“Maybe You Shouldn’t Have Children” & 5 Other Weird Conversations I’ve Had with the Ultra-Friendly Staff at Trader Joe’s

updated May 8, 2019
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(Image credit: yusia)

I’ve been told that I have one of “those faces” — one of those faces that looks innately friendly or recognizable. New acquaintances always swear they’ve met me before. (They haven’t.) And total strangers will just strike up a conversation with me on the street or in the middle of Bed Bath & Beyond. While I do find some comfort in these moments, I can’t help but think it’s a little strange that I find myself making quite so many of these connections.

Some of the most random conversations I’ve had with strangers have taken place in the checkout line at my local Trader Joe’s. Of course, those interactions have nothing to do with my face — and everything to do with how TJ’s execs pick and train staffers. The crew at TJ’s is supposed to be outgoing and chatty. With practically everyone.

We’ve all probably picked up on this and it was confirmed by episode 359 of the Freakonomics Radio podcast, which takes a deep dive behind the scenes of Trader Joe’s. The episode talks a lot about the store’s hiring and training process. Mark Gardiner, a former advertising executive, Trader Joe’s devotee, and one-time employee had this to say about working there:

“So, they would tell us, ‘You’re going to be looking for customers who seem like they can’t find something that they want or just seem curious about something. You are going to initiate conversations with these people, and we want you to be friendly, we want you to be chatty, we want you to be empathetic. And more than anything else, we want you to do what it takes to make customers feel appreciated and wanted.'”

He contrasts the store’s model to everyone’s least favorite place: the often adversarial DMV. Unlike the DMV, your friendly neighborhood Trader Joe’s crew seeks to be on your side.

Trader Joe’s goes out of its way to hire extroverted, naturally chatty people. The company culture clearly inspires a uniqueness among its employees, and it shows! I’ve never found myself at a friendlier grocery store where I feel as though everyone I interact with has buddy potential. All of that being said, there are definitely moments — in my experience, at least — where personable has crossed into weird (with, I’m sure, the best possible intentions).

Here are some of the most outrageous examples.

1. “You should join an all-women’s stand-up comedy league.”

It was a few weeks after the January 2017 Women’s March and I was running around town dressed proudly in my THE FUTURE IS FEMALE sweatshirt. I stopped at TJ’s for my weekly grocery run, expecting to exchange a few smiles with some fellow lady shoppers about my outfit, but not thinking much else of it. Honestly, even then, I knew that Women’s March merch had lost its novelty.

But not to the clerk who helped me with my purchases! He complimented my shirt — which made me very happy and spurred me to thank him for being an ally — and then launched into an extensive monologue about his girlfriend’s all-women stand-up comedy league. He then told me I should join the league, despite the fact that I had barely said a word and had certainly not told a single joke. He even gave me a card with relevant contact info as I grabbed my reusable grocery bags and moved toward the door.

2. “I only visit Lancaster to add to my broom collection.”

I’m a native Pennsylvanian. You’d be surprised by how many people assume that this means I also come from an Amish background. Recently, I was having a fairly standard conversation with my Trader Joe’s clerk, exchanging niceties about work and hometowns, until my Pennsylvania roots came up. At that point, we diverged into a deep discussion of the town of Lancaster (if you’re not familiar, there is a large community of Amish families there), which led him to describe to me his collection of Amish brooms. Who knew?

3. “Here’s a very sad story about a dog.”

A proud dog mom and lifelong animal lover, I’ll take a dog story anytime … but intensely tragic ones are hard to take. A few weeks ago, I mentioned to my TJ’s clerk that I have a dog — I’ll talk about him any chance I get — prompting him to tell me more about the best dog he’d ever had. Great! He sounded like the best. Then, I learned that his poor dog had really been through the wringer with abuse at the hands of other owners, overbreeding, and other upsetting details. Should I give the clerk a hug? Ask to see photos? I was really at a loss.

4. “Do your parents like your husband?

Shortly after I got married in 2016, a Trader Joe’s clerk noticed my engagement and wedding rings and asked if I had planned my wedding myself. I told her I had. She was recently engaged, which I was thrilled to hear, and we chatted for a few minutes about the savings hacks I’d picked up and the ideal time for an outdoor reception. Just a couple of gal pals talking weddings! Things took a turn when she asked if my family liked my husband. I nodded my head, and the clerk went on to share the intricacies of her fiancé’s strained relationship with her parents. I wished I could have invited my new friend out for a glass of wine or a pint of ice cream on the couch right at that very moment. I wanted to be a listening ear!

5. “Maybe you shouldn’t have children.”

The woman in line next to me was managing a fussy baby, and after she and her stroller left the store, my clerk and her neighbor were laughing about how miserable it can be to have small children. They rolled their eyes at me as if to say “Who needs that?” and asked me what I thought about the piercing infant screams we’d all been hearing for the last few minutes. “I definitely want to have kids someday, but I’m totally not ready for the baby stage,” I laughed to them. (For the record, I was 25 at the time.) My clerk responded by telling me that I should probably never have children. This is a sensitive subject for so many — myself included — and I was so shocked by the comment, I could do nothing but grab my receipt and walk away.

6. “Guess how many tattoos I have. You’ll never guess!”

I did guess. Just not correctly. It should be noted that this question came out of nowhere.

What are some of the weirdest conversations you’ve had while checking out at Trader Joe’s?