We Finally Know Why Trader Joe's Parking Lots Seem So Small

Everyone who shops at Trader Joe's knows that shopping there on a busy weekend can be stressful. In addition to the normal shopping rush, the chain also has smaller-than-average parking lots at all of its locations. This can make it difficult to not only find a spot but also to squeeze your car into or back out of one. On top of that, some Trader Joe's parking lots are so small they don't even have space for a designated shopping cart return.

Perhaps the most obvious explanation for this is that Trader Joe's is designed to feel like a little neighborhood market rather than a big supermarket, despite the fact that it's a national chain owned by the Aldi corporation. But while that branding choice does play a role, Trader Joe's teeny tiny parking lots are actually dictated by standard city planning regulations, which means all Trader Joe's — even if they are brand new, have recently been remodeled, or if they are one of the most popular locations – have smaller parking lots compared to other chains.

Why city regulations won't allow Trader Joe to have bigger parking lots

Given that grocery stores typically have large parking lots, it might seem odd that Trader Joe's wouldn't be allowed to have them too. However, cities don't allot parking lot spaces based on the type of business or the amount of customers that shop there. Instead, it's determined by the store's square footage,  as explained in an October 2022 episode of the Trader Joe's podcast. So the bigger the building a grocery store is in, the bigger the parking lot it will have, and Trader Joe's stores are definitely on the smaller side.

The exact number of allotted parking spaces varies from city to city. In the podcast episode, co-hosts Tara Miller and Matt Sloan explained that Trader Joe's can sometimes even petition for more than their allotted spots depending on the municipality's laws but it's not always a given. In fact, in many metropolitan areas, Trader Joe's isn't allowed to have parking lots at all.

Other businesses are required to follow these same city zoning regulations, but the reason the parking lot size is so noticeable at Trader Joe's is that it has the same sized customer base as many other major grocery store chains, but it still operates out of physically small retail locations, according to the Strategy Story. If the amount of allotted space was instead determined by the number of customers a store serves, Trader Joe's would have as many parking spots as, say, Whole Foods, but since that's not the case, it tends to feel cramped.

The future of Trader Joe's parking lots

There's one way Trader Joe's parking situation could theoretically be alleviated, but the chain has already made up its mind about it. "The argument could be made, 'Hey, Trader Joe's just make your stores bigger.' But that kind of changes who we are," Miller explained in the podcast episode. "If we had bigger stores, sure we'd have bigger parking lots, but we'd feel like a different store." 

Take a look at the track record of the original Trader Joe's store in Pasadena, California, and you can see the brand's commitment to its neighborhood feel. Throughout its 50-plus years in business, the flagship Pasadena store has never undergone any major expansions to accommodate more shoppers or cars, according to the Trader Joe's podcast.

Customers hoping this could change in the future were offered a glimmer of hope in May 2023, when Trader Joe's announced (per The Modesto Beat) that its Modesto, California location would be renovated to nearly double its square footage, thus giving the store a bigger parking lot allowance. But while there's always a possibility that the same could happen at other Trader Joe's locations too, it isn't worth counting on. The same month the expansion was announced, U.S. Representative Robert Garcia also proposed a bill to remove the pre-existing parking minimums, which would make it legal for retailers to allot as few parking spots as they want, according to CNN. The good news is, Trader Joe's doesn't have plans to do that. 

"We don't open stores with the world's most ridiculous parking lot on purpose," Matt Sloan clarified on the podcast while Miller added, "That's not our plan. We try to get as much parking as possible." So while Trader Joe's parking lots probably won't be getting any bigger, at least we know they probably won't be getting smaller either.