Yow, you can buy wine in supermarkets? Not here!

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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What this does, the article states, is free the shopper from the tyranny of too many choices.  For all that our capitalist cheerleaders prattle on about choice as an essential value, the truth is that for most of us, too many choices prove frustrating.

There was a neat essay about this subject in the NY Times magazine a few weeks ago:

Über Market

Well, well, well--great minds think alike? (I refer you to my starter post for the "Unflattering Names..." topic. No, I did not coin the term "Uberfresh.")

I like Trader Joe's and other small, focused markets, but also the Uber-markets (not that I shop in either regularly, nearby to me are the garden-variety Pathmark, ShopRite, Waldbaums.) 

The Uber-markets are appealing not for the 300 different varieties of Oreos and their variations and permutations, but for the unique and different products, just like TJ's in a way ('cept that the Uber-markets don't cull the wheat from the chaff, so you have to dig through 300 varieties of Oreos, and their permutations, to find the one unique and exceptional item.)

And there is the source of the adventure, the excitement and the anxiety all rolled into one. How can you know that what you have pulled out of those 300 sandwich creme cookies is indeed one of the exceptional ones beforehand? What if you've selected a stinker of a cookie instead? Perhaps we should not fear failure so much--after all, on the road to success, most of us encounter a lot of failure getting there--but we do, and that's what makes those hypersized supermarkets somewhat intimidating.

Thinking about it, I realize that there's something appealing about the sheer size and overwhelmingness of the Ubers also, perhaps because it's a very occasional experience for me, so each time it's a EXCITING BIG BRIGHT SHINY NEW TOY experience, whereas if I shopped Uber all the time perhaps it might also become DULL TARNISHED BORING TOY like my local Pathmark is.

And if your local Pathmark is like most stores in the chain, you could hardly call it small, right? (There are other things about Pathmark that don't really appeal to me, and one of them has to do with a lack of the right kind of choices. I talked about that in the first post of the "Food Shopping in Philly" topic.)

There's also the sheer theatricality of the places.  Exurban theater mostly takes place in the malls and the Ubers, no?  Since there's usually no street life to allow urban theater,  that's where the fun of watching people acting peopleish is gonna go down.

Maybe you and I should go hang out on an urban planning board. I think we'd find much to discuss over there too. :smile:

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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I usually go early on Sat morning right around opening. I started to notice that the same group of men every Sat each with one or two bottles of wine. That's all they bought. Then one day as I was leaving I saw them doing a wine tasting in the parking lot. They pick what they like and go back for cases. Always something new to try they said. :biggrin:  :wink:  :cool:

Yow, you can have open containers in parking lots? Not here!

Yow, you can buy wine in supermarkets? Not here!

I can buy motor oil if I want it. Booze and their movin towards Home improvement stuff. Garden supplies, the X rated aisle with it's own checkout. Yes we can buy all of the things that were prohibited by the Blue Laws were I grew up. It's called free enterprise. :laugh::laugh::laugh::laugh:

Bruce Frigard

Quality control Taster, Château D'Eau Winery

"Free time is the engine of ingenuity, creativity and innovation"

111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321

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I usually go early on Sat morning right around opening. I started to notice that the same group of men every Sat each with one or two bottles of wine. That's all they bought. Then one day as I was leaving I saw them doing a wine tasting in the parking lot. They pick what they like and go back for cases. Always something new to try they said. :biggrin:  :wink:  :cool:

Yow, you can have open containers in parking lots? Not here!

Yow, you can buy wine in supermarkets? Not here!

I can buy motor oil if I want it. Booze and their movin towards Home improvement stuff. Garden supplies, the X rated aisle with it's own checkout. Yes we can buy all of the things that were prohibited by the Blue Laws were I grew up. It's called free enterprise. :laugh::laugh::laugh::laugh:

I suspect that somewhere in the Philadelphia suburbs, maybe out by the Blue Route (Interstate 476, the western bypass of the city), there is a humongous big box store that offers all of that plus great deals on home electronics in one place.

But you still couldn't buy wine in it. That's because Pennsylvania has something even stronger than Blue Laws: a state liquor monopoly.

Oenophiles in this state are thanking their lucky stars that for the first time since its creation after the lifting of Prohibition, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is headed by a wine enthusiast. It is now possible to (a) find all sorts of wonderful wines in certain state liquor stores and (b) buy it without feeling like a criminal.

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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I'm so sorry for you. That's why I don't live there :sad:  :sad:  :sad:

Ah, it's not so bad, at least for those of us in SE Pennsylvania: the twin promised lands of New Jersey and Delaware are right next door, their cities shining with good wine stores.

But it'd be a real drag to live out in central Pennsylbama or wherever...

