Confirmed: I’ve drunk the Trader Joe’s Kool-Aid and I’m OK with That

Home sweet yuppie Cambridge home

I had the pleasure of shopping at Stop & Shop today, which was very similar to every other grocery shopping experience I’ve ever had.  Except those in the past two and a half year, because my local grocery store turns out to be Trader Joe’s (well, Whole Foods is equidistant.  Hi, I live in Cambridge).

I say “pleasure” because it renewed my appreciation for my little TJ’s, which I’ve come to adore since my conversion back in July 2009 when I thought it was some stupid WF knockoff.  NOPE! It also made me regret every time I grumbled at TJs because it doesn’t stock raw beets, Diet Coke, or lentils (I actually don’t feel bad about that.  You need to stock lentils), it runs out of staple items on occassion (garlic is a staple!) and the store is jammed on Sunday at 5pm.

I’m sorry, I’ll never speak ill of you again, Trader.  Stop and Shop gives me freaking vertigo.

One of the things that makes TJs unique and inspires cult-like devotion among my ilk is that it simplifies the shopping experience by limiting the number of items to just the really good ones.  I mean really good.  Its stores carry 4,000 different products, compared to typical grocery stores’ 50,000, and those 4,000 products are the best in their category.  In “Inside the Secret World of Trader Joe’s” Fortune’s Beth Cowitt explains the advantage to filtered selection:

Take peanut butter. Trader Joe’s sells 10 varieties. That might sound like a lot, but most supermarkets sell about 40 SKUs. For simplicity’s sake, say both a typical supermarket and a Trader Joe’s sell 40 jars a week. Trader Joe’s would sell an average of four of each type, while the supermarket might sell only one. With the greater turnover on a smaller number of items, Trader Joe’s can buy large quantities and secure deep discounts. And it makes the whole business — from stocking shelves to checking out customers — much simpler.

There are two kinds of honey (basic and fancy).  There is one brand each of olive oil and tomato sauce, and each has just a couple versions.  There’s half a small shelf of cereals where you can pick up a ginormous box of Joe’s O’s for TWO DOLLARS.  They carry produce when it’s in season and there is one kind each of any type of frozen vegetable you’ll really ever need.

Here is what a typical TJs looks like inside:

And here is a typical supergrocer:

You know why this works? Because Americans say we want choice, but really we want good, easy choices.  It is cognitively draining to sort through dozens and dozens of brands of toothpaste that pretty much do the same thing, and then to go through the same ritual for crackers, cereal, bread, and frozen dinners.

Research shows that the energy required to make these kinds of decisions takes up so much of our mental capacity that we start to shut down with each new choice.  Our willpower also deteriorates so we’re more likely to go for the impulse purchase at checkout, the extra box of cookies, or the more expensive but familiar name-brand bag of bread. So by the time you’re wrapping up your shopping trip, you’ve spent more on stuff you don’t need and are exhausted. And you’re probably going to break into that box of cookies as soon as you shut the car door.

But when we see a beautiful produce section and twenty-five aisles of I don’t even know what in a huge box supergrocer, we think, “This is a great place to shop.  I will have it all.”

Hence, the paradox of choice (click that for a fan-tastic TED talk on the subject).

Our awesomely enormous grocery stores even convinced Boris Yeltsin to abandon central planning:

Supermarkets are a daily testimonial to the transformative power of capitalism… In his autobiography, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin described his first visit to a Houston supermarket this way: “When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons and goods of every possible sort, I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people.”

Okay, Boris.  You should feel sick with despair for the Soviet people, but not because you finally got to choose between eighteen types of Oreos.

The other vertigo-inducing aspect of supergrocers is the incessant brand assault.  I felt like I was being speared by thousands of tiny arrows thrown by Man Men-esque advertising execs.  And I’m an adult! Imagine if I was a child! Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, where you AT?!

Whoops, reigning in my Cantabrigian tendencies.

Anyway, almost everything is Trader Joe’s label, which means there’s no cloying brand assault every time you stop in to buy some damn milk and almost everything is cheaper.  That’s because once TJs chooses which item it’s going to offer in a particular category, it makes a deal with its manufacturer that goes like this:

Make me, TJs, lots and lots and lots of your product, let me use a label I designed, let me call it my own, never ever change your recipe or compromise your quality, and I’ll pay you on time, every time and guarantee you a crapload of business.

And you can’t tell anyone ever.  

Yeah! Crazy right! A lot of that private label TJs food is actually stuff you’d find in a regular grocery store but with a different label in a different container for much less money. What!

But wait, there’s more.

Trader Joe’s makes more money per square foot than any other kind of grocer (it made $8b in revenue in 2010) so it can afford to pay its employees well.  Like, between $40 and $60k a year.  To be a full-time cashier.  So employees are quite happy to help you out. Fortune, again:

All of that can lead to a better customer experience. A ringing bell instead of an intercom signals that more help is needed at the registers. Registers don’t have conveyor belts or scales, and perishables are sold by unit instead of weight, speeding up checkout. Crew members aren’t told the margins on products, so placement decisions are made based not on profits but on what’s best for the shopper. Every employee works all aspects of the store, and if you ask where the roasted chestnuts are he’ll walk you over instead of just saying “aisle five.” Want to know what they taste like? He can probably tell you, and he might even open the bag on the spot for you to try.

As I wondered through the 12-foot tall aisles jammed with 40 different varieties of Rice-a-Roni, blinking my eyes in the epilepsy-inducing brightness of Stop & Shop, I said a little thank you to Joe Coulombe, the original TJ, and looked forward to the jam-packed lines tomorrow, Sunday, at 5pm.

And tomorrow’s even the Super Bowl…


One thought on “Confirmed: I’ve drunk the Trader Joe’s Kool-Aid and I’m OK with That

  1. You are sooooo spoiled where you live lady! Now you know what we have to put up with for we shop at Stop & Shop. Skippy Supah Chunk? Aisle 5.

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