Trader Joe’s

Ok let me tell you a little story.

As a family, we are always curious about new businesses and entrepreneurial activity. I’m also a podcast listener and recently we were listening to one of my favorite shows called Freakonomics Radio. It was all about a grocery store chain called Trader Joe’s.  I’m sure many of you have heard of them. We’ve never been in one. 

Here’s how the podcast started.

STEPHEN DUBNER (the host of the show): Shark Tank, if you don’t know, is the TV show where people pitch business ideas to famous investors.

ROBERTO: You might be Mark Cuban or Mr. Wonderful. You’re trying to decide, would you invest?

STEPHEN DUBNER:And that is Michael Roberto. He’s a business professor at Bryant University, formerly of the Harvard Business School. There’s one lecture he likes to start by giving his students this fictional Shark Tank pitch.

ROBERTO: “I’d like to open a new kind of grocery store. We’re not going to have any branded items. It’s all going to be private label. We’re going to have no television advertising and no social media whatsoever. We’re never going to have anything on sale. We’re not going to accept coupons. We’ll have no loyalty card. We won’t have a circular that appears in the Sunday newspaper. We’ll have no self-checkout. We won’t have wide aisles or big parking lots. Would you invest in my company?”

STEPHEN DUBNER:And of course you’re supposed to think, “There is no way I’d invest in that company. That sounds like the stupidest company ever.”

ROBERTO: And, of course, you get a lot of consternation.

STEPHEN DUBNER:That’s when Roberto reveals that not only does such a grocery store already exist, but they’re crushing the competition.

And of course, they are talking about Trader Joe’s. Here’s the link to the whole podcast if you’d like to listen to it.  

We were recently in South Carolina after March break heading home, when we decided we wanted to find a Trader Joe’s to explore, and find out if they are really as good as all this hype. They weren’t very many choices, but there was one just outside of Richmond, Virginia, and so we decided to head for it. The store was just slightly out of the way our way home. We made it there within half an hour of closing.

Once we were inside and started walking around I stopped to talk to one of the gentleman stocking shelves (Adam) and mentioned to him that this was the first time we’ve been to Trader Joe’s; that we actually live in Canada and that we drove out of our way just to drop in at the store.  Did Adam have any recommendations for us?

Well, Adam said, “just give me one second,” and got rid of the stuff that he was stocking and disappeared around the aisle. He was soon back with three really nice reusable grocery bags that he said were a gift to us. Wow!! Now he was prepared to show us around; and show us around he did for about the next 15 to 20 minutes. We walked all around the store picking up this and that from their fairly small, limited item store while Adam shared passionately what he liked or knew others really liked. The vast majority of the items were branded under the Trader Joe’s brand.

It was so much fun and we were obviously rookies. The other shoppers gave us little knowing smiles as moved back and forth.

One of the things I heard from the podcast was that the store intentionally stocks the shelves during the day because they want their staff to interact with customers. When I asked Adam about this he confirmed it, and indicated his primary job was talking to us and secondary was stocking shelves. I asked him how long he had worked for Trader Joe’s and he replied 8 years. He gushed about how well he had been treated and how he loved being part of the team there.

When we figured we were done, Adam put one last item into our basket and said, “this one’s on me” and crossed out the barcode so that it wouldn’t scan. It was a gift from him to us. What kind of business it this?? There was another lady employee there who wanted us to taste one of her favourite spices, and so she crossed out the barcode on it. This too was a gift. I’m thinking, they give their stock staff allowances to give away items!

It was just so much fun. By the time we checked out with $140 USD worth of items, we were fans and we had yet to taste a single thing. 

We have since started trying their products, and are enjoying them too. 

Trader Joe’s is a great example of what can happen when we buck the trends, and get personal. We’ll be back.

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