Opinion: How Trader Joe's Nailed its Pandemic Response

Cities could learn from the grocery store chain's successful navigation of the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

2 minute read

February 2, 2021, 9:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Social distancing in a Trader Joe's line in Cambridgeport, Cambridge, Massachusetts March 21, 2020

Social distancing in a Trader Joe's line in Cambridge, Massachusetts, picture on March 21, 2020. | Strmsrg / Wikimedia Commons

The pandemic has thrown the benefits of urban density into doubt as recently untethered work-from-home employees flee city centers, driven by fear of COVID-19, lack of the usual draws like nightclubs and restaurants, and lower costs of living elsewhere. As people hunker down at home and grocery stores become major sites of outbreaks, one grocery chain has managed to implement low-cost but wildly effective measures to keep its employees safe and its sales at pre-pandemic levels. According to Nate Cherry, Trader Joe's has managed to "incentivize the right, community-oriented behaviors" using "functional problem-solving, practical solutions, better data mining and analysis, and more flexibility" that have helped the popular chain thrive during the pandemic.

Trader Joe's,with an employee infection rate of 2.4% (far below the 20% averaged by other grocery stores) has implemented small but powerful changes that offer valuable lessons for cities. As a hyper-local amenity, their stores mainly serve users that live within on or two miles, reducing customers' reliance on transportation for basic necessities—a worthy goal for neighborhoods and a cornerstone of the recent "15-minute city" movement. The store also provides an excellent example of space management in their parking lots. "Similarly, one of the easiest things we can do as planners is to more intelligently manage the infrastructure we have — specifically, sidewalks, which can be better structured to accommodate passive and active areas, as well as seating and landscape areas." Other tools that would be useful anywhere include sanitation infrastructure(in the case of Trader Joe's, visible hand-washing stations), attention to proper ventilation, and a flexibility to implement temporary solutions quickly and cost-effectively.

Planners must look for the opportunities and tweaks that will allow us to resume urban life with all the things we love about it more safely and equitably. "Our cities of tomorrow might be much like the ones of today, just a bit less crowded, with access to more resources and managed with greater responsiveness — like your favorite grocery store."

Monday, January 25, 2021 in Rice Kinder Institute for Urban Research

View of Mount Hood at golden hour with Happy Valley, Oregon homes in foreground.

Clackamas County Votes to Allow ADUs, Residential RVs

County officials hope the zoning changes will help boost the housing supply in the region.

June 18, 2024 - Mountain Times

Single-family homes in a suburban neighborhood in Florida.

New Florida Law Curbs HOA Power

The legislation seeks to cut down on ‘absurd’ citations for low-level violations.

June 16, 2024 - The Guardian

Aerial view of intersection in New York City with yellow cabs and zebra crosswalks.

Planners’ Complicity in Excessive Traffic Deaths

Professor Wes Marshall’s provocatively-titled new book, "Killed by a Traffic Engineer," has stimulated fierce debates. Are his criticisms justified? Let’s examine the degree that traffic engineers contribute to avoidable traffic deaths.

June 13, 2024 - Todd Litman

Two-story homes on residential street in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada.

British Columbia Cracks Down on Short-Term Rentals

Provincial leaders say the new rules could open up as many as 19,000 units for long-term rental.

June 20 - CTV

Small backyard cottage with gabled roof in San Diego, California.

San Diego Sees Continued Growth in ADU Permits

Recent changes to regulations have made it easier and more affordable for homeowners to build ‘granny flats,’ and San Diego’s housing stock is benefiting.

June 20 - Axios San Diego

Close-up of top of California state capitol dome with U.S. and California flags flying and blue sky in background.

California is Updating its Climate Adaptation Strategy

The 2024 draft plan outlines the state's key climate resilience priorities, includes specific and measurable actions, and serves as a framework for collective efforts across sectors and regions in California.

June 20 - California Natural Resources Agency

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.