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Opinion

Letters to the Editor:  How Joe Coulombe was a marketing genius before Trader Joe’s

Trader Joe’s founder Joseph Coulombe at his Pasadena home in 2011.
Trader Joe’s founder Joseph Coulombe at his Pasadena home in 2011.
(Los Angeles Times)

To the editor: In 1966, I was 18 years old and working long hours as a cashier at a tiny store called Pronto Market in Pacific Palisades. The only wines we carried were Italian Swiss Colony and Manischewitz, and they mostly collected dust. (“Joe Coulombe, founder of Trader Joe’s, dies at 89,” Feb. 29)

One day the boss handed out packages containing a “Wine Appreciation Correspondence Course” to each of the three employees. “You have three weeks to read it, take the test and get your certificate,” he said. “Your goal is to demystify wine purchasing decisions for our customers and to sell them a lot of wine.”

We did just that.

Adjacent to the single cash register, we cleared away some shelf space for a stock of modestly priced wines. The eclectic and varied collection was a true test for our newly acquired knowledge — and knowledge is all we had, because at 18 years old, we were legally able to sell wine but not drink it.

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With enthusiasm, familiarity with our regular clientele and brazen salesmanship, we would study each customer’s groceries as they were rung up and then confidently suggest a wine pairing. Our sales were astonishing.

Within a year, the boss opened a new store devoted exclusively to wine and affordable gourmet food items. The boss was Joe Coulombe, and he called the new store Trader Joe’s.

College taught me engineering, and Joe taught me salesmanship. Thank you, Joe.

Don Ciaffardini, Long Beach

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To the editor: Coulombe’s vision of marketing to a “person who got a Fulbright scholarship, went to Europe for a couple of years and developed a taste for something other than Velveeta by way of cheese, something more than ordinary beer by way of alcoholic beverages and something other than Folgers by way of coffee,” may have been more successful than he realized.

When I was on a Fulbright in Wales in 1990-91, my roommates and I often found ourselves sitting around the kitchen bemoaning the lack of a Trader Joe’s in Aberystwyth.

And yes, I still shop at Trader Joe’s, and I’m still overeducated and underpaid.

Leslie Jones, Los Angeles

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To the editor: Your obituary deserves praise for describing Coulombe’s inspiring story, especially about his keen sense of customer base and penchant for promoting employees within the ranks and paying them well.

What is not mentioned is that most of the employees are less well-paid, part-time workers who go on to those good full-time positions only after they demonstrate their value and loyalty to the company.

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This weeding process better explains why the company never has to hire outside managers de novo.

William K. Solberg, Los Angeles


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