Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is the founder of Savvy Growth, a noted leadership coaching and management consulting firm, and an expert on wellbeing and performance science. Grace writes a regular column on happiness & leadership for WRAL TechWire.

As I was leaving Trader Joe’s last Friday evening, I reflected on how shopping at TJ’s is a unique experience because of the people who work there.  They just seem to love what they do.  I decided to figure out just what makes the employees there so happy and therefore helpful and friendly and share that with you.

Customer service in color

For several days, I had been wanting to make a mad dash to Trader Joe’s as I was missing my favorite TJ items: chicken and pork & ginger soup dumplings.

On an earlier visit, I mentioned to the cashier that these were my favorite since they are so tasty and take just 2 minutes to prepare.  He agreed and replied that since this was their No. 2 selling product, they usually sold out the day’s shipment by the evening, so it was good that I arrived early enough to snag a few.

Wow, I thought, he knew the sales rankings of their products and he confirmed that I had good taste!

On Friday, as my cashier rang up 11, yes 11 dumpling boxes, I told her how I paired them with sauteed spinach and in 2 minutes my meal was made.  I said that since it had been a month since my last visit, I was stocking up and planned to enjoy the meal as soon as I got home.

Trader Joe's scallion dumplings

Trader Joe’s scallion dumplings


A recipe recommendation

She asked if I had tried the dumplings with their crunchy chili sauce. She said that customers had been raving about this sauce with the dumplings and the combination was trending on TikTok.  When I said that I didn’t know of this product, she asked a colleague (aka another member of the “crew”) to find one to show me.  She asked if I wanted to try it, and said if I didn’t like it, I was welcome to return it.

When I got home, I sauteed spinach while warming up my favorite soup dumplings. I added the crunchy chili onion drizzle and viola, a new variation to spice up my standby!

Happy checkers = happy customers

At other grocers, I do not find myself chatting it up with their cashiers.  Then why does this end up happening at Trader Joe’s?

THEY SHOW INTEREST: They might ask if I am doing something fun that weekend. They point out a product I’ve selected saying how much they like it or ask if I have tried it before.  Then they often suggest another product I might enjoy.

THEY SHOW THEY CARE: They or their colleague bags my selections with great care. In reading interviews with TJ crew, one comments, “People really want their groceries bagged well, so I try really hard to get it right.”

In the times I have helped, they express gratitude for my assisting them. There are no self check-outs at TJ.  That would go against their formula of customer service.

They ask a colleague to replace a faulty product, bring me a suggested product, or if I had trouble locating an item, they go find it for me.  They told me there is always a floater whose role is to help a mate assist a customer.

They seem to truly enjoy their work. One crew member said work feels like “hanging out with friends for eight hours.”

TJ fosters a culture where collaboration is crucial, the team works on interlocking pieces of the process to make you, the customer, happy.

Sharing more than just products

Last week, I noticed photocopied Valentine’s coloring sheets at the checkout. I asked what they were, and my cashier said their in-house artist created them.  She then asked, “would you like one?”  My immediate reaction was to tell her to save them for children who wanted to color.

Then, I remembered the very kind gift my friend Sherry had given me when I was depressed.  I said, “Actually, adults now color too” and found myself sharing with the story of the gift I received during my difficult time, and how my thoughtful friend hoped that coloring could be a creative and therapeutic activity.

My cashier started sharing what she knew about adults enjoying coloring too. It was so easy to talk to her!

Trader Joe’s winning formula

Joe Coulombe, the founder of Trader Joe’s, believed in a concept centered on two game-changers: (1) Don’t sell other people’s stuff. Control the quality and profit through private labels. (2) Develop the best talent in the grocery industry.

Today, TJ has higher revenue per square foot than any other grocer  (2x more than Whole Foods and 3.3x more than Walmart) and a cult brand with a fan base that brings in new members into the tribe every day.

The key: Treat employees well. They will in turn be friendly and helpful to customers.

The employees are known as crew, supervisors are mates (80% are promoted from crew), and store managers are captains.  TJ provides above industry wages, holds twice a year performance reviews for feedback and raises, pays for 80+% of dental, vision, health insurance, makes 401K contributions even if crew doesn’t contribute. Captains can earn six figures (100% promoted from mate). The average tenure of a TJ cashier is 19 years!

Mates/captains are known to listen well and be compassionate in understanding family illness/end of term exams and needing time off.

Crew rotate from cashier to creating displays to delivery to ordering to stocking shelves.  There is no time for boredom or being stuck in repetitive tasks as the crew regularly rotate and collaborate.

Recruit selectively

It is hard to train someone to be nice.  Hire these types from the start.  Trader Joe’s former CEO John Shields said that he wouldn’t hire someone if they didn’t smile within the first 30 seconds of an interview.

Look for those with unique qualities. Quirky and fun are desired traits. Job seekers will frequently be asked unique questions such as “What’s your favorite color?” or “Do you have a sense of adventure?” to ascertain their character and make sure they’ll have the right energy for the environment.  Prospects are also asked what their favorite products are and what they like about the store.

Hiring the best will then attract the best, creating a virtuous cycle, continuing the team player culture that permeates TJ.

Educate on product

Each location has a named “chef” who prepares new products for the crew to sample throughout the day in the break room.  Just as a waiter is helpful when they have tasted the menu, TJ thinks the same for the crew to share their product knowledge with customers.  The check out is a key opportunity.

Know which products do well.  The 15 weakest products are out and 15 new products are in each week.

Strategic sourcing of top quality, hard-to-find products.  Fewer, better options reduces choice overload for customers.

Over 80% of products are private label sourced from the best providers, kept tightly as a secret. A well-known national brand wouldn’t want the public to know that their same product is available at TJ for a fraction of the cost.

No slotting fees for brand manufacturers takes costs out of the process resulting in lower prices.

I told one crew member how I was amazed that the scallion pancakes tasted just like in the restaurant and were so easy to prepare.  He asked if I was referring to the TJ Taiwanese pancakes or the TJ Korean pancakes. I hadn’t realized there were 2 types and was impressed he knew that level of detail.

Trader Joe's green onion pancakes

Trader Joe’s green onion pancakes

Endear loyal customers

Make shopping a fun, easy experience and provide high quality at low prices.

You can return anything, half eaten, no receipt, if you do not like it.  With 15 new products each week, make it risk-free to try them out.

Overstaffing and many mates (middle management) allows for crew to have time to help customers and balance out responsibilities.

Every store has an in-house artist who creates unique artwork to reflect the local neighborhood (e.g. Valentine’s coloring sheets!).

The prices you see are the prices you get

Minimal marketing and no couponing or promotions keeps overhead lower.

From their Hawaiian shirts (also seen worn at corporate) to taste tasting of new products, to ringing the bell for the team to help, the unique culture of Trader Joe’s contributes to employee engagement and happiness which makes the customer experience a pleasurable one.

Do you know how happy your people are? Trader Joe’s exemplifies the value of treating your people well, creating crew camaraderie,  living your products and customer service, and how this blend makes work seem like play.

If you’re interested in measuring the overall happiness of your team, reach out to learn about Savvy’s new barometer tool that you can put to work at your company.

About Grace Ueng

A management consultant, leadership coach and human performance expert with Savvy Growth, Grace has been covered in The Wall Street Journal, Inc., and MIT Technology Review.  Leaders call her when seeking a strategic review of their business, when going through a pivot point, or when they’d like to have a thinking partner to hold them accountable to stretch goals.

Her company offers workshops to improve team effectiveness: Savvy’s Seven: What You Will Learn.

Join her Happiness & Leadership community to be more productive leader: click here