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The Kool-Aid at Trader Joe’s – Secrets to Happy Employees

Have you ever noticed that Trader Joe’s employees are abnormally cheerful and eager to help?
For example, last night my cashier was singing and drumming on the counter to “You Sexy Thing.” And the cashier next door was juggling (ok, exaggerating).
Meanwhile, the employees down the street at Target are ill-tempered buffoons unfriendly and complacent. What does TJ’s do to achieve such dramatically different results from hourly workers? This is how I know recruiting is my life’s calling. I spend way too much time thinking about this stuff!
As the cashier hands balloons and stickers to my wailing kids, I decide I must investigate. What is TJ’s doing to inspire its workers? Is there a Two-Buck Chuck IV drip in the back? Unlimited Powerberry supply?
I looked for an answer on Google. Here’s what I learned – TJ’s unique recipe for success:
1. Attract curious, service-minded employees. Posted in the Careers section on TJ’s web site: “Here at Trader Joe’s, we’re always looking for friendly, helpful, ambitious and responsible people. All applicants must be willing to smile!” TJ’s subscribes to the belief that happy employees make for happy customers. By attracting motivated talent, treating them well and fostering their creativity, the “feel good” vibe is tangible when you enter the store.
2. Offer them the opportunity to learn & become experts. There are formal and informal training programs, mentoring, team-based activities, etc. At the most basic level, employees are encouraged to sample and become experts on TJ’s products. Inevitably, they become advocates for their favorites and engage customers in suggestive selling. That’s why it’s not unusual for a store associate to breeze by and say, “Hey, I poached those frozen shrimp in the ginger butternut squash soup the other night. It was delicious!”
Every employee, regardless of pecking order, has the opportunity to become an expert and be heard. The concepts of authority, ownership and ability to make an impact are free for the taking. Whether you’re a cashier or store manager, you’re constantly challenged to learn new things and as a result your job becomes far more interesting. Interesting work has given TJ’s some of the lowest turnover rates in the industry plus a place among Fortunes Best Places to Work. And it’s good for sales: They move 2x more product than competing supermarkets such as Whole Foods.
3. Make them part of a winning team. TJ’s is a desirable place to work – they have a fun, unassuming culture and exotic, cheap private-label products. It’s nice to be part of a winning team. Employees take pride in TJ’s products, store experience and overall brand. They want to preserve their best-in-class reputation.
Job titles and reporting hierarchy are based on a team model that everyone who’s seen The Love Boat can relate to: Store managers are Captains. Under them are Mates, and the associates are the Crew. Not only is the concept of teamwork baked into organizational structure, it’s also a very customer service-centric model. The message is: We all work together for the customer. We each have a role to play in the customer experience.
4. Encourage playfulness. TJ’s, The Love Boat and Pike Place Fish Market (where they toss the fish) all have one thing in common: The party cruise atmosphere. You’re supposed to be having a good time, mon. This is the central theme of the FISH! Management philosophy: “Play – Have fun and make the customers feel as though they can have fun while they’re there, too.”

5. Show employees they’re valued. TJ’s employees are among the highest paid in the industry. It’s not unusual for a Captain to earn $132K in base and bonuses (compared to $116K at Target). But compensation isn’t the only reason they’re able to attract and retain high-caliber talent.
There’s acknowledgement and support. Acknowledgement in the form of a strong culture of promoting from within. For example, TJ’s won’t go outside for Captains, preferring instead to groom their own. Support in the form of collaboration, mentoring and general helpfulness. Ever see a Store Manager open a new lane and personally wait on customers? Employees at every level are expected to do whatever needs doing.
The dominant themes are those of a meritocracy… a company that puts its people before its bottom line. Everyone pays in their dues. A rising tides lifts all boats. In reality, it makes good business sense: TJ’s gets away with staffing more thinly and asking its workers to wear more hats. It keeps the unions out and it saves a ton of money each year due to impressive retention rates.
Catching the Fever
How can we translate TJ’s corporate values into the advertising world? I’ll give you just one example. Last year around the holidays, Kaplan Thaler gave each of their 200 employees an iPad. It was a token of appreciation – yes – and it also fostered hands-on knowledge of the technology, content and media that the agency regularly recommends to its clients. Everyone, from Admin to Managing Director, was handed the same opportunity to become an expert.

Fostering a Loyal Workforce at Trader Joe’s, Lewis, 2009
Inside the Secret World of Trader Joe’s, Kowitt, 2010

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