By: Eli Frishman | Business  | 

Trader Joe's: More Than Just Your Favorite Store

A bell rings, and the store manager calls out, “Grab the meringues, mate!” Immediately, another employee responds, “Sure, captain!” This isn’t the typical conversation overheard at a grocery store, but Trader Joe’s (TJ) is far from your typical grocery store. Known for its beach-vibes, Hawaiian-shirt dawned employees and bubbly personalities, TJ is much more than just a friendly neighborhood supermarket. Instead, it’s a company philosophy that is both innovative and lucrative, attracting loyal customers and promoting important values across the globe.

While originally founded in 1958 as “Pronto Markets,” TJ’s founder, Joe Coulombe, felt his stores were too similar to already existing bigger chains and that in order to succeed, he needed to be different. After vacationing in the Caribbean, he was inspired to create an island-themed supermarket. A few years later, in 1967, the first TJ opened in Pasadena, California, selling specialty items not commonly found in most American grocers, a business strategy that continues to make TJ unique.

While the Tiki-Culture that TJ modeled its stores after was at its heyday in the 50’s and 60’s, TJ found a way to successfully preserve this era of history in all of its stores, allowing people to experience an almost tropical vacation during a typical visit. This branding approach is so successful that the American Customer Satisfaction Index listed TJ as number one in customer shopping experience. But that statistic isn’t solely due to the aesthetically pleasing layout. As anyone who has ever visited a TJ can tell you, TJ’s staff, or “mates” as they preferred to be called, also play a large role.

Upon entering a TJ, a customer is greeted with an almost unusual kindness, leading many to question whether these employees are simply good-natured or actors putting on a really good show. Senior Noah Hazan, from Columbus, Ohio and a member of YU’s cross-country team, even incorporated a Trader Joe’s stop into his running schedule. He explained, “there’s a Trader Joe’s around ten miles away from the heights. While Key Foods may be more conveniently located, you just can’t beat the deals and the friendly, small town feel that Trader Joe’s has to offer.” Noah is only one of many people around the U.S. who value the shopping experience and the employees they meet.

But one is still left wondering why Trader Joe’s has such personable employees when other stores seem to neglect this factor. According to David Disalvo, a writer for Forbes, the answer lies in the type of workers TJ looks to hire. TJ hires a certain sort of person, and I don’t mean specific personality types,” he wrote. “I mean they hire people who are unabashedly engaged in what they do. And they do everything, from stocking to cashiering to cleaning. TJ wants people working there who care about their jobs, no matter what their job is.” By actively seeking out employees who are enthusiastic about all aspects of the job, TJ’s customers are ensured that all their shopping needs are taken care of in an exciting, enjoyable way.

To retain this quality workforce, TJ offers competitive salaries and great benefits. The job site Glassdoor listed them as number 70 on its 100 best places to work, with annual salary increases ranging between seven to ten percent. In addition to the monetary benefits employees receive, TJ attracts a quality workforce by cultivating a community of kindness and friendship. Many past and present employees rave about their experience at TJ, with one employee stating, “it’s been like the only job…where I felt appreciated and supported.” And when the employee feels appreciated, so does the customer.

In order to cover the costs of higher employee benefits, TJ has found ways to cut costs in other areas. By buying most of its goods directly from its suppliers, TJ has eliminated the high costs associated with third-party distributors. Additionally, TJ keeps a very small inventory of products on hand allowing them to efficiently sell and avoid losing money from unsold merchandise, a technique that further provides TJ with its small town Ma and Pa shop feel.

In addition to giving customers an all-around great shopping experience, TJ also provides them with great products sourced from around the world. Junior Leib Weiner remarked, “there's something truly different about TJ’s products; on the one hand, they’re generic, yet, at the same time, they often taste better than the real deal.” Junior Avi Lewkowsky commented on the eclectic selection of goods, noting, “where else can you buy cinnamon broomsticks and vanilla bean maple syrup?”

TJ is also quite competitive within the supermarket industry. In 2004, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that between 1990-2010 the number of stores quintupled, and profits increased tenfold, leading to a 2017 revenue exceeding $13 billion. A 2014 study by the Investment group JLL found that Trader Joe’s sells $1,347worth of items per square foot, while Whole Foods only sells $930 per square foot. Yet, true to their desire for all-around quality, TJ is slow to add new locations. Dan Bane, the current CEO recently said, "we're targeting to open 30 to 35 stores a year in the 48 states...The only thing that holds us back is having the right number of Captains and Mates to open up great stores. So we won't open a store just because we can, we want to open a store that's run by the right kind of people doing the right kinds of things, and that's really important to us." Emphasizing quality over quantity, TJ does business the right way.

You never know what will happen on your average trip to Trader Joe’s. Whether it’s trying out carrot cake spread and a hydrating face sheet mask, finding a plastic lobster in the store and winning a lollipop (look it up, it’s true!) or picking up that pareve vanilla ice cream ubiquitous at every Shabbat table, Trader Joe’s has been ahead of the curve for a while and is only going up and up from here. Who knows, maybe one day YU students won’t have to travel 10 miles to get to the closest one.