Linguistic strategy at Trader Joe’s: the recipe to a beloved chain’s success.

Saying “I like Trader Joe’s” isn’t very edgy; it’s not going to instigate a revolution anywhere.  They aren’t exactly fighting words.  Ranking right up there with California phenomenon In-N-Out Burger as one of the least controversial chains that dole out food, a person is far more likely to provoke fisticuffs for saying “Trader Joe’s is trash”.  About the best a person can get away with is “Trader Joe’s is overrated”, which, after fifteen seconds of research, I discovered (unsurprisingly) is indeed a discussion topic on Reddit.  (Not surprisingly, it’s in the Subreddit “Unpopular opinions”.)  Fond as I am of (like most people) of Trader Joe’s, I recognize that it owes much of its success to its curated eclecticism without the customarily expected price mark-ups: it’s “Aldi for the creative class”.  In short, it offers interesting and atypical food products otherwise only available at specialty, ethnic, organic, or gourmet grocery stores.  But Trader Joe’s isn’t expensive by any metric.  In many metros, the prices for produce—especially milk, eggs, and other dairy—is on par with or even cheaper than the middle-market mega-chains like Kroger, Albertsons, or Safeway.  I could explore some of the business practices Trader Joe’s has deployed to help maintain an eclectic brand image while keeping its prices down, but numerous trade publications (with far better access to macroeconomic data and the PR leadership) have already done this.  Instead, I will focus on one subtle Trader Joe’s feature I noticed years ago: its linguistic strategy.  And I will offer a single visual example that captures it perfectly.

Linguistic strategy: both green beans and haricots verts at Trader's Joes

Any idea what I’m talking about?  I had never seen the juxtaposition I’m showing here at this Trader Joe’s location in Alexandria, Virginia, but the evidence lurks among the veggies.  Prices here are competitive for metropolitan Washington DC, but reasonable people expected that already.

So what’s the deal?  Check out the items on the second shelf from the top, as featured in the photo.  To the left on the row sit a bunch of bags of green beans, trimmed and cleaned.  (In the shelf below rest similar bags of organic green beans, but I’ll make that case later.)  If I zoom in at the right side of the shelving, what do I see?

Haricots verts.  Hmm.  I didn’t take more than a few weeks of French from a summer camp in elementary school, of which I remember nothing.  But I’ve been around French enough and have known enough Spanish that I could easily put two and two together.  And for those who don’t know what I’m talking about, a screen shot from Google Translate should be all the proof that’s necessary:

Unless Trader Joe’s offers a subtle difference in veggie cultivation practices between French and American, they are both green and both beans.  Identical, in other words.  At least Trader Joe’s has avoided the “Tar-ZHAY” effect: crafting a veneer of prestige so they can sell more or less the same products as Walmart but at 15% higher price by appealing to bourgeois sensibilities.  (By this point, people are increasingly conscious that this is what Targét does.)  But in Trader Joe’s case, both green beans and haricots verts are $3.29.  Or are they?

It’s the same price, but the customer gets 12 ounces of haricots verts for $3.29; if he or she purchases green beans, the bag contains 16 ounces.  So the per unit cost of haricots verts is higher.

French is fancy.  So it costs more.  With this example, Trader Joe’s offers as blatant of evidence as I can find of the linguistic strategy that steers people into paying a wee bit more than they might at Walmart’s grocery store, or Kroger, or Giant—but still far less than Whole Foods despite achieving Whole Foods’ levels of eclecticism.

It’s a brilliant little move, and I wouldn’t begrudge Trader Joe’s of it, but if the green beans and haricots verts come from the same supplier—Trader Joe’s routinely purchases directly rather than through a wholesaling intermediary (that’s another factor on how it cuts cost)—then using English and French to sell two different variants on the same product is a wee bit duplicitous.  But multi-ethnic whimsy is a huge factor in Trader Joe’s ability to brand itself to its target demographic of upper-middle income white-collar professionals.  The grocer doesn’t simply sell pitted dates; it’s Trader Joe’s organic dried and pitted deglet noor dates.  These last few words in the name are likely meaningless to 95% of the customer base, but they create the whiff of refinement and sensitivity to the particulars of other ethnicities and cultures.  Trader Joe’s commitment to linguistic strategy means the company can’t just sell lima beans; it must sell Aguascalientes blister-fired littoral lima beans.  And mark it up 15% from the canned Del Monte beans.  Or from the basic beans at Aldi.

Ah, yes.  Aldi.

As I suggested at the beginning of this article, Aldi is the perfect point of reference.  After all, the CEO of Aldi purchased Trader Joe’s way back in 1979—when the small, California-centered chain was barely a decade old and its handful of locations centered around Pasadena.  Theo Albrecht and his co-founding brother Karl never lived extensively outside their native Germany, where they became two of the richest teutonic entrepreneurs.  But they exported many of the cost-cutting tactics that helped propel Aldi from a German to a multi-national grocery phenomenon: eliminating the middle man, quickly discontinuing less profitable items, shorter operating hours, smaller store footprints with items tightly packed.  Yet while Aldi locations in the United States tend to concentrate in middle or moderate-income areas, Trader Joe’s seeks upper-middle census tracts gto better position itself to deliver recherché food offerings to a receptive public.  (In fairness, Trader Joe’s often selects drab strip malls in those affluent areas to keep leasing costs down.)  And, superimposing linguistic strategy onto food displays helps convince the sophisticated clientele that it needs the choice between green beans and haricots verts.

