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What Trader Joe’s can teach us about having a point of view…

Last Updated:

January 2, 2024

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold paths to success — of people (or things) you know!

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Did You Know? You need a point of view!

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? Trader Joe’s, the American grocery store, brings in $16.5 billion in revenue each year. How’d the founder do it? By having a point of view.

The year is 1967 and drugstore owner Joe Coulombe of Los Angeles, CA was frustrated: No matter how hard he tried, “he couldn’t compete with better-financed convenience chains like 7-Eleven.”

Rather than look down at his spreadsheets, Coulombe looked up, looked around, and saw an opportunity: First, he noticed that Americans were becoming more educated (in the 1950s, the average adult had 9 years of formal schooling; by 1960, the average adult had 11 years). And second, Boeing had just announced a new plane, the 747, which promised cheaper transportation of people and goods.

Armed with this information, Coulombe hypothesized that Americans would have more interest in “international travel and thus more interest… in exotic foods.” And, Coulombe had “read somewhere that the more education people had, the more alcohol they drank.” He ran with his instincts. 

The result? A nautical-themed grocery store that had “employees wear tropical shirts and be extra friendly and included exotic cheese and foods.” He called the store “Trader Joe’s,”  inspired by “Trader Vic’s, a popular Tiki Bar restaurant started in California.”

Envisioning Trader Joe’s as a hub for the “overeducated and underpaid” seeking international snacks and other groceries, Coulombe began to tap into his third hypothesis: that alcohol was more popular among college students.

But California’s Fair Trade laws meant that Coulombe couldn’t sell these beverages at a lower price. Since low prices were essential to staying competitive, he increased the variety of alcoholic beverages he offered. Next, he found a loophole in the law that let him “import high-end French wine and sell it for lower prices than competitors, helping him reach wine connoisseurs.”

Coulombe didn’t stop there. Behind every iteration of Trader Joe’s was a point of view that drove the store’s strategy: Noticing Americans’ increasing number of diet fads, Coulombe offered more healthy food, “believing it would appeal to the customers… who also happened to be wine connoisseurs.”

To further his point of view that Trader Joe’s should focus on the “overeducated and underpaid,” Coulombe “slashed the number of items it carried and moved to largely selling private-label items.”

Private-label items (products that took on the store’s brand) allowed Trader Joe’s to source their products directly from producers and manufacturers, thus cutting out the middleman—and keeping costs down. This “changed the balance of the grocery industry. Suddenly, grocers [were] empowered in a way they weren’t.”

Fast forward three years, and Trader Joe’s was sold to the then-owners of Aldi’s, another grocery store. Less than 10 years later, “Trader Joe’s had 27 California stores and an estimated $150 million in sales.”

Though Coulombe passed away in 2022, Trader Joe’s continues to honor his vision: Stores only offer ~4,000 products, of which 80% are private-label, in comparison to chains like Safeway, which have ~50,000 items from thousands of brands. To this day, you can find low prices on anything from overseas fruit to French wine, complete with a cheerful, tropical-shirt-wearing employee at the check-out counter.

So, the next time you’re asked, “What do you think?” in a meeting, remember Coulombe—who forced himself to develop a point of view—and changed the grocery industry forever.

Joe Coulombe in 1986 (L). Photo by John Blackmer/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images. A Trader Joe's storefront in 2023 (R). Photo by Wikipedia Creative Commons.

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? To have a successful career, you need to develop a point of view.

Growing in your career requires more than just doing good work. You need to bet on the right trends.

For example, imagine if you worked at Google during its early days. The first 900 employees became “instant millionaires when Google went public in August 2004”, simply because they were on the right “ship.”

Now, imagine if you worked at Theranos, the now-defunct health company that falsely promised revolutionary health testing. You could have been the most incredible sailor… but you happened to be a sailor on the Titanic.

To build a successful career, you need to be a good sailor and you need to find a ship that’s the opposite of the Titanic. This requires developing a point of view.

How do you develop a point of view? By asking yourself:

(1) “Where is the world going?” (by finishing the sentence, “As…”)

  • E.g., “As… consumers increasingly trust word of mouth from friends and family over traditional ads or influencer marketing…”

(2) “What future is inevitable given where the world is going?” (by finishing the sentence, “We can expect…”)

  • E.g., “We can expect… category-dominating products and services (things that are #1 reviewed or bestsellers in their niche) are also ones that people are most willing to recommend to their friends…”

(3) “What should we/I do as a result?” (by finishing the sentence, “Therefore…”)

  • E.g., “Therefore… we should consider offering a referral bonus and redesigning our product so that people are more likely to share it with their friends.”

You won’t always be right. In fact, you’ll mostly be wrong. After all, it is a bet on the future—and no one knows what the future holds. But, every decision in business and life is ultimately a choice based on imperfect information. It’s what CEOs do everyday! So, the more comfortable you are making decisions (or at least a recommendation) without knowing everything, the more you’ll show your leadership potential—and the more opportunities you’ll attract for yourself.

I know it because I’ve experienced it: When I was a management consultant, my managers kept asking me, “What’s the ‘so what?’” As annoying as this question was at the time, I now understand: Looking back, my emails were big walls of text—”data dumps” as they’re called in the corporate world. But it turns out that my job wasn’t just to analyze data or to gather information—it was to make recommendations.

Remember this, no matter if you’re a financial analyst, data scientist, research assistant, or even an intern: Your job isn’t just to crunch numbers; it’s to help the team make progress. Progress requires decisions. Decisions require recommendations. Recommendations require a point of view.

Have a point of view!

Gorick

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