Monday, August 31, 2009

My Trader Joe's Rant

[What follows is a personal rant. The writer is fully-aware that in the order of things, he rants about a trivial matter. But he feels much better after writing it. -- Ed.]

Before last weekend's camping trip I went to Trader Joe's to get four items, and left with none of them because they were either discontinued or out of stock. And I was irritated. They are losing my business.

Okay, that's the short of it. You can stop reading now. That's it. Everything else on this page is just elaboration.

Oh -- you're still here? Fine then: here's the long of it:

So I go to TJ's to get four items for the trip. 1. A shelf-stable meal called "White Beans with Vegetables" for dinner, 2. An egg-salad sandwich to eat on the drive to the campground, 3. Some peanuts in the shell for snacking, and 4. A bottle of agave syrup for sweetening my morning yogurt.

I started with the beans. These have been a camping favorite of mine for years, and I often nuke a box of them for a fast meal at home, too. Called, "Spanish White Beans with Vegetables," the package tells us that these are "...a Spanish stew of white beans in a traditional "Sofrito" tomato sauce. A product of Spain." Doesn't sound super appetizing, buy they are quite savory.

Down in SoCal, before we moved to Bend, I purchased these from the Carlsbad branch of TJ's for years. When they had them in stock. When they didn't my inquiries were met with blank stares. No one on the staff had ever heard of them. Ever. They denied ever selling such a thing, or at least not within recorded history, though my last purchase might have been just a few weeks before.

The various CSRs -- Customer Service Representatives -- asked if I was sure I had bought it from Trader Joe's. I assured them that I had. The words "Trader Joe's" are prominently displayed at the top, viz:

But the CSRs looked at me like I was delusional.

And then, mysteriously, a week or so later, more appeared on the shelves. I would show them to the folk in customer service and they'd nod, saying, "Oh yeah, those." And I'd buy several just because they had them in stock.

But then they'd run out. Again, I'd ask about them and once again everyone denied ever stocking such a thing. I'd describe the square, flat plastic package, point to the area on the shelves where the item was usually stocked, and . . .

They looked at me like I was delusional.

It got to the point where I kept a label from the package in the car to show the staff. Suddenly the fogs of memory would clear and they were able to look up the item and tell me when it might next be in stock.

After moving to Bend, I was pleased to find the item here and purchased a few packages.

But last Friday, shopping for the camping trip, and found that they had no stock on the meal. The folk at the customer service desk denied that they had never sold anything that met my description. "Sofrito sauce?" said the CSR. "What's that?" I said I didn't know, but that's what was written on the package.

"Are you sure you bought them here?"

"Yes, not that long ago."

"At this Trader Joe's."

"Um, yeah, and down in Carlsbad, California, too. And they never knew what I was talking about, either."

She looked at me like I was delusional. The other folk in the customer service booth smiled at each other.

"Well, I've never heard of them," she said.

I asked her how long she'd been working at TJ's and she said for 15 years, both in corporate and in the store and that a shelf-stable meal of white beans in sauce did not ring any bells.

"Let's go look," she suggested.

We went to the shelf where shelf-stable meals-in-boxes are stocked and said, "there's nothing like that here."

"I know -- this is where I looked before coming to ask you."

She fetched the person who does the ordering, and she also had no idea what I was talking about.

"What kind of sauce?"

"Sofrito. That's what it said on the package."

She also gave me that look that suggested I was delusional.

So I asked the CSR to look it up on the computer. "Look up white beans," I suggested.

She found them. "White beans with vegetable sauce," she said. "Shelf-stable."

"That's the one," I said.

"They were discontinued in October," she said. "What happened is that we've been selling back stock and have not ordered any for a while. That's why no one knows about them."

Well . . . no. I've bought them for years, and others have, too, since the shelf stock often reached zero without my help. And every time I've asked, no one, not a store manager, not an ordering person, not a checker, not one single person has ever known what I was asking about. Until I showed them the package. Then they'd recalled that they'd carried them for years. After looking at me like I was delusional.

The product must cast a spell of forgetfulness over the minds of TJ's employees.

But, sigh. Discontinued. I know that retailers need to maximize their profits and get items that don't move off the shelf. Still, some disappointment.

Next, for lunch, I figured that one of their pre-made egg salad sandwiches would fill the bill. They're not excellent, but they do provide a decent meal when driving. Discontinued.

"We do have egg salad in the refrigerator section," another CSR helpfully suggested. But then I'd need to buy a loaf of bread. Didn't need a loaf of bread.

A few years ago they discontinued another favorite that we and several friends liked: their frozen Soy Tomatillos.

It is getting irritating.

They are also not so red-hot on keeping things in stock.

Peanuts. I hunted for peanuts in the shell. "We're out of stock right now," said the fellow behind the samples counter at the rear of the store.

I also wanted some agave syrup. It's a good sweetener and doesn't crystallize at low temperatures like honey does. This makes it more suited for camping. But that section of the shelf was empty.

Right now popping into a store isn't very easy, what with my broken foot, the crutches and kneeling roller and stuff, so a lot of effort went into that shopping trip. It did frost my pumpkin that four of the four items I specifically went there for were either out of stock or discontinued. I ended up buying some shelf-stable Indian meals and a bottle of beer, some cheese, and a couple other forgettable items.
Postscript. Using their website's "Contact Us" link I sent an email to Trader Joe's corporate about the beans and included a draft of this post. In the message I offered to take any overstock of these beans off their hands, to purchase them, and I received a boilerplate response which re-stated what I'd already said about the realities of maximizing profit on the shelves. My request to buy overstock went unmentioned. Boilerplate begins:
We are sorry to hear that we have discontinued a favorite product of yours.

At this time the Trader Joe's White Beans with Vegetables
[you can almost see the cut and paste here - j.e.]
has been discontinued due to slow sales in all of our stores. We will forward your comments and request to bring this product back to our Buying Department and that will be taken into future consideration.

Our mission is to bring you the best quality products at the best prices. To do this, we have to manage our store space well. Each of our products must "stand on its own," meaning it must pay its own way. Each product passes certain criteria in order to earn its way onto our shelves - including a rigorous tasting panel.

There may be several factors that determine why we discontinue products:

It may be a seasonal product - for example, strawberries, which are in season only specific times of the year. The gang way factor - because we introduce 10-15 new products a week, we have to eliminate 10-15 items in order to give our newest items a fair chance. The cost of producing the item may increase, which would in turn increase the cost to you - if the item is not a strong seller, we may choose to discontinue it.

Many thanks,

Nicki K.
Customer Relations
Trader Joe's

Mmmm. Boilerplate. Shelf-stable, too.


  1. I've never been terribly impressed by Trader Joe's. I couldn't understand why Bendites were so excited by the news that one was coming to town.

    But then they got excited over Red Robin and the Olive Garden too. Doesn't take much, apparently.

    BTW, congratulations on pulling off your camping adventure -- and on being able to have a beer again.

  2. "But then they got excited over Red Robin and the Olive Garden too."

    And, apparently, Jack-In-The-Box.

  3. Yeah, I forgot Jack in the Box. That'll be a big addition to the local gourmet scene.

    Meanwhile the folks in LaPine are all in a tizzy about getting their first McDonalds.

  4. Wow that is a bummer, I have never had anything but excellent customer service at the Bend Trader Joe's and I also am a CA transplant and HAVE had terrible customer service at other TJ locations. That being said I rarely shop anywhere else except for the quarterly Costco run. For the record I am NOT excited about Jack in the Box,Olive Garden, or Red Robin


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