Looking for Kool Aid? You won’t find it at Trader Joe’s. You will find naturally flavored fruit drink mix with no high fructose corn syrup. I’m drinking the off-brand Kool Aid.
Trader Joe’s has many fans roaming the world. You can find them with their reusable shopping bags, raving about new flavors, and boasting about their health-conscious treats. Many of their shoppers are have renounced the name brands and reserved their money for the Trader Joe’s line of foods. As a company, Trader Joe’s embodies more than just groceries, it’s a full experience.
It’s funny to think a grocery story can become a lifestyle brand. In many ways, it makes sense. People eat food daily, and some diets define groups of people. Trader Joe’s is different, because doesn’t follow dietary restrictions. It supports vegan, gluten-free, and diary-free diets, but it also had chicken and white bread. Trader Joe’s isn’t so much defined by the food it sells, it’s more defined by its customer experience and cost-friendliness.
Trader Joe’s has earned a cult-like reputation. If you get one of their shoppers talking about the brand, you’re in for a long conversation. But it’s for good reason. Trader Joe’s gives people a lot of reasons to love their experience.
When the Business Saves, the Customer Saves
Trader Joe’s is known for its affordable products, and it’s fairly obvious how they keep prices so low. The majority of their products come from their own private brands, meaning they don’t rely on outside vendors to set prices. This can create a unique flavor experience, but it also keeps prices lower for customers.
Trader Joe’s is able to buy directly from the supplier. This keeps costs down so stores spend less stocking their shelves. For the most part, they’re only competing against other Trader Joe’s locations.
Low costs could have meant higher profit margins for Trader Joe’s, but they’d rather let the customers feel the impact of their direct purchases. Instead, they use this as an investment in the customer experience. Trader Joe’s controls the cost and quality of their products. Customers keep coming back, so it’s clear this strategy works.
The Branding Is Hidden In Plain Sight
The hardcore fans of Trader Joe’s see a theme across its stores. It’s one of those things you can’t unsee once it’s been seen. Every store has a nautical theme. Why? Because the tiki theme was popular when founder Joe Coulombe (the Joe in Trader Joe’s) opened the first store in 1967.
If you’re a first time shopper, this might fly over your head. Maybe you recognize the floral shirts, but the theme goes a little deeper. If you look at name tags, every employee is a member of the “crew.” They communicate by ringing bells, and the number of rings corresponds to different messages. There’s even a rumor that every store has a plastic lobster hidden inside as game for the kids (or hardcore fans) to play while shopping.
The theme isn’t a secret, but more of an inside joke. If you’re a Trader Joe’s fan, then you’re in on the joke. Store keep things lighthearted and welcoming, and the casual vibe associated with the nautical them translates to casual dress of the employees.
Just Enough Options
When you go to Trader Joe’s, almost everything is from their own brand. This means customers are limited to Trader Joe’s offerings, and they don’t need to worry about competition from other brands. So, if you need to buy pasta sauce, your options are limited. You don’t need to compare minute difference between brands. The options differ because of ingredients you can taste such as: basil, cheese, or meats.
The presence of too many options can create a conundrum known as the Paradox of Choice. Customers can become confused and overwhelmed when there are too many options, fearing they’re going to choose the wrong one. Walking down the chip aisle at a standard grocery store, it’s easy to see how many options there are and how overwhelming that can be.
Trader Joe’s keeps the experience simple. Yes, they do experiment with new flavors, but it’s clear how these flavors deviate from the originals. By keeping the shopping experience relatively simple, they make the experience welcoming for customers and reduce the anxiety associated with shopping.
What You See Is What You Pay
Part of the transparency of Trader Joe’s has to do with their pricing. For the most part, the price you see on the shelf is the price you pay. Customers never have to doubt a purchase. They won’t see a coupon in next week’s flier and there’s not a weekly rotation of discounts.
This can ease the decision making process, further reducing the Paradox of Choice. Omitting coupons and discounts from the process makes the shopping experience much easier for the customer and results in faster transactions.
Trader Joe’s doesn’t have a written statement on its coupon stance, but hardcore fans will know they don’t exist. That said, they will honor merchant’s coupons for non-Trader Joe’s brand products. So, couponers don’t need to resist Trader Joe’s, they just need to know discounts are not part of the Joe’s-brand experience.
The Experience Is the Marketing
Don’t expect to drive down the street and see an advertisement for Trader Joe’s. For a brand that had a presence across the US, their marketing budget doesn’t rely on a lot of promotions. They do have an e-mail newsletter and their Fearless Flyer, but their marketing budget is mostly reserved for the in-store experience.
The free samples consume the biggest portion of the marketing budget. When a customer comes into the store, they’re able to try a new product or a sample of the store-brand coffee. It’s part of the experience, and the goal is to drive customers into the store.
The employees at Trader Joe’s are familiar with their products, and they want to share that knowledge with customers. There’s a sense of excitement in trying the new foods, and the samples convey this emotion. These are the elements of Trader Joe’s that make it more than your typical grocery store experience.
No Data Needed
Providing a positive customer experience is an expectation of the team regardless of metrics. In fact, Trader Joe’s doesn’t collect any customer data. You get the same prices in the store regardless of who you are. No rewards cards needed.
