Monday, January 3, 2011

Monday Reruns: Shopping at Trader Joe's: An Investment of Time

(original post-date: December 30, 2009)

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.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Katie---Since I do NOT live at Ground Zero, our TJ's lots are not bad, although they ARE crowded most of the time.

I used to have to get my TJs fix from my friends who live in Berkeley, and that was a good thing. I only sporadically would get to enjoy the cococa almonds (my favorite thing on this earth). But then Trader Joe's crept into the midwest, into St. Louis, and darn it! They took away the chocolate merigues and changed the cocoa almonds so they're now DARK. Horrors! However, I still shop there, but my waistline is weeping over the fact that I can go there anytime I want...I don't have to wait until I visit my California friends or they visit me.

I loved the reference to Room 222. Mr. of my heroes.

Cheryl D. said...

I live in Trader Joe heaven. In Woodland Hills and West Hills, we have two Trader Joes that have decent parking lots. I never have a problem getting a spot! And the spots are nice-sized! Yay

Lisa Ricard Claro said...

I have never shopped at Trader Joe's. I was actually about to comment that I don't think we have them here (Atlanta) and decided to Google first. Seven. There are seven! I'll have to check it out now that I know about it. Thanks for the tip. I hope my parking experience is better than yours, though!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed this post once again and am so familiar with that scenario (the one where everything goes just a tad too well before I am brought back to earth with a bang) Such events make a story worth the telling though. My favourite quote: "Q: Why are teenagers afraid of zombies?
A: Because zombies can outrun them.
Love it!
Apparently, their brains are wired differently to ours. I read that somewhere. It certainly explains their general inability to rush. Were we ever like that? :-)
Happy New Year!

cj Schlottman said...

Hey, Katie,

This, like everything you do, is so well written and entertaining! My closest TJ's is 90 miles up the road in Atlanta, so I'm not a regular. You could not be more spot-on about the parking lot!

Back from being AWOL (Horrordays blues). Will be back at least once a week!

Great piece.........cj

Linda Medrano said...

Hey Katie,

We have a trader joes on our little island of Alameda. All of my neighbors shop there and swear by it. I've been there twice. It's crowded and parking is terrible. And I just don't see the draw of the place. They have "stuff" and so does everyplace else. The things I've bought there have been "okay" but I think I prefer my Nob Hill Market (Raley's). My neighbor says, you have to know what to look for at TJ's. She said she'd be glad to take me and give me a little tutorial. Excuse me? I know how to shop at regular places. Happy New Year, Darling Katie!

Anonymous said...

This post is full of true things, Katie. I agree about the $#$%! parking lots. And the zombies outrunning the teenagers--also true. There's a high school near my mother's place and I know I'll be delayed by the amblers for at least ten minutes if I go at certain times of the day. But best of all there is that "things are going much too well" business. It's hard to take it graciously when the Fates drop in the dead battery (or whatever it may be), but you did. Somehow I'm not surprised.

Joey @ Big Teeth and Clouds said...

I guess you have to make sacrifices for good service! I'm not even sure if we have Trader Joe's here. I've never been to one.

Lazarus said...

Katie, great piece...but that Room 222 reference stood out, I notice I am not the only commentor to seize on it. We have Trader Joe's in NYC but parking is not an issue since it's within walking distance of my place and, probably, most patrons. Two Buck Chuck is a popular wine choice among the economically challenged set!