Do You Know Who Owns Trader Joe’s?

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.”


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  1. Noah says:

    But what about Trader JOHN’s?

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  2. J.V. says:

    Oh my. Mr Dubner, have you never met anyone from a city with a Central Market? ( Could you add a category #4? “People who go to Trader Joe’s and think, Who buys this low-quality junk?” Central Market has more brands of chocolate than Trader Joe’s has items. And don’t even get me started about Spec’s (

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  3. Rob says:

    Our nearest Trader Joe’s is about 7 miles away, while our nearest Aldi is about a mile and a half away. Yet I wouldn’t so much as touch Aldi with a stick.

    I mean, maybe if I wanted the $59 27″ TV with my off-brand doesn’t-taste-like-chocolate chocolate, I would go to Aldi. If I had a quarter to spare to get my grocery cart out of the pile, I would go to Aldi. If I had a sudden need to hoist my TV onto a giant stack of floor mats, I would go to Aldi.

    Thus, I come to the question… what was someone in Germany smoking when Aldi decided to buy out Trader Joe’s?

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    • Inga O says:

      Aldi didn’t “buy out” Trader Joe’s they created it.

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      • Tabitha says:

        Aldi didn’t create Trader Joe’s. It was originally opened by a man named Joe in California. At some point Theo Albrecht, who is associated with Aldi, became the owner of Trader Joes.

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  4. jblog says:

    Trader Joe’s is kind of the Old Navy of food.

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  5. DK1 says:

    Count me in category #3. I don’t care if they’re owned by Bernie Madoff, I just need a Trader Joe’s closer to my house! I feel environmentally guilty by driving 20 miles just to go grocery shopping, but I’m addicted.

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  6. Vince Offer says:

    You know the Germans always make good stuff.

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  7. Caliphilosopher says:

    #6 – Is that a Sham-Wow joke? If so, that’s hilarious. :-)

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  8. Tyler says:

    The story about Aldi is interesting in itself. They are in fact in Germany two different and independent corporate entities, Aldi south and Aldi north, which were founded by two brothers. Karl Albrecht und Theo Albrecht (Aldi = Albrecht Discount) are now in their eighties and the two richest germans.

    There is no photographs and very few other facts available about them. Mirroring this, the financials of the two companies can only be guessed (around 20 Billion Euros for each) as they are completely in private ownership and dont release figures.

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    • and93 says:

      Only Karl Albrecht is still alive.

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    • EllenK says:

      My son worked for Aldi’s for awhile. They compensate their employees even at the starting levels VERY WELL. Plus they provide ample benefits. If you shop carefully much of the merchandise comes from mainline products. Aldi’s yogurt is Dannon. The candy and cookies are very similar to those produced by the big name brand suppliers. I don’t care for their cleaning products or personal care items. I do know that much of the candy from Germany that is carried in Trader Joe’s is also available at Aldi’s. There’s nothing wrong with trying to save a buck in this economy. Frankly, I prefer Central Market if I’m going to blow my entire budget on high end groceries.

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