Trader Joe’s Marketing Savvy : Business: The South Pasadena-based grocery chain’s Fearless Flyer mailer uses humor and food trivia to make the sale.

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Haugaard is a Monrovia free-lance writer.

Among the advertisements for the 1987 Merlot de Bordeaux, the natural yeast and garlic wafers for dogs and cats and the 96% fat-free chicken chili is a turn-of-the-century woodcut featuring 10 dogs seated at a formal dinner table.

“Bone appetit!” the caption says.

It’s a characteristic quip from Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer, an overgrown advertising circular that regularly lands in the mailboxes of 350,000 San Gabriel Valley households.

The Flyer, distributed in one form or another for 23 years by the South Pasadena-based specialty grocery chain, is not your everyday supermarket mailer. There are no glossy photographs and it touts no sale prices, because the company doesn’t have sales. It is printed on inexpensive, recycled newsprint, uses 19th-Century woodcuts fashioned into quirky cartoons, and has a breezy editorial voice that dishes out equal parts self-promotion and food trivia.


For example, for anyone baffled by the difference between prawns and shrimp, the Flyer explains that prawns are larger and are grown in fresh water, while shrimp are exclusively from salt water. And if you want to know the top apricot producer in the world (it’s Turkey), you’ll find the answer on the front of the April, 1990, issue.

It’s called informational marketing, and Steven Koff, president of the Southern California Grocers Assn. in Los Angeles, said Trader Joe’s has put its own spin on the technique, which he believes is the trend of the future in grocery advertising.

Koff said he believes Trader Joe’s homespun, humorous approach is unique in Southern California. Other local specialty markets take a different tack. Bristol Farms in South Pasadena puts on free cooking classes to familiarize customers with its products, said Jody Munoz-Flores, community relations manager for Bristol Farms. The company also publishes an informational wine flyer and weekly newspaper inserts.

Chris Albright, a co-owner of Pasadena-based Jurgensen’s Grocery Co., said his firm features informational advertising in its occasional Vineyard Voice and Epicurean newsletters. But Jurgensen’s handouts do not contain any Trader Joe’s-style humor, said Albright, who thinks the Fearless Flyer is “hilarious.”

Project manager Pat St. John, who produces the Flyer with graphic artist Sonny De Guzman at the company headquarters, said Trader Joe’s founder, Joe Coulombe, started the Flyer in 1967 as a photocopied handout on imported wines. St. John described Coulombe, now retired from the company, as “a genius with an off-the-wall sense of humor.”

The Flyer’s illustrations are culled from old periodicals such as Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine and Girl’s Own Paper, and from adventure books, including “The Boy Traveler in Mexico” and “The Young Nimrods in North America.” They are fashioned into cartoons by the addition of sometimes corny captions.


One features a public television announcer saying: “ . . . and after Mme. Julia Child has shown us how to make tarte aux pommes for your holiday dinner, we’ll switch to the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the Raiders will show us how to make turnovers.”

Another pictures two women in conversation. One declares: “It’s an annual post-holiday seasonal adjustment. It involves recalculation of fuel intake in relation to energy expenditures, and takes into account specific maintenance requirements, with an eye to lowering the level of questionable constituents.” Her companion replies: “Yes, I’m on a diet, too!”

As Trader Joe’s expanded to a chain of 32 stores throughout California, the Flyer also grew. Now, St. John said, it comes out five times a year, contains 20 pages, features 80 to 100 products per issue and is mailed to 3.5 million households in California.

The newsletter is an effective sales tool, said Mike Parker, senior vice president at Trader Joe’s. Each time the Flyer comes out, he said, the stores experience a substantial increase in business for about two weeks; the size of the spurt varies according to the products advertised.

Koff of the grocers association said Trader Joe’s has “established a good clientele that looks forward to (the Fearless Flyer) and appreciates it.”

Reader response is mostly favorable, St. John said, though some people have written in to say: “You mean to tell me you cut down a tree for this?”


As for St. John, she liked one Coulombe cartoon so well that she used it twice, most recently in the June, 1989, issue. The cartoon, appearing next to advertisements for oatmeal cookies and Pirouline mint wafers, shows an academic-looking gentleman droning on in front of a classroom full of young men: “Providing that the motion is under a constant force, the kinematics of the situation dictate that, as the molecular friction resists the momentum of the sheer component, intolerable vectors develop in a semirigid medium--and that’s how the cookie crumbles!”