John Shields, who led the grocery company Trader Joe’s from 1988 to 2001 and took it from a small Southern California chain to a nationwide retailer, has died. He was 82.
When Shields took over the business from his fraternity friend and company founder Joe Coulombe, Trader Joe’s was a chain of 27 stores in Southern California.
He engineered a plan to reinvigorate the company and expand it nationally. There are now some 400 stores across the country, most recently in Idaho and Colorado.
“They have almost a cult-like following,” says David Livingston of DJL Research. “They don’t try to compete with big chains… they grow very slow and methodically, because they’re very conservative financially and they’re extremely cautious.”
Those are values John Shields instilled in the company. But he also invested heavily in the Trader Joe’s brand by asking his small team of buyers to becoming Research & Development experts – to travel the world seeking out new and interesting foods. He also branded those foods with the Trader Joe’s logo.
“Much of what they sell is their own… label stuff,” says Jon Springer, retail editor at the trade publication Supermarket News. “You can’t buy Trader Joe’s brand tortilla chips in any store.”
That exclusivity has given the grocery chain an edge, and it was very much a deliberate part of John Shields’ strategy.
“We set our own rules on how we were going to run our company. We were going to develop the product, put our names on them. And these are the kinds of decisions that differentiate yourself from your competition,” Shields said in a 2010 speech at the Corporate Leaders Breakfast Series at California Lutheran University.
In the last decade, the expansion that Shields began has continued. The company — which is private and notoriously secretive — is estimated to generate about $11 billion in revenue, according to Supermarket News.
“Today, they’re the kind of company that… communities that don’t have Trader Joe’s have Facebook pages urging them to come,” says Springer, “there’s a lot of excitement when they do come to a city.”
After all, how many grocery chains do you know with their own fan-written song?