BECOMING TRADER JOE

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Coulombe (1930-2020) was a born wheeler-dealer, turning a 1958 partnership with Rexall Drugs in Los Angeles into a small grocery chain called Pronto Markets. The chain flourished for lack of competition, with market leader 7-Eleven effectively held back from the region until California laws changed and barriers to entry fell. Annual sales at Pronto and its successor, Trader Joe’s, “grew at a compound rate of 19 percent per year” from the founding until Coulombe left the company in 1988; he reckons sales and net worth growth to be about that today. Success in a business with historically tight margins came from an ability to pivot nimbly, drop products that didn’t work (including, in Southern California, bullets until the assassination of Robert Kennedy), and procure products wisely from suppliers with as few middlemen as possible. “The fundamental job of a retailer is to buy goods whole, cut them into pieces, and sell the pieces to the ultimate consumers,” he writes, going on to gloss each of those mandates. Unusually for the sector, Coulombe also offered high rates of pay, which kept turnover—a huge hidden cost—low. The author, who takes a gruffly scholarly approach to many business problems, keyed Trader Joe’s to demographic changes that recognized the anti–mass-market sentiments of the counterculture and the rise in international travel that led Americans to appreciate such things as high-quality coffee and wine. Any student of social trends, logistics, and supply chains will learn much from Coulombe’s pages and the stern dicta they contain, as, for example, when he offers this formula: “my preference is to have a few stores, as far apart as possible, and to make them as high-volume as possible.”

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