The Angst of Trader Joe's

A perennial favorite among hip Seattle urbanites is speciality grocery store Trader Joe's—I can think of seven stores in the immediate area, and I'm sure I've seen a few in the Seattle hinterlands. Trader Joe's isn't your normal grocery store with a meat counter, a produce section, maybe a bakery and a pharmacy. Although the stores carry a small smattering of meat, dairy, produce, and fresh-baked goods, the stores carry far fewer items than a typical market, and are mostly about pre-packaged and frozen items, many of which you'd never see in a Safeway or Albertsons. You could probably survive on Trader Joe's fare alone, but the stores are best thought of as filling in gaps left by other sellers. Jars of Indian korma sauce are right near the organic Italian marinara, you might see halva stocked next to the cheeses, jaipur vegetables next to beef stew, and Trader Joe's remains about the only place I've consistently found half-decent Middle Eastern flatbread in Seattle. Which is downright weird.

Because of their unique niche, Trader Joe's customers tend to get attached to the products. Heck, I even know some people who became fans of the stores because of their cheese selection.

Don't get the idea Trader Joe's is about health food. Yes, they'll be happy to sell you vitamins, organic canned goods, and maybe some hemp-laden granola, but hippy-dippy health nut staples can be hard to find those items amongst the tubs of bon-bons, barrels of cookies, heaps of candy, raw blocks of chocolate, and innumerable frozen desserts. Oh, and let's not forget the ever-endcapped Pirate's Booty rice puff thingies (a possible NoCo product name, since the phrase it immediately brings to mind is "Barnacle Butt"—not what you'd call appetizing). And then there's the wine and beer: lots of alternatively cheap or decent wine and beer.

The wine and beer at Trader Joe's are important to me as a navigational aid. Let me explain:

If you've never been to a Trader Joe's, the experience is all about Choke Points. First, parking is a nightmare. It seems a requirement that every Trader Joe's location have poorly-planned, poorly-lit, claustrophobia-inducing parking facilities the use of which is guaranteed to make your auto insurance premiums increase. Every space is designed to test customers' mettle and, if they park successfully, keep them on premises hoping, maybe, a few people will leave so they can back out unscathed. Most of the lots cram too many cars into too little space, ensuring everyone gets to perform precision door-dinging maneuvers—and then the people in SUVs show up. Whee! More fun for everyone.

The Choke Point mentality extends to the stores' layout, in which every aisle is so narrow (except maybe the freezer aisle) customers cannot comfortably pass one another. Further, aisles are often set at angles to the walls of the store, thereby creating Choke Points the ends (where, inevitably, Parent With Screaming Child must park a cart to examine a package of butter). If the aisles aren't angled, they're arranged in a rat-maze manner, maintaining Trader Joe's requisite Choke Points Per Capita. Angling the aisles also has the neat effect that nearly every aisle has a support beam right in the middle of it, instead of behind or between shelves (like normal people might lay out a store). There's always someone trying—and failing—to get a cart around a beam.

So I really like the wine and beer section. It's nowhere near as crowded as the other areas so I can zip through it to the back of the store, grab my stuff, then zip back out to the check stands, mostly avoiding Parent With Screaming Child and several Choke Points. Wine and beer. Yay.

It's not just the store layout which makes Trader Joe's weird. The whole company is an oddity. They have over 200 stores around the United States and a devoted following, yet they don't really advertise save for a sizable, calculatedly ironic "Fearless Flyer" newsprint booklet which highlights new products and showcases vintage clipart. If you don't know about Trader Joe's, the Fearless Flyer turns up randomly one day in your mail. As soon as you become a customer, you no longer randomly receive the Fearless Flyer. It's psychic.

For another thing, they reportedly pay their employees well, with average wages around $50,000 a year. (Which average are they using? Who knows.)

Who runs Trader Joe's? The company is private and likes to stay under the radar, Trader Joe's executives rarely grant interviews or speak in public, and in 2006 the company still "working" on setting up an email address. (Ha ha!—yeah, we get it, already.) The business was founded in 1958 in Los Angeles by Joe Coulombe as Pronto Markets; in 1979, he sold the company to Germany's Theo and Karl Albrecht. The Albrechts are two of Germany's the wealthiest men— they also own the European grocery chain Aldi—and they're notoriously reclusive. In 1971 (before the purchase of Trader Joe's), Theo Albrecht was kidnapped and held for ransom for over two weeks. The Albrechts paid $3 million for Theo's release…so it's easy to understand why they avoid the spotlight. This year, Karl Albrecht was listed #13 on Forbes' list of the world's wealthiest people in 2006; Theo made #22.

The bulk of Trader Joe's offerings are house brands: you'll only see a few mainstream labels in the stores. The chain moves enough product that they can have food and grocery items developed exclusively for them and marketed only in their stores. Estimates put Trader Joe's sales per square foot at nearly double that of a typical grocery store, and—though we'll never know because they're privately held—the company is probably chalking up nearly $5 billion in sales a year. Hence the korma sauce, the organic marina, the innumerable cookies, desserts, and snack foods, and even mainstay grocery items like eggs, coffee, cheese, and cereal, all carrying a Trader Joe's brand. The pricing on house brands products can be quite good (at least sometimes: honestly, I haven't priced bon-bons) and that's what gets people hooked.

And once they've got you, what happens?

Your favorite items start disappearing, one by one, never to be seen again, or to be replaced by new, higher-priced items. And because they're private brands, you can't just go get the same thing elsewhere. Heck, you can't even get anything similar elsewhere. When it's gone, it's gone forever.

Argh! That's the Angst of Trader Joe's.

A few years ago, I could go into Trader Joe's every other week and leave with a reasonably solid two bags of groceries. Now, I go maybe once a month to pick up half a bag. I seem to have a knack for latching onto products which aren't replaced with somewhat-similar new offerings: instead, I'm left to choose from unappealing new selections, or existing higher-priced products I'd already decided I didn't want anyway.

So here's to the fond memories of Trader Joe's Organic Lentil Vegetable Soup, Apple Strawberry Granola, Harvest Pear Juice, the "This Fig Walks into a Bar" cereal bars, the Chocolate Chip Baking & Pancake Mix (the disappearance of which has caused considerable domestic distress), the Mango Ginger Chutney, and the Moroccan Tagine sauce. I can only hope the the magic of Internet search engines brings the searing wrath of long-suffering, similarly betrayed customers on Trader Joe's head, lets them experience The Angst, and convinces the company to bring back these and other beloved products…oh, wait.

The company doesn't have an email address. Or even a contact form. I guess I need to rethink this strategy….

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