WASHINGTON — John Shields, a longtime retail executive who expanded the quirky California grocery chain Trader Joe’s across the nation in the 1990s, making it one of the most popular and most profitable niche retailers in the country, died Oct. 31 in Southern California. He was 82.
His death was first reported by the Los Angeles Times. The cause and other details were not immediately available.
After working for more than three decades in department store chains, Mr. Shields became chief executive of Trader Joe’s in 1988. He had never worked in the grocery business before, but he had known the store’s founder, Joe Coulombe, since the 1950s, when they were fraternity brothers at Stanford University.
Coulombe opened the first Trader Joe’s, named after him, in Pasadena, Calif., in 1967. He geared his stores toward an educated though not necessarily affluent crowd, offering a hint of adventure and exoticism in the stores’ products and decor.
New outlets could not open fast enough for many of its devoted shoppers.
Trader Joe’s carried many one-of-a-kind items, with low-priced wines and a wide selection of cheeses, olives, nuts, and other products. The stores were much smaller than most supermarkets, and the narrow aisles were packed with boxes and barrels to give the feel of an outdoor bazaar. Clerks wore brightly colored Hawaiian shirts and were encouraged to be chatty with customers.
The company was sold in 1979 to a German conglomerate owned by the Albrecht family, which also operates the Aldi grocery chain, but it retained its style and culture.
When Mr. Shields became chief executive in 1988, there were 27 Trader Joe’s stores, all along the West Coast. If the business were to grow, it would have to move east, he said.
‘‘After a serious study,’’ Mr. Shields said in a 2002 interview with the Graziadio Business Review, a publication of the Pepperdine University business school, ‘‘we became convinced the 500-mile corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C., was truly Trader Joe’s country. It has more colleges and universities than any other area’’ in the United States.
In 1996, two Trader Joe’s stores opened in Boston, launching an eastward expansion that has continued. One of the most difficult things for Mr. Shields, though, was to preserve the casual California feeling that Coulombe had instilled.
‘‘I still had real reservations whether we could transfer the company culture 2,500 miles away,’’ Mr. Shields said in the Graziadio Business Review interview. ‘‘We finally decided if we could move a cadre of about 25 existing employees to the East Coast, we could do it.’’
John Vincent Shields Jr. was born in Illinois and grew up in San Mateo, Calif. He graduated from Stanford University in 1954 and received an MBA, also from Stanford, two years later.
After two years in the Army, he joined Macy’s in California in 1958, eventually becoming senior vice president of operations. From 1978 to 1987, he was a top executive with Mervyns, a California-based department store chain.
When Mr. Shields retired in 2001, the Trader Joe’s enterprise had grown from 27 stores to more than 170. According to a Businessweek article, the profit margins have consistently been twice the average of most supermarket chains.
Mr. Shields lived in Thousand Oaks, Calif. His wife, Juliana Molloy Shields, died in 2004. He leaves four children and five grandchildren.
Mr. Shields said that when he interviewed job applicants for Trader Joe’s, he would not hire them if they did not smile within 30 seconds.