Freakonomics Radio

Should America Be Run by… Trader Joe’s?

The quirky little grocery chain with California roots and German ownership has a lot to teach all of us about choice architecture, efficiency, frugality, collaboration, and team spirit

Stephen J. Dubner/ Freakonomics Radio
GEN
Published in
9 min readAug 26, 2019

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Trader Joe’s on New York City’s 14th Street.
Trader Joe’s on New York City’s 14th Street. Photo: Michael Nagle/Getty

Imagine a chain of grocery stores with no branded items, no television advertising or social media strategy, no coupons, no loyalty program, narrow aisles, small parking lots, and dramatically less selection than the typical grocery store. Does this sound like a company destined for success?

Not only does such a grocery store chain exist, but they’re crushing the competition. Customers love this place; it’s also ranked among the 100 best American companies to work for. What’s this grocery store chain called? Trader Joe’s.

How do they do it? This is not an easy question to answer because Trader Joe’s is a fairly secretive company. So, we put on our Freakonomics goggles in an attempt to reverse engineer the secrets of Trader Joe’s. Which, it turned out, are incredibly freakonomical. In fact, if Freakonomics were a grocery store, it might be a Trader Joe’s, or at least try to be. So here’s the big question: if Trader Joe’s is really so good, should their philosophy be applied elsewhere? Should Trader Joe’s be running… America?

Trader Joe’s is notoriously press-shy. It’s also a privately held company, so: no earnings calls with investment analysts; no public proclamations of any sort, really, about how it does business. A number of people, however, have spent a lot of time thinking about Trader Joe’s, including a former advertising executive named Mark Gardiner who became obsessed with the chain and went to work at a local store. He learned enough about the company by working there that he wrote a book called Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s.

What Gardiner learned is that just about everything Trader Joe’s does, outside of exchanging food for money, is unorthodox for a modern grocery store. Let’s start with one of the first things people notice about the stores: the employees. Yes, they are friendly, and helpful, and enthusiastic. But there’s also a lot of them! If you go in during a slow time, you can…

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Stephen J. Dubner/ Freakonomics Radio
GEN
Writer for

Stephen J. Dubner is co-author of the Freakonomics books and host of Freakonomics Radio.