As anyone who’s ever visited a Trader Joe’s store will know, unconventional is the name of the game at the chain. Indeed, there’s lots that sets the brand apart from its rival supermarkets, from the quirky delicacies on offer – such as its famous cookie butter – to the Hawaiian shirts that the employees wear. But there’s also plenty you probably don’t know about the self-proclaimed “neighborhood grocery store” – like the reason for its nautical theme, for instance, or the meaning behind its mysterious golden bells.
20. There’s a reason you can’t buy bananas by the pound
Trader Joe’s didn’t always sell individual bananas. In fact, once upon a time, it just bundled four or five of the potassium-packed fruit into one batch. One day, however, CEO Dan Bane spotted an elderly woman looking over the bananas but not buying. And when Bane asked why that was, the woman apparently responded, “Sonny, I may not live to that fourth banana.” The chain has sold the fruit individually ever since.
19. Trader Joe’s does accept coupons
Because Trader Joe’s has a reputation for already being relatively affordable, there’s also a common misconception that it doesn’t accept any coupons. However, that’s not actually true – you can use manufacturer’s coupons there, just as with any other chain. The only difference is that Trader Joe’s doesn’t have its own store-specific coupons.
18. The chain’s ideal customer is an “unemployed Ph.D.”
Or, at least, that was reportedly the belief of Trader Joe’s founder, Joseph Coulombe. Yes, there really is a Joe behind Trader Joe’s; he was an American entrepreneur born in 1930, who started the brand in 1967 after nearly a decade running a small group of convenience stores. Coulombe eventually retired in 1988.
17. Over 80 percent of products are store brand
There’s a very specific reason Trader Joe’s has that reputation for being so inexpensive. That’s because the majority of its products are private-label ones, meaning they’re produced by a third party but still licensed as store-brand goods. Eschewing big-name brands like this keeps prices competitive, and so the chain can pass on those savings to its customers.
16. There’s a story behind the chain’s nautical theme
Have you ever wondered about Trader Joe’s maritime vibe, from the staff’s seafaring terminology – “crew members” and “captains” – to the Hawaiian shirts? Well, back when Joe Coulombe launched the brand in 1967, he’d recently been on Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise; he also happened to be reading a book set in the South Pacific at the time. The nautical theme came naturally to him, then.
15. Panel members taste-test everything
If you can buy it at Trader Joe’s, then one of its members has – at some point – taste-tested it. Indeed, even the pet food has been taste-tested – albeit by animals rather than humans. Theoretically, then, only the best stuff ends up on the shelves.
14. You can sample almost anything
If you’re of the opinion that there’s no accounting for taste, however, you can always try things for yourself. Yes, almost anything at Trader Joe’s is available to sample if you ask nicely, including fruits, cheese and wine. There are exceptions, though – such as frozen food, anything you have to cook or prepare and stronger liquors.
13. Mandarin orange chicken is its most popular item
Back in January 2018, Trader Joe’s ran a poll asking its shoppers to choose their favorite items. Taking home the top prize in particular categories were spiced cider (favorite beverage), organic ketchup (favorite condiment) and bananas (favorite produce). But the brand’s easy-to-make frozen mandarin orange chicken won the honor of favorite overall product, suggesting that its customers have a particular penchant for Chinese food.
12. It regularly discontinues products to keep things fresh
We’re not talking about literally keeping groceries fresh, of course, but more in the sense that Trader Joe’s is all about variety. With so many new products hitting shelves regularly, older goods – those that are poorer sellers, for instance – are forced to make way. So, try not to get too attached to a particular product. After all, you never know when it’s going to disappear forever.
11. It has a liberal return policy
Have you ever decided that you don’t actually like that bag of chips you just opened? No worries – just take it back to Trader Joe’s, and the chain will give you a full refund. You can still get some money back in the form of store credit even if you don’t have a receipt; as most Trader Joe’s items are own brand, it’s therefore obvious where you bought them.
10. It has ringing bells instead of an intercom
Walk into any Trader Joe’s, and you’ll notice a series of golden bells around the cash registers. In its quaint, nautical way, that’s the store’s intercom system. In fact, there’s even a code for crew members to use. A single ring means another register needs opening; a second ring signals that a customer has a query; and a third hails a manager.
9. It has high customer satisfaction
Trader Joe’s comes highly acclaimed by many of its patrons. Indeed, the American Customer Satisfaction Index’s 2017 retail report placed Trader Joe’s second in its list of supermarkets – just one point behind leader Publix. The survey considers factors including how cooperative staff are, how easy the store is to find and how often it offers discounts and promotions.
8. You can request a store for your city
If you’re reading all this wondering why there isn’t a Trader Joe’s near you, don’t worry: simply head to the chain’s website, where there’s a specific form you can fill in to request one in your city. Of course, there’s no guarantee that the chain will actually open one, but it does say that “being wanted matters to us.”
7. Staff hide stuffed animals for kids to find
Grocery shopping with kids can be a pain – they may quickly grow bored and restless, after all. But Trader Joe’s has an ingenious solution: at many stores, the staff hide a stuffed animal for little ones to find. If the children do discover the item, they’re given a lollipop as a reward and also get to hide the toy again.
6. You can request products to be ordered in at some stores
If you’re heading to Trader Joe’s for something specific that you’ve found there before, you don’t have to worry about leaving disappointed – in the long term, anyway. That’s because at some stores, staff will happily accept any requests for products to be ordered in if they haven’t been discontinued. And the best part? You can order as much or as little as you like – there’s no need to buy in bulk.
5. The former CEO interviewed store managers personally
From 1989 to 2001, John V. Shields Jr. held the title of CEO of Trader Joe’s, taking over from the brand’s founder and ultimately rapidly expanding the chain’s national footprint. And according to The New York Times, for the first few years, Shields made sure to personally interview candidates for store manager positions. If you didn’t smile within 30 seconds of meeting the chief executive, however, you were instantly struck off the list.
4. Trader Joe’s has artists for almost all its signs
Yes, nearly every sign you’ll see while perusing the aisles of Trader Joe’s is made by hand. Those creating them are directed to keep things simple but also in tune with the local area. And, according to one of the chain’s artists, each sign has three key elements: the product’s name, the cost and a quirky fact or serving suggestion.
3. It spends more on products than packaging
Occasionally, you may notice that multiples of the same item don’t all look exactly the same on the shelf. There may be slight color discrepancies in the packaging, for instance, or cans may not stack properly. But there’s a reason: Trader Joe’s commits more of its budget towards the product inside, rather than the packaging – and this in turn may earn the brand a discount from the manufacturers.
2. It’s not afraid to play around with its brand name
While some brands can be super-protective over their names, Trader Joe’s is happy to have some fun with it – at least when it comes to its products. The chain’s Mexican food, for instance, is branded “Trader Jose’s,” while its French food is labeled “Trader Jacques’.” Next time you head down to the store, then, keep an eye out for all the different takes on the Trader Joe’s name.
1. It treats its employees well
Many people who work in retail will tell you that it isn’t exactly the greatest job in the world. But Trader Joe’s is the exception to the rule – at least, according to one of its employees. In 2017 one former worker told HealthyWay that the pay is great and regularly increases in line with reviews, while there’s also plenty of opportunity for promotions.