The Secret Behind Why People Love Trader Joe’s So Much

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Roman Tiraspolsky)

When it comes to grocery stores, some chains rise above the rest, but few sow the kind of fervent enthusiasm as Trader Joe’s does. This week the radio show Freakonomics did their research-driven dive on just what it is about the “quirky little grocery chain,” as they say, that makes people love it so much.

Hint: It’s not the parking lots. In a lot of cases, it’s something equally tangential to the actual groceries, though: the employees. The show digs into the secretive company, examining the way it eliminates the paradox of choice, and how the private-label strategy works, but the biggest takeaway is how it looks at why the folks in the Hawaiian shirts are just so good at their jobs. One of the first things the host notes when shopping there, he says, are the employees: “They are friendly, helpful, and enthusiastic.” But not only that, but how many there are.

Instead of stocking shelves overnight, he says, they do it during the day, so that they can increase customer interaction. Employees are trained to look for customers who can’t find something or who seem curious. They are told to initiate conversations, to be friendly and chatty. “Do what it takes to make customers feel appreciate and wanted.” Part of that is making life easy for the customer, which is why you run into even more employees at the checkout counter, directing the line, ringing you up, everywhere, trying to help you.

And those employees? They might truly be as cheerful and happy as they seem, since the company pays above the industry standard — around $50,000 for crew members and more than double that for captains, along with “better-than-average benefits.” They’ve also been hired just for that personality: “This is not an ordinary group of people,” a guest explained of his hiring class at the store. “They hire for this kind of extroverted, naturally chatty kind of person.

Once hired, the crew members get trained, but not just on how the mechanics of the store work, but also on the values. “There was a tremendous amount of discussion about how are you going to be with the customers.”

The end result of this hiring and training, the show concludes, doesn’t just make for everybody’s favorite grocery store — it also might just be a strategy that more companies should think about.