What makes Trader Joe’s, Trader Joe’s?
Joe Coulombe, who passed away Friday at the age of 89, retired long before the chain he founded in 1967, Trader Joe’s, expanded nationally, but he hatched many of the ideas behind its success.
An initial innovation was the chain’s aspirational, yet affordable, positioning. Reading about the rise of college graduates, Mr. Coulombe believed younger adults would seek out quality food and be more adventurous in their diets than prior generations. Anticipating the Boeing 747’s arrival in 1969, he saw more overseas travel driving interest in exotic foods. He also found research showing educated individuals drank more.
But Mr. Coulombe also knew many of his target consumers would be on budgets, often describing them as “the overeducated and the underpaid.”
“What that originally meant was, everyone from underpaid musicians to out-of-work PhDs could come to Trader Joe’s and find elements of the lifestyle they aspired to for not too much money,” he told Supermarket News in 2010.
Affordability became a bigger selling point after Trader Joe’s first private label, a granola, launched in 1972.
Trader Joe’s was also often out front on trends, including California wines and better-for-you items, and known for its eclectic selections. The chain early on earned a reputation for stocking certain items for only a short time.
The nautical theme also added character as “captains” and “crew members” worked the floor. The first Hawaiian shirt was worn in 1969, the maritime bell in-store communication system arrived in 1975 and the first plastic lobster used as decoration came in 1976. Quirky names and descriptions on private labels, as well as the Fearless Flyer newsletter — which Mr. Coulombe described as “a marriage of Consumer Reports and Mad magazine” — were also designed to appeal to those aspirational customers.
Finally, TJ’s built a friendly, devoted staff with higher-than-average pay and full benefits.
Mr. Coulombe sold Trader Joe’s to Aldi Nord in 1979 and retired as CEO in 1988 when the chain had only 19 locations. Dan Bane, the chain’s CEO since 2001, said in a statement, “Joe was the perfect person at the right time for Trader Joe’s. He was a brilliant thinker with a mesmerizing personality that simply galvanized all with whom he worked.”
- Our Story – Trader Joe’s
- Joe Coulombe, founder of Trader Joe’s, dies at 89 – Los Angeles Times
- Trader Joe’s Founder Brought Exotic Foods to U.S. Shoppers – The Wall Street Journal
- Joe Coulombe, Founder And Namesake Of Trader Joe’s, Dies At 89 – NPR
- Joe Coulombe, Who Founded Trader Joe’s, Dies at 89 – The New York Times
- Joe Coulombe, founder of popular Trader Joe’s grocery stores, dies at 89 – Masslive.com
- Trader Joe’s founder Joe Coulombe dies at age 89 – CNN
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What are the biggest innovations that Joe Coulombe and Trader Joe’s brought to the grocery marketplace? What roles do the chain’s product value proposition and in-store shopping environment play in consumer perceptions of the brand?