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Driving Me Crazy

I found myself in a tight spot the other day. Boxed in. Surrounded by aggressive and unfriendly crowds.

Fearing for my safety, property and sanity.
Desperately seeking a way out.

I was in a Trader Joe’s parking lot. It doesn’t matter which one. Every one I’ve ever encountered is so small that it wouldn’t accommodate a handball court.

As the old joke goes: Trader Joe’s real estate agent: “How’s the parking lot?” Land owner: “Terrible.” Real estate agent: “Great, we’ll take it.”

The founder of Trader Joe’s, Joe Coulombe, passed recently. He was described, and rightly so, as a marketing whiz, a retail visionary whose chain of budget-minded specialty food stores, launched in the late 1960s developed a cult-like following on its way to becoming a Southern California institution.

Ease of entrance and exit apparently wasn’t listed as one of his accomplishments.

Yet we flock to the stores in our never-ending quest for $2 wine, frozen quattro formaggio pizza, hatch chili mac and cheese, green olive tapenade and organic low-fat yogurt wildberry probiotic smoothies.

Topped off with a broken taillight.

So as I waited patiently behind a woman driving an SUV the size of a Space Shuttle fuel tank, I began to wonder. If all Trader Joe’s parking lots are tiny, can we reasonably assume that the chain’s management wants it so?

It’s now owned by a German firm and I can envision the CEO slamming his fist on the boardroom table and shouting, “Jawhol! We must teach American shoppers discipline!”

Or probably not. The real reason is much more sophisticated than that.

According to several published reports, TJ’s small footprint — stores and parking lots — translates into to cheaper prices for consumers.

“Trader Joe’s sells twice as much per square foot as Whole Foods,” the investment firm JLL reports. “Trader Joe’s sells a whopping $1,734 per square foot… In comparison, Whole Foods sells $930 per square foot.”

It seems strange to me that food sales would be calculated in square feet. I mean, watermelons are bigger than olives so how does that factor in? But if I was a math major, I wouldn’t be writing this right now.

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Building smaller stores with small parking lots is part of the Trader Joe’s business model, it seems, a way to keep costs down and pass the savings on to customers.

They must be on to something. Whole Foods has giant parking lots but you need to refinance your house to shop there.

Speaking of traffic, both off and on road variety, I once heard a traffic report on the radio that said a motorist driving on Laurel Canyon Blvd. hit and sheared off a water main valve. The resulting flood caused mud, some ankle deep, to flow down the street, closing it from Ventura Blvd. to Mulholland Drive.

For the uninitiated, this is a major thoroughfare between the Valley and the West Side. In the grand scheme of L.A. traffic, this was merely a footnote. For sheer psychological carnage, there’s nothing like an 8 a.m. trip down the freeway, any freeway.

But the domino effect was staggering. Commuters tried alternative canyon routes, specifically Beverly Glenn Blvd. which became so clogged it took an hour to travel from Ventura Blvd. to Mulholland, usually a 15-minute drive.

And if they were lucky enough to reach Mulholland, it was moving at creep speed. Others took their chances on the 405 Freeway which, instead of being merely apocalyptic, had been transformed into a parking lot.

Ventura Blvd. was impacted.  So was the Ventura Freeway. It occurred to me that if a terrorist or other maniacal malcontent wants to inflict pain on the good people of Los Angeles, he wouldn’t have to fly a plane into a building or hack our power grid computers. He could just knock over a few water main valves or fire hydrants. We would be brought to a standstill. Our entire city would become one giant Trader Joe’s parking lot.

The good news is that all of this will be ancient history when we hop into our self-driving cars in the near future. They will whisk us to our destination and return for us when summoned.

No more traffic jams, no more parking hassles, no more accidents, no more road rage. The car will be our servile friend.

Then I read that Ford recently recalled a total of 1,898,728 vehicles to replace defective Takata front passenger-side airbags. The defective airbags have been linked to ruptures that can send metal fragments at the passenger, due to deteriorating propellant.

All told, recalls of Takata airbags in 14 different automotive brands currently stands at nearly 78 million.

Toyota said it would begin to replace defective passenger-side inflators but if parts are unavailable, it has advised its dealers to disable the airbags and affix “Do Not Sit Here” messages to the dashboard.

In the meantime, Toyota, Volkswagen, Fiat Chrysler and Mitsubishi continue to sell new vehicles with defective airbags that will need to be recalled, according to a Senate Commerce Committee report.

And it’s not just airbags.

General Motors in 2014 recalled more cars and trucks in the U.S. than it sold in the five years since it filed for bankruptcy, according to CNN.

Chief among them was 2.6 million of its small cars due to faulty ignition switches, which could shut off the engine during driving and thereby prevent the air bags from inflating. At least 124 deaths have resulted from the flaw which had been known to GM for at least a decade but never publicized prior to the recall being declared.

Ford once famously recalled 21 million vehicles from 10 model years for a problem that caused some vehicles to slip from park into reverse. Records show Ford’s solution for that problem, which investigators linked to 6,000 accidents and nearly 100 deaths, was to send drivers a warning sticker to put on the dashboard.

And these guys are going to build self-driving cars? 
I think I’ll take a hike. After all, it would be easier to get to Trader Joe’s on foot than by the family sedan.

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Robert Rector
Robert Rector
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