Do you shop at Trader Joe’s?
From what I have seen, the world is divided into three sets of people.
1. Those who have never been to a Trader Joe’s, and perhaps have never heard of it.
2. Those who love Trader Joe’s more than they love their own families.
3. Those who love Trader Joe’s more than they love their own families and are incensed that there isn’t one nearby.
So, let me ask those of you who fall into categories 2 and 3: Who owns Trader Joe’s?
1. Some great California family full of surfers and gardeners.
2. A small band of communal farmers in Oregon.
3. A huge German discount-grocery chain best known in the U.S. for no-glamor stores often located in marginal neighborhoods.
Yeah, it’s No. 3. The company is called Aldi and, though I’d seen one or two of its stores in the past, I didn’t even know it was a grocery store. Then I read this very interesting Wall Street Journal piece about the company’s ambitious new plan for the U.S., which calls for 75 new stores this year. The article claims that Aldi is so good at selling cheap goods that WalMart couldn’t compete with it in Germany. How do they do it? Here’s one way:
Store-brand goods generally make up 22 percent of U.S. food sales in terms of unit volume, according to research by Nielsen Co., while in some European markets, they account for about 30 percent. At Aldi, 95 percent of the goods are the retailer’s own brands.
They are, in other words, not the obvious owner of a chain like Trader Joe’s — which, although it tries to be ruthlessly cheap, also has a very high style quotient and neighborhood grocery store vibe.
I thought of all this when I ran into a friend who used to work at a Trader Joe’s. I asked her if she knew who owned the chain. She said no, then thought about it, and suddenly remembered: “Oh yeah, some Germans!”
She knew this only because some Aldi executives came to look at her store a few times, and as she recalls it, her management asked all the employees to not speak to the Aldi executives. It was unclear why this was necessary.
Then she remembered something else: “The carts we used to wheel boxes up and down the aisles, we called them U-boats, because they were shaped like a U. We were told to definitely not call them U-boats whenever the Germans were visiting.”