How you can stumble into business success like Trader Joe’s

Mark Schaefer
6 min readJan 31, 2022

Trader Joe’s is an iconic American business. It’s cult-like. I know people who will drive far out of their way to visit these stores. They are so popular they are nearly on the level of a local tourist attraction!

Here is a typical comment from my friend Sunshine Woodyard:

I’m obsessed with Trader Joe’s, I picked where to buy a house based on proximity to one.

I need to back up here and mention that Trader Joe’s is a grocery store. Research consistently shows that people hate going to grocery stores. It’s ranked right above going to the dentist. So this is a truly legendary brand.

I was doing research to figure out how Trader Joe’s achieved this rare status. How did they completely break the mold and make people feel like they belong to a grocery store?

So I read the founder’s autobiography Becoming Trader Joe to figure this out. What was the grand vision and strategy that created this historic level of success and customer intimacy?

I found the answer. And oh my, was I disappointed.

But there’s a good lesson ahead …

The icon, the disappointment

Trader Joe’s is a grocery chain that breaks almost every traditional retail convention. It’s hard to describe, so I asked some of my Facebook friends what they liked about it:

  • Vast quick-cook ethnic options. There are entire Pinterest pages and blogs devoted to monthly finds, weekly meal planning using TJ ingredients and more! (Shannah Hayley)
  • The size of their store is small enough that I don’t get lost and quickly finding the dozen products that I just can’t live without (Heather Heumann)
  • Makes me feel like I can cook and hostess like a superstar (Catherine Mangan)
  • They get great deals and pass the savings to customers. (Phil Mershon)
  • Seems like every employee loves their job. If you ask where an item is, they’ll take you right over to it even if it’s across the store. They’ll also offer you ideas for new recipes (Tim Washer)
  • I love TJ’s because of the selection of fun and interesting products you won’t find…

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Mark Schaefer

Keynote speaker, marketing strategy consultant, Rutgers U faculty and author of 10 books including KNOWN, Marketing Rebellion, and Belonging to the Brand!