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Maybe you and I should go hang out on an urban planning board.  I think we'd find much to discuss over there too. :smile:

I'm absolutely fascinated by urban planning; how people and places interact; how space affects the way people do or don't interact, and the ways that space defines how people see/feel/think about themselves; the public vs. private dichotomy in this society; and how (or why) it is that, even after having 40+ years of learning that sprawling suburbs are not healthy for children and other living things, the majority of us (with notable exceptions) flock gleefully to ever-expanding McUrbs, and the zoning laws most everywhere apparently both encrouage and demand sprawlurbia.

I'm also really interested in the business of business; and in vernacular and pop culture and in food (yes, there is a reason for my lurking at eGullet!;) thus all of these interests manifest in curiosity about supermarkets, shopping malls, urban markets, "walkable" neighborhoods, etc. etc.

Edited by hillbill (log)
Gustatory illiterati in an illuminati land.
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I love the smaller form factor of Trader Joe's. When I go to the super stores, unless I need plastic baggies or something like that, I tend to only shop the perimeter of the store anyway. Trader Joe's effective carries all of those goods, without a lot of the junk.

Although I do agree, something about going into a TJs seems to make people forget how to handle shopping carts and forget aisle conduct.

He don't mix meat and dairy,

He don't eat humble pie,

So sing a miserere

And hang the bastard high!

- Richard Wilbur and John LaTouche from Candide

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I'm so sorry for you. That's why I don't live there :sad:  :sad:  :sad:

Ah, it's not so bad, at least for those of us in SE Pennsylvania: the twin promised lands of New Jersey and Delaware are right next door, their cities shining with good wine stores.

But it'd be a real drag to live out in central Pennsylbama or wherever...

I make my own wine and buy without restriction from anywhere. But I grew up back there. :biggrin:

Bruce Frigard

Quality control Taster, Château D'Eau Winery

"Free time is the engine of ingenuity, creativity and innovation"

111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321

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Maybe you and I should go hang out on an urban planning board.  I think we'd find much to discuss over there too. :smile:

I'm absolutely fascinated by urban planning; how people and places interact; how space affects the way people do or don't interact, and the ways that space defines how people see/feel/think about themselves; the public vs. private dichotomy in this society; and how (or why) it is that, even after having 40+ years of learning that sprawling suburbs are not healthy for children and other living things, the majority of us (with notable exceptions) flock gleefully to ever-expanding McUrbs, and the zoning laws most everywhere apparently both encrouage and demand sprawlurbia.

I'm also really interested in the business of business; and in vernacular and pop culture and in food (yes, there is a reason for my lurking at eGullet!;) thus all of these interests manifest in curiosity about supermarkets, shopping malls, urban markets, "walkable" neighborhoods, etc. etc.

I sensed that from your posts on the various supermarket threads. Wanna visit Philly? I'd be glad to show you around 9th Street and the Reading Terminal Market.

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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I usually go early on Sat morning right around opening. I started to notice that the same group of men every Sat each with one or two bottles of wine. That's all they bought. Then one day as I was leaving I saw them doing a wine tasting in the parking lot. They pick what they like and go back for cases. Always something new to try they said. :biggrin:  :wink:  :cool:

Yow, you can have open containers in parking lots? Not here!

Yow, you can buy wine in supermarkets? Not here!

Yes we can buy all of the things that were prohibited by the Blue Laws were I grew up. It's called free enterprise. :laugh::laugh::laugh::laugh:

One of the reasons I loved going to Waitrose when The Husband was in England. Good produce, great variety, and BOOZE! Good lord, THE BOOZE! And you could buy it on SUNDAY! Such a change from the NYC blue laws. Now that the Sunday law is no more, its a bit better. My local shop is open sundays now, and its just a hop across the street, but I miss the convenience of one stop shopping.

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I love my local TJ's - everything is about 25% cheaper than the other stores in my neighborhood, and the quality is excellent. My store has a tiny fresh meat section, and while it has a good variety of fruits and veggies, I do go down the street to the regular store for many of these items - as do many of the people who shop in my area. I see a certain set of people shopping at TJ's, then 10 minutes later, when I'm at the regular store, I see about half of those people at that store.

I do think that there's a fallicy in the quoted article - while a large percentage of what TJ's sells is their own brand, particularly in the frozen foods section, there are lots of other brands represented as well.

And yes, people seem to lose all sense of direction, with carts going everywhere at TJ's. In my store, I put it down to the insanely narrow aisles, many of which have posts right in the center of the aisle! And don't even get me started with that parking lot... :raz:

“"When you wake up in the morning, Pooh," said Piglet at last, "what's the first thing you say to yourself?"

"What's for breakfast?" said Pooh. "What do you say, Piglet?"

"I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?" said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully.

"It's the same thing," he said.”

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