Seems like old hat for most of us, but Fortune's NY-centric editors have finally discovered the unconventional grocery chain (the newest TJ's is in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood). As usual, Monrovia-based Trader Joe's would not cooperate for the piece, which relies on an assortment of non-company sources. Much of the secrecy comes from the chain's owner, Germany's ultra-private Albrecht family. But there may be more at play:
Trader Joe's business tactics are often very much at odds with its image as the funky shop around the corner that sources its wares from local farms and food artisans. Sometimes it does, but big, well-known companies also make many of Trader Joe's products. Those Trader Joe's pita chips? Made by Stacy's, a division of PepsiCo's Frito-Lay. On the East Coast much of its yogurt is supplied by Danone's Stonyfield Farm. And finicky foodies probably don't like to think about how Trader Joe's scale enables the chain to sell a pound of organic lemons for $2.
A closer look at its selection of items underscores the brilliance of Coulombe's limited-selection, high-turnover model. Take peanut butter. Trader Joe's sells 10 varieties. That might sound like a lot, but most supermarkets sell about 40. For simplicity's sake, say both a typical supermarket and a Trader Joe's sell 40 jars a week. Trader Joe's would sell an average of four of each type, while the supermarket might sell only one. With the greater turnover on a smaller number of items, Trader Joe's can buy large quantities and secure deep discounts. And it makes the whole business -- from stocking shelves to checking out customers -- much simpler.
Customers accept that Trader Joe's has only two kinds of pudding or one kind of polenta because they trust that those few items will be very good. "If they're going to get behind only one jar of Greek olives, then they're sure as heck going to make sure it's the most fabulous jar of Greek olives they can find for the price," explains one former employee. To ferret out those wow items, Trader Joe's has four top buyers, called product developers, do some serious globetrotting. A former senior executive told me that Trader Joe's biggest R&D expense is travel for those product-finding missions. Trade shows that feature the flavor of the moment "are for rookies," a former buyer said. Trader Joe's doesn't pick up on trends -- it sets them.