News & Opinion | February 29, 2020 3:57 pm

Trader Joe’s Founder Joe Coulombe Dead at 89

Coulombe remained at the head of the retailer until 1988

Joe Coulombe
Joe Coulombe at home.
Ricardo Dearatanha/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Over the course of his long life, Joe Coulombe helped redefine how America shops for groceries — and in the process established an alternative to traditional grocery store methodologies. Coulombe died on Friday at the age of 89, the Associated Press reports.

A 2014 article in The Atlantic noted that Coulombe was responsible for establishing the overall aesthetic of the store — one that remains in place today.

Trader Joe’s has been around for nearly 50 years, yet no competitor has successfully encroached on its clientele. Some industry experts say this is the case because Trader Joe’s is selling not food, but worldliness and playfulness.

Coulombe opened his first store in Pasadena in 1967. He sold the company to German retailer Aldi in 1979 and remained as the company’s CEO until 1988.

He is also responsible for the strategy still in place at Trader Joe’s of purchasing products directly from wholesalers. As the Associated Press notes:

He named several products after his daughters Charlotte and Madeleine and gave quirky names to others. Among them were Trader Darwin vitamins and a non-alcoholic sparkling juice called Eve’s Apple Sparkled by Adam.

After leaving Trader Joe’s, Coulombe spent the next 25 years working as a consultant or interim CEO for a number of companies. Coulombe retired in 2013. He is also credited for establishing a welcoming workplace culture that offered employees good benefits and regular salary increases.

The blend of savvy management and idiosyncratic aesthetics that characterized Trader Joe’s is one that’s been difficult to replicate anywhere else. That the template Coulombe put into place has endured for so long speaks to his ability to create something new — and something that’s lasted.

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