Customers can enter the store knowing they’re buying habits are not being monitored. If they have a suggestion, they will need to bring it up with a crew member. Otherwise, there’s no numbers tracking their movements.
By doing this, a dialogue is encouraged between staff and customer. Crew members will ask question to get answers, and they will make an extra effort to know the customers. There’s no reason to try to influence buyer behaviors in an inorganic way.
If Employees are Treated Well, Customers are Treated Well
As a company, Trader Joe’s has invested in their customer experience. Who really creates the experience? The employees. The benefits at Trader Joe’s are pretty great, especially when compared to other retail jobs. This includes: low-cost health insurance, paid time off, and a 10% retirement contribution. Pay is also above average, often starting at $15.00 with the potential for increase.
Compensation is necessary, but the investment in the employee experience doesn’t end there. Employees can find their schedules vary each day, allowing them become familiar with all aspects of working in the store. This allows the crew to know each part of business operations, so they have the knowledge to answer customer questions. Employees also have the opportunity to try foods, so when the know what they’re talking about when making recommendations.
Employees are the ones who interact with customers on a daily basis. Trader Joe’s wants their employees to stay with them for the long haul and develop within the company. This creates knowledgable employees, and rewards those who put customers first.
New Products Are Part of the Excitement
Part of the mission at Trader Joe’s is to connect customers with new products, flavors, and ingredients. Every store has a section where you can find their new flavors, and these will be outlined in the Fearless Flier. Some of the products are destined to become staples in our diets, such as oat milk. Other seasonal offerings like Candy Corn Popcorn are just for fun.
One beloved product is the Trader Joe’s cauliflower rice. Using cauliflower as a substitute expanded into a cauliflower pizza crust, which is a healthier alternative and a gluten-free offering. Not every product becomes a favorite, but many of the popular products started as an experiment.
What’s important about new products, they don’t remove your favorite products. Customers know they can check off their grocery list when they go into the store. If they leave with a new treat, it’s an added bonus.
Diversity Benefits the Experience
When it comes to food, many people have restrictions. Some people need to avoid diary or gluten, others are vegan, and others are just monitoring what they’re putting into their body. Trader Joe’s does a great job of avoiding unnecessary ingredients and keeping the formula simple. If you need to shop for a special diet, Trader Joe’s tries to make the process simple.
This said, if you like to eat hot dogs and chips, you can still get them at Trader Joe’s. The store has variety, and you’re not restricted to a single diet. In fact, customers are encouraged to try new ingredients and make small changes.
You don’t need to be a vegan to enjoy a Meatless Meatball, and you don’t need to be diary-free to drink Almond Beverage. If you need these products, they’re available for you. If you want to try eating less meat, you’re invited to try the meatless products. All walks of life are welcome, no judgement.
They Reduce Waste and Take a Stance
There’s a reputation surrounding Trader Joe’s customers. They’re known to be eco-friendly and sustainable, and this is reflected in the store’s packaging. In 2019, they made a commitment to reduce the use of plastic in packaging and focus on recycling. Stores only offers paper bags, but they encourage customers to reuse bags.
The store is very open about it’s efforts to remain eco-friendly, and it’s common to see that when looking at customers. Their shopping bags have become a bit of a fashion statement. Some are designed to be more simple and durable while others have artwork pertaining to the region in the country.
Trader Joe’s has managed to incorporate its mission in the best ways possible. Customers can see the lack of styrofoam in packaging and have embraced the designs of the reusable products.
Every Store Is Unique
Most Trader Joe’s fans have their favorite store. Likely due to proximity, but perhaps it’s due to the staff or size of store. Hardcore fans embrace the experience of going to new stores. Not for the food, but for the artwork.
Each store has its own art, and the company actually hires people to make the designs. This means you’ll see different artwork in Arizona than you’ll see in Massachusetts. Usually, the artwork reflects the store’s region of the country, but each section of the store will have signs as well.
These little details enhance the experience. While their is a lot of uniformity across the stores, the differences mean every time a customer enters a new store they will see something new. If it’s not a new product, at least they can see some nice art.
Why Join the Cult?
When you look at all the reasons Trader Joe’s has a cult-like following, it’s easy to understand why people like the store so much. They’re really customer-focused. Money goes toward product development, employee satisfaction, and the customer experience. When you contribute to a Trader Joe’s store, you‘re contributing to a company who’s investing in you.
Trader Joe’s does more than they need. It’s easy to understand why stores in the grocery business don’t have amazing experiences. After all, food is a necessity. Even if the shopping experience is poor, people will still buy food. Fortunately, there are stores who do care about the customer experience.
The people are the main investment at Trader Joe’s. As a customer, your experience matters. When you go into the store, see the artwork, and sample a new product, it’s because the company cares about you. There’s no hidden motive. Trader Joe’s wants you to shop there, and once you’re in the door the crew is going to treat you well.
As a brand, Trader Joe’s has its own priorities. The food plays a big role, but the people are a bigger factor. Rather than invest in marketing, they rely on the customer experience. Rather than make a profit, they keep prices low. And rather than hit specific metrics, they rely on personal interactions to gain data. This investment on experience has given them a following of dedicated fans. Perhaps these people seem to be a cult, but no one brainwashed them. If Trader Joe’s keeps providing the same great experience, people will keep buying what they’re selling.