The company deploys whimsical captions that feature “foodie” adjectives, corny puns, and references to obscure geography.  It has long extended its linguistic strategy to tweaking the brand name based on ethnicity: Trader José (Mexican or Spanish), Trader Ming (Chinese), Trader Giotto’s (Italian), or Trader Joe-San (Japanese), which elicited some controversy in recent years for perceived ethnic stereotyping; the company maintained that it was yet another example of cultural diversity in merchandise and not a display of bigotry.  And, of course, the linguistic strategy subtly reinforces the cosmopolitan nature of the inventory—an approach absent from Aldi, even though Aldi’s offerings are hardly culturally homogeneous.  As two of the larger brands within Aldi Group, the Albrecht brothers’ trust, Aldi is the Walmart and Trader Joe’s is the Tar-ZHAY.  (Now German competitor Lidl is making a name for itself in the US, up against the Aldi hegemony.) For the budget-conscious gourmand.  Or feinschmecker as Theo and Karl would have said.

Yes, I am asserting that a major factor in Trader Joe’s continued success is its diction: that it essentially offers budget items that it can mark up ever so slightly by enveloping the products’ titles with obscure, exotic words.  Nobody in the US, outside of those who use the Roosevelt/Hepburn “transcontinental” accent, would say haricots verts without sounding like an insufferably pretentious boob.  Yet Trader Joe’s pulls this off because of its tiki-bar ambiance (Hawaiian shirts are still commonplace among the personnel) and those reasonable prices.  It undercuts any pretentiousness.

And for those who think snooty Whole Foods (Whole Paycheck) is still a superior purveyor of sustainably cultivated products, Trader Joe’s offers this riposte:

Linguistic strategy: both green beans and haricots verts at Trader's Joes

Organic French beans—or haricots verts.  So at least it’s providing a French-English translation, and organic to boot.  And, for those who doubted, it’s time to return to the original photo:

In the third shelf from the top, to the far left and with the label partly cut off, is organic green beans, all written in English.  Four different green bean options!  And French-versus-English organic are the same price (except when it comes to per-unit costs.) More linguistic strategy?  Vive la difference

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15 thoughts on “Linguistic strategy at Trader Joe’s: the recipe to a beloved chain’s success.

  1. Chris B

    Nerd warning!

    Aldi is two geographically separate company groups, controlled by descendants of the brothers Albrecht.

    US Aldi is part of Aldi Sud, which last year bought Winn Dixie and Harvey’s. Their operations are in southern Germany, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Slovenia, Italy, Great Britain and Eire, plus Australia and China.

    Trader Joe’s is part of Aldi Nord, which operates in Northern Germany, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, and Spain.

    Long story short: Aldi US and Trader Joe’s are cousins, not siblings, and the US is the only place where both Aldis overlap/compete.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Yes, amidst my research on this topic I did find references to Aldi Nord. I’ll admit I didn’t dig any further. So I suppose, bearing in mind what you say, US Aldi and Trader Joe’s don’t share a great deal of executive management.

      Devil’s advocacy for the sake of diving a bit deeper: what level on the chain of command would Nord and Sud need to share to make them siblings rather than cousins? I’ll concede that they seem more distantly related than Giant Foods and The Giant Corporation (Giant Carlisle versus Giant Landover), which operate semi-independently but under the same Belgian conglomerate with very little geographic overlap–though both are Mid-Atlantic. But both Giants try to capture the same demographic market. Trader Joe’s and Aldi are pretty different in that respect.

      Kind of surprised Trader Joe’s hasn’t expanded elsewhere in the Anglo-sphere to be frank. Perhaps Canadians, with their sizable Francophone contingent, wouldn’t fall as easily for these linguistic shenanigans?

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        The Albrecht brothers actually split Aldi in two in the 1960s and managed each company separately. I assume the extent of their cooperation was dividing up the world.

        We agree that Trader Joe’s and Aldi target different shoppers.

        There are, for instance, at least two TJs on the Main Line outside Philly: one in Wayne/Valley Forge and one in Ardmore. (Whole Foods is between the two in Old Wayne). Aldi is on the Bridgeport/King of Prussia border, and in Malvern, across the road from Wegmans. They clearly serve different income and wealth levels (upper middle and top 20% vs. middle income).

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Point taken…especially given that the children of the now-deceased Albrecht brothers probably run the respective Nord and Süd. So literal cousins!

