In 1958, Joe Coulombe took over a small chain of convenience stores around the LA area. These were called Pronto Markets. The whole idea was fast. Pronto – quick, right? And they were convenience stores, before we really even know what convenience stores were. The kind of place where you could get anything from, say, a pack of gum to some pantyhose.
After 10 years of running Pronto Markets, the convenience store formula just didn’t continue to make sense. So, Joe, the classic entrepreneur, took note that the demographics were changing in the United States because of the G.I. Bill of Rights, a large experiment in mass higher education, and identified an opportunity to deliver… something different.
The first Trader Joe’s store opened in 1967 in Pasadena, California. (That store is still there. It’s still operating. It still has the same parking lot.) The store had a nautical theme and it was run by people who were described as “traders on the high seas.” At the time, Joe had been reading a book called “White Shadows in the South Seas,” and he’d been to the Disneyland Jungle Trip ride, and it all just…coalesced. To this day, Trader Joe’s Crew Members consider themselves “traders on the culinary seas” and are known for their bright, tropical-patterned shirts and for generally being nice, helpful, and well informed.
And then in 1972, Joe introduced a total game changer for Trader Joe’s… Granola. Not just any granola, though. This was the first private label Trader Joe’s product. After granola, we never looked back.
Focusing on private label (products with “Trader Joe’s” name on them) simplified a lot of things, and removed a lot of costs – no more slotting fees, marketing fees, middlemen fees… We passed along those savings to our customers (still do), because the value of Value is invaluable. And to us, “Value” means offering the best quality products for the best, everyday prices.
We understood then, as we do today, that maintaining our everyday focus on Value is vital, which is why we don’t have sales, loyalty programs, membership fees, or any other gimmicks. Instead, here is what we do:
- We buy direct from suppliers whenever possible, we bargain hard to get the best price, and then pass the savings on to you.
- If an item doesn’t pull its weight in our stores, it goes away to gangway for something else.
- We buy in volume and contract early to get the best prices.
- Most grocers charge their suppliers fees for putting an item on the shelf. This results in higher prices… so we don’t do it.
- We keep our costs low—because every penny we save is a penny you save.
So, where were we…?
In 1988, when Joe retired, Trader Joe’s had 19 stores. John Shields took over as CEO, and saw the opportunity to transfer this grocery store concept across geographical boundaries, starting with entry into Northern California. Then came Arizona, followed by the Pacific Northwest, and… by 1996 we had opened our doors on the East Coast. John understood that de-centralized and aligned decision-making would help to facilitate our growth. Nearly a decade later, there were 150 Trader Joe’s stores across the country.
In 2001, Dan Bane assumed the role of Chairman and CEO and focused on making us a national chain of neighborhood grocery stores. Today, we have over 500 stores in 42 states and the District of Columbia, and counting…
Okay, we skipped over a few milestones, but you can catch them in the Trader Joe’s Timeline. It’s a trip.