The Modern Cult of Trader Joe’s

As kids, we all assume that our experiences are universal, with every child having the same background and understanding of our habits. Normally a slow progression through time highlights how untrue that statement is, but in some cases, a major shift will force the youth to reevaluate how they see the world.

I moved across the country when I was 8, from sunny Los Angeles to some weird place called New Jersey. While there were many changes to my day to day life and experiences of being plopped down in typical North-East Suburbia one of the greatest changes was the shopping. Living in LA, we almost exclusively shopped at places Trader Joe’s and different farmer’s markets that had a very natural/wholistic vibe, New Jersey did not have too many of those. But soon after we moved, a Trader Joe’s opened up near us and people went nuts. I remember sitting around our dinner table and wondering why it was such a big deal that Trader Joe’s was opening up by us, isn’t that where people normally shop? Little did I know how deep the iceberg went.

As I got older I became more aware of Trader Joe’s uniqueness with its low shelves and healthy items (and Peanut Butter Puffins aka the best cereal in the known universe, fight me), but I always chalked it all up to the fact that it was a quirky health store that had cool drawings. It wasn’t until the summer of 2019 I truly realized the grip Trader Joe’s had on its consumer base and how I had been groomed to be a devoted acolyte of the Trader Joe’s Cult.

It all began with a road trip to Tronto with my family and since one of the easiest ways to incite a civil war within the Burg clan is to simply begin deliberation over musical preferences, my mother made the decision to only play podcasts throughout the minivan. Surprisingly this was a compromise that we could all enjoy and we began to learn all the ins and outs of Bobbi Brown Cosmetics, Angie’s Popcorn, and the likes. This led us to stumble upon a Freakanomics podcast on Trader Joe’s and before we could even press play we were hooked. As a life long Trader Joe’s Family, we couldn’t wait to know more about our favorite brand as we did not know much of the company beyond its cold brews and bakery. What greeted us was an interesting observation into a company that defied all conventional ideas of a successful buiseness because within the first five minutes of this deep dive there was a simple ground rule for all Trader Joe’s that seems to defy its cult-like following. Trader Joe’s does not advertise, anywhere.

After hearing this we were all perplexed and the longer my family and I lingered on this we realized that we had never seen a Trader Joe’s billboard, a newspaper ad, or even a coupon for the establishment. As the podcast progressed, the main story was motivated by Mark Gardiner, the closest anyone could probably get to an official interview from the company since they do not do official press. Mark is an author who worked at Trader Joe’s to learn more about the secretive company (and wrote a book on the subject) and he spilled all the details that make sense for the loyal following. First off, Trader Joe’s may not be as special as we thought since they will take many products and repackage them with the typical Trader Joe’s flair and rename it to sound healthier. Secondly, they want to make you feel like you’re in a mom and pop shop by hiring friendly staff who you’ll constantly run into and ask for recommendations. Finally, they constantly keep a rotation of unique items and even some popular items that would never be discontinued may be gone from your Trader Joe’s within a month or so. This creates a certain urgency and almost a gambling mentality for customers, are you really only going to buy three boxes of shrimp couscuc that your family loves and risk it being gone when you come back, or should you buy out the entire section just to be safe?

These psychological applications that would be frowned on by most businesses coupled with the stylings of Jimmy Buffet have somehow created a perfect storm of success. And I fall victim to its clutches regularly, this was even tested on me by a friend who was working for a snack food startup and wanted to get some input on packaging design. We were given two options, the first was a typical earthy no-frills packaging and the second was a baby blue with a 1920’s carnival flair. We all picked the second one, and I said to my friend that I picked the second one simply because it reminded me of Trader Joe’s and nothing else. When he told me that it was their Trader Joe’s packaging I shrugged and said that makes sense and continued to munch like a zombie.

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