Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Shopping at Trader Joe’s: An Investment of Time

Living in L.A., I can claim a connection to Ground Zero of the Trader Joe’s phenomenon. This is where it all started, and this is certainly where Trader Joe’s started for me.

I remember the first time I walked into a Trader Joe’s. I didn’t grab a cart or even pick up a basket. I was on my way to a dinner party, and I had just dropped in to get a reasonably priced bottle of wine.

The next time I ventured into TJs, I still didn’t need a basket. My two arms sufficed – for the wine and the cheese. (Another social gathering.)

But these experiences occurred before the introduction of the various sub-brands: Trader Giotto’s, Trader Ming’s, Trader Jose’s. These early experiences occurred when Trader Joe’s was just a friendly neighborhood franchise…

Trader Joe’s is still friendly, and I love it for that, but now that I shop there regularly (and I always need a cart), I can also state, quite emphatically, that good ol’ TJs seems to employ the most sadistic parking lot designer ever known to humankind. There are now dozens of the stores in the L.A. area (and hundreds more across the country), and I’ve yet to hear of a Trader Joe’s parking lot that doesn’t challenge the patience of the chain’s dedicated patrons.

Invariably, there is a long wait to find a parking space. Invariably, those circling the lot (entering? trying to leave?) are driving against the arrows (if arrows, in fact, exist). Invariably, the parking lots’ points of entry and exit (often combined) are completely inconvenient (and often downright dangerous) vis-à-vis the major thoroughfare on which that particular store exists.

Shopping at Trader Joe’s (here at Ground Zero, at least) is really a study in commitment. How badly do you want to shop there? What risks are you willing to take? What kind of time do you have to sacrifice?

As a self-employed person, I might be envied by other Trader Joe’s shoppers. After all, I don’t have to wait until after work or weekends to make my Giotto/Ming/Jose purchases. I have the freedom of time! I can go during the day, when – surely – the parking lot is not so full of nuts.

Guess again, nine-to-fivers. I’ve had that alleged freedom for more than a half-dozen years now, and I can’t claim to have cracked the code. The Trader Joe’s parking lot is always sadistic. It was just built that way.

And somehow, even when I don’t enter the parking lot, the time commitment is unavoidable.

Here’s a story, from a few months ago:

It’s midweek, two’ish, and I’ve just hit a good break in billables. I grab my TJs shopping list and head to my car.

Driving through Los Feliz is easy enough – maybe takes four minutes; five minutes, tops – but when I get to Marshall High (famous for the exterior shot introducing Room 222), I’m slowed down considerably. The kids have just been let out, and as they cross in front of my car, I am reminded of a riddle a peer recently shared:

Q: Why are teenagers afraid of zombies?
A: Because zombies can outrun them.

I sit in my car as the teenage zombies amble in front of it. While tedious and absurd, this delay is okay. This delay has nothing, really, to do with Trader Joe’s.

When an opportunity presents itself, I crawl on. And soon, I make the right onto Griffith Park Drive. I’ve now returned to normal afternoon driving speeds. (And I’m still making good time.)

When I get to Hyperion, the light is on my side, and there’s no oncoming traffic. I make the left. (I’m really cruising now.) Then, I see it: the ultimate parking space.

Granted, it’s a metered space, but, honey, it’s worth the price of admission. It’s the last space before that hellish TJs parking lot. And what that means is this: I can back into it easily; no other car can block me in; and when I’m done with my shopping, I can just zip right back into the Hyperion traffic. (I swear, I was able to park more quickly than it took me just now to articulate that rationale!)


So then, after my quick parking maneuvers, I leap out of my car, dash to the meter, and guess what? Thirty-six minutes, pre-paid. (I kid you not.) This is just getting better and better.

I grab a cart that is right there, and I enter the store. I then zoom, unimpeded, down the uncrowded aisles. Pushing the cart that greeted me (and that, remarkably, has evenly constructed wheels and no stubborn desire to make a sudden left turn), I quickly find everything on my list. Not only that, each item is exactly where it should be (i.e., the crew has undertaken no disorienting rearrangement of inventory since my last visit).

I head to check-out, and the options are unprecedented. There is no wait, and that fact is true for at least three cash registers.

I swipe my card without a hitch. Then, with two full bags placed into my smooth-sailing cart, I head out the door and make the quick left to the sidewalk.

I arrive at my car in less than ten seconds, and I open the trunk. I place the bags therein and put the cart back where I found it (flush with the sidewalk newspaper dispenser).

I notice the meter... 27 minutes, still pre-paid. A gift for the next shopper.

I get into the driver’s side and put the key in the ignition. I turn it. What?

I try again.



My car is not making a sound.

I am smiling broadly (and, oh yes, ironically) as I get out of the car and head for the trunk. I am still smiling as I open it and retrieve my groceries. I am even smiling when I approach the raised office area at the front of the store.

“Hi,” I say to the helpful crew member. “My car won’t start, so I was wondering? Could you keep these groceries refrigerated for me until I take care of the problem?”

Of course he can. After all, he works for Trader Joe’s. So he’s a friendly, happy guy.

Long story short: forty-five minutes later, I am back at Trader Joe’s. A new battery in my car, I negotiate the sadistic parking lot. Finally, I get a space, and I run in to retrieve my groceries. Fifteen minutes after that, I’m back home. Another chunk of my life has passed by; another chunk of my life dedicated to shopping at Trader Joe’s.


Cancerella said...

Wow, shopping at that TJs is an act of bravery.
Thanks for the factoid re Room 222; I always figured that school to be in Santa Monica.
The big question: did you make it out of the store without spending more than $20?

raindance said...

it's not just LA. the TJ's lot in middle village is a nightmare. and it's not just TJ's lot; it's also used for Staples & Michael's crafts. i don't even try to park there. i go to sports authority and walk an extra block and a half.

Lizzie said...

Well, you were right Katie, I did like it and boy can I relate! I would be a gibbering wreck driving in LA, too many lanes. I adore Trader Joe's but you are not wrong about the parking lots and I have to go all the way to Hyannis from Falmouth to get there.

Cheryl said...

There's one coming that's only an hour away! Wowzer huh? The closest one right now is 75 minutes from me on a good traffic day. Since it's situated in a strip mall, there's parking galore. The issues arise upon entering the store. Aisles too close, too many people in said aisles (with small children), and not enough check-out lines for those who love their TJs more than key lime pie.

Lora said...

there's only ONE in tennessee...thank goodness i live approximately 15 minutes away. i'm on a first-name basis with most employees...and my boyfriend often asks if i've seen my other boyfriend lately. he's talking about joe, naturally.

only problem: no wine. no alcohol (besides beer/cider) in grocery stores here. so we have to smuggle from atlanta, ga or indianapolis or st louis.