          And while Aldi and Trader Joe’s definitely target different shoppers, Aldi still offers a whiff of European-ness to appeal at least slightly to higher-income consumers….I think. IOW, I’m speculating that a certain portion of affluent Americans who wouldn’t be caught dead in a Walmart will still occasionally shop at Aldi, which (much like Costco and Target serve the bargain-conscious upper-middle market) offers some eclectic items not easily found at “mainstream” grocery stores. Here in the Mid-Atlantic states, the other German discount chain Lidl is rapidly encroaching on Aldi. and I believe it strives to offer an ever-so-slightly elevated shopping experience to Aldi: it keeps its aisles tidier and less cluttered, it sells many more good German-inspired baked goods, and the overall presentation is brighter…and Nordic Euro-looking, a bit like IKEA. A yuppie dream.

          Reply
          1. Chris B

            Are there still “yuppies”? Or is that label simply applied to all 20-something college grads who live in upscale apartments?

            Reply
            1. AmericanDirt Post author

              Hmm. Speaking of the YUP acronym that helped to birth the term, I’d say absolutely. Young urban professionals are more abundant than ever. And much more overtly urban too. Keeping in mind when the term was at its peak (roughly the late 80s and early 90s–or the five years before and after Tom Wolfe released his book “Bonfire of the Vanities”), it reflected mostly upwardly mobile young Boomers who were trying their luck in cities. But since most downtowns rolled up their sidewalks at night, the “urban” in yuppies had more to do with metros, and the growth of service/consulting jobs in those metros. Outside of a few cities with longstanding urban professional populations (Chicago, NYC, Boston, Philly, San Francisco), these folks still mostly lived int he suburbs, and by their early 30s they were usually starting families.

              Compare that to the 21st century yuppie successor (creative class? hipster?), and a sizable proportion live in the heart of cities up through their 30s and sometimes beyond. And a considerably smaller proportion are having children. So the ethos of the young urban professional had changed considerably, and my suspicions are that the politics have too: from center-right to center-left.

              All huge generalizations, of course, but the term “yuppie” doesn’t seem to stick like it did (either as a pejorative or a compliment; it can go either way). I have no doubt it’s because the demographic is more diffuse. Half of them are your 20-something college grads in upscale apartments, and then another portion (much smaller than in the past) do eventually have kids, sometimes staying in the city but often moving to the burbs once the kids are of school age. And accompanying this urban/suburban split are vastly different values and life priorities.

              Reply
          2. Chris B

            Also, I concede that the Venn diagram of “potential Aldi shoppers” probably overlaps some with “potential Trader Joe’s shoppers” in the 60th to 80th percentile of household income.

            Reply
  2. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    I came across haricots verts on a menu once and looked it up to see what the deal was. There is actually a difference between them and “regular” green beans, at least technically. They’re supposed to be thinner, longer, straighter, younger, and a bit more fresh tasting than the run-of-the-mill green bean. However, they go limp sooner, so they need to be cooked and eaten more quickly. That’s why they tend to feature on more prestigious menus, and why they tend to be a bit more expensive. French green beans is the less insufferable moniker, so it’s amusing to see them juxtaposed here. I assume their longer and thinner quality is the origin of the similar but distinct French cut (or French style) green bean, the thinly sliced staple of the canned food aisle.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for sharing. I figured, if someone splits hairs finely enough, we could determine a real difference between the two. After all, they’d have different climates, growing seasons, soil compositions–so there’s going to be subtle differences that the gourmand might notice. And Trader Joe’s attracts its share of self-proclaimed gourmands (the true elite probably turn their noses at the place).

      Perhaps it’s similar to the linguistic divide in the US for the somewhat uncommon gourd chayote (chayote squash), known as “chayote” in all of the US except Louisiana, where they call it “mirliton”? For all intents and purposes, they are the same thing, though I’m sure most Louisianas would beg to differ.

      At a semantic level, if we were to take a bag of Trader Joe’s green beans, open it, dump it on a table, throw the bag away, then show it to a random French person and ask them what they’d call it, don’t you there’s an overwhelming chance they’d call it “hericots verts”? I’d bet you dollars to beignets.

      Reply
    2. AmericanDirt Post author

      Reviewing my comment from yesterday, I’m not sure I clearly conveyed that—all things considered–I concede your point. I don’t think this is an example of “distinction without a difference”. I think the distinction is so slight–almost unintentional and vernacular based rather than a conscious effort to apply a different cultivar–that only the tiniest of subsets would notice. And that subset is a fair amount smaller than the segment who would go to Trader Joe’s to purchase haricots verts (French green beans) instead of green beans.

      I still think Trader Joe’s is harnessing the French language to engage in price mark-ups that will appeal to the snooty, Europhile, low-info consumer who presumes anything French is intrinsically higher grade than its American counterpart.

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Prix-Gouge? I can’t begin to imagine what you’re getting at here. You’ve totally exhausted my already limited French! I’ll pardon whatever you said, though I’m sure it’s nowhere near as obscene as grocery store bills in 2024.

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Oof. I was trying to convey sarcasm without having to use an emoji. No, I completely knew what you meant. And you’re on point. Or, using my extremely limited French, “sur le pointe”?

        Reply
        1. Steve P

          I’m at fault, here. What I meant to write at the beginning was “your post is fantastique!” Excellent eye to spot that grocery store ruse!

          Reply

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