Joe Cool

Why isn't the popular grocery store Trader Joe's on social media?
TODAY'S consumerism is riddled with elaborate and often meaningless choices: Which brand of pasta should you buy? Would that be best with Ragu, Amy’s Organic, or Muir Glen marinara sauce? Should that be accompanied by Kraft or DiGiorno preshredded parmesan? Who cares.

As psychologist Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less argues, too much consumer choice can be demotivating rather than empowering or exciting — the direct opposite of what the core values of mainstream American consumerism would lead you to expect. Choice, Schwartz explains, “enables us to control our destinies and to come close to getting exactly what we want out of any situation. Choice is essential to autonomy, which is absolutely fundamental to well-being.” But the “fact that some choice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that more choice is better.” More choice comes with a cost: a haunting fear that we will choose wrong. Clinging to all the choices means we never seem to make any. Anxiety never gives way to clarity. Is this what it means to live your best life? Oprah would never agree with that.

Citing a series of studies into optional paralysis, Schwartz writes that having many options may discourage consumers because it “forces an increase in the effort that goes into making a decision. So consumers decide not to decide, and don’t buy the product. Or if they do, the effort that the decision requires detracts from the enjoyment derived from the results.”

If choice is demotivating, can its absence encourage more consumption? Would a uniform generic option be a source of liberation, as the theoretical premises of normcore would have it? If we have less choice, do we, paradoxically enough, experience more flexibility? In learning to more easily adapt to where we’re at and who we’re with rather than forever searching for short-lived ways to be “unique,” may we actually experience something closer to a better life?

Trader Joe’s is on board with going generic. It doesn’t want to burden you with unnecessary choices between redundant products battling noisily for your attention; it instead offers a curated selection of mainly store-brand versions of everything a health-conscious consumer might need, from organic brown-rice-and-quinoa fusilli pasta to organic garden lasagna, that promise to be consistently good enough, if not especially outstanding.

Unlike with other American big-box grocery stores (and Trader Joe’s parent company, the German supermarket chain Aldi), where store brands tend to connote “no frills” cheapness and inferiority, Trader Joe’s generic goods have succeeded in conveying quality, familiarity, and originality all through the brand itself. Rather than ask the consumer to choose among different brands, the Trader Joe’s consumer just has to pick which products they like most. This strategy appears to work. In a recent survey, TJ’s customers were the most satisfied of any grocery stores, despite the crowds of harried customers, crowded parking lots, and long checkout lines one often encounters there.

But the lines and packed lots themselves can be reassuring, that you have come to the right place, that you are adapting to what “everyone else” is doing. It seems like the only option, just like its limited product choices. Trader Joe’s overall in-store aesthetic tries to consolidate these genteel inconveniences into a nostalgic evocation of old-time neighborhood mom ‘n pop stores: the mini-coffee bar with its free samples, the pseudo-cultured feel provided by the “ethnic” and very not-PC types of not-white Joe’s on store-brand packaging, like Trader Giotto (Italian foods) and Trader Ming (Chinese food) and Trader Jose’s (Mexican-ish) — note there is no African-American Joe. Everything at TJ’s is suggestive of a time when life was supposedly simpler, more traditional (e.g. homogeneous) — long before the big-box superstore, parking lots the size of football fields, and the proliferation of brands in the aisles and on social media.

As part of this strategy, the company is reticent about advertising: It restricts its marketing mainly to its almanac-like “Fearless Flyer” circular that conjures quaint images of old letterpresses and coupon-clipping grandmas. No social media, no email marketing, few radio ads, no television or newspaper ads. Part of Trader Joe’s appeal is that customers always already seem to know they are supposed to shop there, that they belong.

This runs counter to current brand-management strategy. Whereas other brands are joining platforms like WhatsApp or sliding into consumers’ DMs to try to maximize engagement, Trader Joe’s privileges the IRL, restricting its brand to in-store experiences and refusing to participate in social media.

In this, it parts ways even from its cousin Aldi USA, which has a fairly staid Twitter account that tweets in the customary grocery-store-brand voice, serving up tweets like this anodyne effort on Pizza Day:

Aldi also tweets compliments from the store’s Facebook fans, like this one from Jenny M.:

Aldi is happy to dole out recognition to individuals who want to engage with it, playing the attention game where consumer praise is awarded with publicity from the Aldi feed. The consumer endorses the brand, and in turn the brand validates the consumer. The opportunities for this quasi-reciprocal participation in brands is presumed to catalyze customer loyalty.

Trader Joe’s does not play this game. By not participating in social media at all, it seeks to generate brand loyalty through its silence. There’s no direct line of communication with the brand, as today’s consumers are presumed to expect. Not only is there is no direct way to complain to the company, as one can with, say, Target


or even NyQuil

And there is no way to tell Trader Joe’s how much you love it either.

Though Trader Joe’s lack of social-media presence can be disconcerting to some of the store’s most fervent fans, it retains its particular appeal by playing hard to get. Social-media messaging would only muddle the company’s effort to sell its massively popular corporate brand as a neighborhood secret.

From the start, in 1967, “Trader Joe” Coulombe devised his “low-priced gourmet-cum-health-food store” with an “unemployed PhD student” in mind as the ideal customer. As he explained in 1985 to the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, he foresaw that this would be a “growing category.” Coulombe anticipated that these savvy, well-educated types would be alienated by mainstream advertising techniques, particularly ones that targeted an ignorance or lack in the consumer with products that were supposed to somehow fix it. Trader Joe’s customers would be presumed to already fully know who they are and what they want — imported cheeses, organic foods, relatively healthy prepared meals, international delicacies, microbrews, California wines — they only lacked means. Selling two-buck chuck to the broke graduate student became emblematic of Trader Joe’s philosophy: good-enough wine at a bargain price for those wise enough to be in the know. If Trader Joe’s started advertising, seeming to put everyone in the know, the wine might not seem so drinkable all of a sudden.

Trader Joe’s rejection of social media extends this approach. If Trader Joe’s were to join social media and chat with consumers, would that not just create the feeling of a fake, forced relationship? The right sort of customer craving the right sort of authenticity doesn’t need to vicariously latch on to brands on social media to feel complete. They aren’t slaves to Facebook or Twitter either. They have a “real” relationship with Trader Joe’s, grounded in going to the store, being there, being present. Trader Joe’s will not tweet at you. The only way to be recognized by Trader Joe’s is to have the cheery cashiers remember your name, to riff on Seinfeld-isms with some bearded guy serving samples of kung pao chicken with a side of brown rice. At Trader Joe’s, it’s IRL or nothing.

This standoffishness from social media purports to be a matter of Trader Joe’s refusing to make clumsy efforts at branding itself, but it is really a masterstroke of brand consistency. We buy the brand, we eat the brand, we return for more — but we never truly know the brand as a personality. But this absence is the brand’s essence. It is the aloof, invulnerable person that doesn’t want to “connect,” a celebrity who doesn’t need Twitter. Its Instagram is private, for friends-only.

It would seem like this strategy could backfire with millennials, who are less likely to privilege IRL over online, if they even bother to distinguish them. But Joe doesn’t need to be your “friend” online. He doesn’t want a Tinderized relationship. Trader Joe’s is counting on capturing successive generations of its target consumers by being the choice for no-choices, the place where generic brands can feel exclusive. You’ll know without having to be told. You’ll buy without ever wondering if you’ve made the wrong choice.