trader joe’s

Posted: October 2, 2011 in Observations and Commentary
Tags: , , , ,

I first heard about Trader Joe’s 5 or 6 years ago. A store opened a solid 45 minutes north of me and was an instant success. I never bothered with it. Whenever one of the converted discovered I had never been a look of astonishment crossed their face. “You gotta go, dude! It’s amazing!” The accolades were never-ending and I thought, “All this for a food store? A food store??”

If praise is constant and consistent a moment comes when you begin to feel as if you’re missing something, even if it’s only a food store. One day I decided to suck it up and take the drive to see what all the fuss was about. I have to tell you, if first impressions make the biggest impact, I would’ve never stepped foot in another Trader Joe’s. The store was small – almost unbelievably small – and more crowded than a prom queen’s dance card. Navigating up and down the narrow aisles required a level of patience I left on my bedroom dresser that morning. I grabbed a few items and made a quick exit, wholly unimpressed.

When I shared my less-than-astonished experience with committed Trader Joeys these crazed believers simply laughed, the kind of dismissive laugh one gives a mouthy teenager who obviously has a lot to learn. It was also in their eyes: You silly, silly man. You may not know it now, but someday you will understand. Oh yes, you will understand. I dismissed their dismissal with the compassionate realization they had no idea they were drinking heavily spiked Kool Aid. I wished them a speedy recovery and didn’t give the Trader Joe’s another thought.

A couple of years ago they announced an expansion in New Jersey, specifically to a location near me. For months leading up to the grand opening people were jazzed, remarking how this was the greatest thing to happen to the shopping experience since Sears mailed its first catalog. Admittedly cool and appealing newsletters began filling the mailbox, adding to the frenzy. Scanning these homey publications I reluctantly felt twinges of excitement. It’s amazing what savvy marketing can do a person, even when they realize it’s savvy marketing. By the time the store opened I had swung from my extreme “never again” position to a more moderate “everyone deserves a second chance.” I was actually looking forward to going so I could hear what they had to say for themselves.

The big day came and I stayed away. When you live in a very crowded place for any amount of time you quickly learn never to go to a new, hugely hyped store until it’s had an opportunity to settle in and some of the new sheen has worn off for the nosy general public. Just like those who buy the newest gadgets the day they come out, there are people who must experience the newest shopping rage immediately. I’m not among them. I could hold onto my excitement until the early birds drank their fill. I waited a few months.

Finally my turn rolled around. It was time to give Trader Joe’s another try. Figuring smaller crowds I chose a weekday evening. I scooted down Route 1 (if you define “scooted” as driving slow because the road is clogged with more cars than its engineers ever envisioned possible). Upon arrival I was surprised how full the parking lot was.

I was struck by several things during that new “first” visit, not the least of which was the friendly, chatty nature of everyone working there. The store, although not big, did not seem as suffocating as the other one. Everywhere chalk boards hung trumpeting specials or eclectic products. (I’ve since learned the “chalkboards” are actually mass produced signs which look like chalkboards, but aren’t. No matter. I got suckered right in.) The variety of food was unusual and interesting. Except for a half-aisle which offered health and beauty products, they only sold food. I hadn’t noticed that the real first time. No paper products, no kitchen utensils, no Hallmark cards. The overall sense was that everything was good for both you and the environment. Granted, it wasn’t explicitly promoted that way, but that’s how it came across. I left knowing I’d be back. And yes it was crowded, especially for a weekday night.

Of course you know the rest of the tale. Trader Joe’s is now a primary food shopping destination. About a year after opening they added their famous inexpensive wine section to the store. That pretty much sealed it. (How they managed to cram it in still baffles me.)

My initial notion to stay away on the weekends was spot on. Unless you show up before 10:00 on a Saturday or Sunday expect to enter a whirlwind of elbow-to-elbow apostles picking the shelves clean. Foolishly, today I ignored my own advice and arrived around 3:00. When I noticed a woman with the dazed expression of someone dropped unexpectedly into a foreign country, I simply smiled. It’s probably how I looked all those years ago. I knew this wouldn’t be the day, but her moment of illumination sits on the horizon as surely as the rising sun.

  1. […] trader joe’s […]


  2. sparklebumps says:

    For some reason, in MN there is the same fascination with ALDI. I don’t get it.


  3. A friend who moved north a few years ago raves about their coffee. No Trader Joe’s anywhere near me, though that is probably a good thing. I’d be too tempted to overspend. Lovely post, as always, and lovely photographs.


  4. John says:

    I thought the drive-thru liquor stores in Oklahoma were something else, but the PD, DMV and liquor store in the same building tops that.


  5. H.E. ELLIS says:

    I live in New Hampshire and everyone here wants a Trader Joe’s but they won’t come because New Hampshire has strange rules about where you can sell alcohol. So if they came, they couldn’t bring in the wine.

    For instance, if you want to buy liquor in NH you have to go to a NH State Liquor store, sort of like going to the DMV. One city here has their PD, DMV, and liquor store in the same building. Talk about one stop shopping.


Whatcha got to say?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s