Arts and Entertainment

The Bittersweet Flavors of Trader Joe’s Marketing

Trader Joe's marketing tactics ultimately perpetuate harmful stereotypes and mask a slew of corporate shortcomings.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Trader Joe’s has indisputably become more than just a staple grocery store. It has transformed food shopping into a veritable American entertainment experience. When walking into your local Trader Joe’s, you are met with friendly staff and an exciting, bustling atmosphere with a vast array of affordable foods featuring zany names, endearing packaging, and vibrant murals. However, the company’s brick-and-mortar product design and charming branding may just be an effective ruse for the corporate shortcomings and harmful stereotypes perpetuated by Trader Joe’s advertising.

The American specialty grocery chain was founded in 1967 by Joe Coulombe, an American entrepreneur who aimed to sell high-quality food at affordable prices with an emphasis on foreign foods because of the growing popularity of international travel. The grocery chain became very popular, both for its low-priced, reliable basics and for its innovative seasonal products that appealed to trends like the growing health foods movement. For example, their staple Chili & Lime Rolled Corn Tortilla Chips are known for being the “healthier version” of regular Takis, with fewer preservatives and no dyes. Trader Joe’s also prides itself on its frequent development of new products, from inventive desserts to new foreign foods. The store’s ice cream selection has an ever-expanding selection of niche flavors like Ube, Cold Brew Boba, and Horchata. 

In addition, despite being a national chain, Trader Joe’s is famous for feigning the aesthetic of a welcoming neighborhood grocery store. In doing so, they function as the “anti-Amazon” store in an age of digitization and automation. Vibrant handwritten signs that look like they might’ve been made by local artists line every shelf, which makes the store feel like a modest small business. Furthermore, Trader Joe’s is one of the only chain grocery stores that requires its employees to stock shelves during store hours. This forces customers and workers to interact and build relationships. When asked about a product, “crewmates” (as Trader Joe’s calls their employees) are required to talk to a customer as they escort them to the correct aisle. When a customer brings their child to check out, “crewmates” are trained to surprise the kid with long strips of Trader Joe’s-themed stickers, and when a customer looks upset, “crewmates” are encouraged to hand them flowers. Trader Joe’s has built up impressive brand loyalty, and the store’s success can be attributed largely to customer-focused tactics, which aim to make the shopping experience exciting and fresh (no pun intended).

However, consumers should not be fooled into thinking that the company is different from any other major corporation in its treatment of employees. The store has a record of mistreating its workers for the sake of its image, pressuring them to put on a cheerful affectation. If an employee does not stick to these company “standards,” they risk being fired. While the company can successfully cultivate its homey and local branding, it is contentious how this image truly reflects its treatment of workers. 

Additionally, despite Trader Joe’s apparent diversity, the store’s marketing perpetuates harmful stereotypes when it comes to their “ethnic foods.” In 2020, the company was put under scrutiny because of its racist branding of ethnic cuisine items. Instead of being branded with a “Trader Joe’s” label, various international food items were labeled with stereotypical names for specific ethnic groups, such as “Arabian Joe,” “Trader Ming’s,” “Trader José’s,” and “Trader Giotto’s.” Products with these labels were either fusion foods or authentic ethnic dishes that were Westernized to cater to the American palate. For example, the foods that were sold under the label “Trader Ming’s” were Kung Pao Chicken, Stir Fried Vegetable Rolls, and Mandarin Orange Chicken, all variations of traditional dishes that are inauthentic to the cultures they supposedly represent. A petition that demanded the company remove this branding attained over 5,000 signatures but the company dismissed these criticisms and sent out a statement that the labels were “fun and show[ed] appreciation for other cultures.” Ultimately, after facing more criticism, the company sent out another statement saying that they would change the names, but several of the products today still sell with these labels.

Much of Trader Joe’s branding surrounds foreign food exploration, originating from Coloumbe’s initial aim when he first opened the store. The company got its name “Trader Joe’s” because Coulombe wanted to evoke exotic images of the South Seas. The store’s overall visual concept is Hawaiian-themed, and crewmates wear Hawaiian shirts with the trademark hibiscus flower designs. The official website describes the crewmates as “adventurous traders on the culinary seas.” Workers at Trader Joe’s also use bells to communicate, which is a reference to how maritime traders communicated with each other. These concepts appear whimsical and lighthearted on the surface,creating a comfortable atmosphere. However, upon reflection, the portrayal of employees as explorers bringing back and introducing new foreign foods to customers further promotes the exoticization of ethnic foods, drawing more attention to cultural divides in America centered around race. 

As Trader Joe’s rapidly grows in America (it recently opened five new locations for a total of 547), many local grocery stores are struggling to stay afloat. For example, Chinatown, a long-standing ethnic enclave in New York, has seen restaurants and local institutions shut down due to COVID-19 inequities and large-scale neighborhood gentrification. Chinatown is known for its authentic food, cheap prices, and wholesome proportions, but it also bears a rich history of representing Chinese culture in New York. Most of these restaurants and institutions are owned by Chinese immigrants who created this community as a place to preserve their culture when they first immigrated to America. In comparison to Trader Joe’s marketing tactics, businesses in Chinatown don’t utilize conventional advertising, instead promoting primarily through word of mouth. Local restaurants in Chinatown such as Jing Fong, Golden Mandarin Court, Amazing 66, and Hong Shing have all shut down. While Trader Joe’s markets their “Chinese foods” as exotic, the purpose of these local businesses is to provide a taste of home by revitalizing American food culture with home-cooked authenticity. Fried rice and dumplings are regular staples in Chinese households; they are just as a part of American diets as any other food, making Trader Joe’s exotic marketing disturbingly pointless.

While part of the issue lies with the inauthenticity of the food Trader Joe’s sells, more harmful are the stereotypes that Trader Joe’s instills in its marketing. Similar to the treatment of the cast and crew at Disney World, Trader Joe’s abuses its marketing, employees, and products to architect a positive shopping atmosphere, when in reality, stereotyping worldly foods in an American supermarket can be hidden just beneath the “health benefits” and smiling faces of the corporation. So while Trader Joe’s could be a convenient source of food for you, the next time you step into your local chain store, make sure to consider the underlying business and cultural issues hidden within its marketing success.