Trader Joe’s is known for many things: cookie butter, cheap wine, Hawaiian shirt-wearing staff members, 19-cent bananas — and yes, cramped and chaotic parking lots. The grocery chain knows about customers’ complaints, and has heard the far-fetched theories.
“If you spend any time on social media, looking at things about Trader Joe’s, you will find there are lots of conspiratorial theories about our parking lots,” said Tara Miller, self-described “director of words and phrases and clauses” at the company, on a recent episode of the Inside Trader Joe’s podcast.
“People out there in the world really seem to think — not all people, but a number of people — that we are purposefully making horrible parking lots,” Miller continued.
“We don’t open stores with the world’s most ridiculous parking lot on purpose,” responded Matt Sloan, the “marketing product guy” at Trader Joe’s.
Some have argued the Southern California-based company intentionally picks smaller lots to cut costs. Others have hypothesized the choice may be value-driven, opening new locations in walkable, dense neighborhoods over suburban sprawl.
In reality, the explanation has more to do with city planning. Many cities have parking minimums in their zoning codes. The number of spaces a business is required to accommodate depends on a few factors, including the size of the business. And Trader Joe’s stores are small.
“A 12,000-square-foot store will get far fewer parking spaces than a 70,000-square-foot store,” said Miller.
The stores aren’t just small, they’re also busy.
“Now let’s say that 12,000-square-foot store has 500 people visiting, and the giant store has 100 people visiting — the parking lots are going to feel very different,” Sloan added.
Newer stores tend to have larger lots than the original Trader Joe’s location in Pasadena, which Sloan admitted “still very much has a challenging parking lot.” But the two podcast hosts said the company isn’t looking at opening massive warehouse-sized locations.
“The argument could be made, ‘Hey, Trader Joe’s, just make your stores bigger,'” Miller said. “But that kind of changes who we are. We have small stores, so they come with small parking lots. If we had bigger stores, sure we’d have bigger parking lots, but we’d feel like a different store.”