What practices does Trader Joe's use to make their employees so chipper?
October 21, 2013 6:04 PM   Subscribe

Without fail, every time I go to Trader Joe's and check out I'm consistently greeted with a barrage of enthusiastic questions about my food selection, what I've been doing that day, what my plans are for the rest of the day, if I've tried a particular flavor of X product, etc. These questions aren't necessarily pushy because they are delivered in such an upbeat, friendly way that you can't help but respond in turn. How does TJ find employees like this and how do they train them to be this way? I am so curious about this because I've never encountered it anywhere else.

Now, whether or not I find it off putting is not the point. My question is how Trader Joe's trains their employees to be this way, or finds employees that can consistently perform at this level of energy. It really is uncanny.

I've found this to be the case at every Trader Joe's I've ever been to. I'm interested in hearing from former or current Trader Joe's employees if possible, or people familiar with the industry. It's just not something you get at your normal corner grocer, or even at other similar chains like Sunflower, Sprouts or even Whole Foods. Is it just a rigorous personality test? Group dynamics? Fired on the spot if you have a gloomy day? What is the formula here?
posted by timpanogos to Grab Bag (29 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Fair pay, benefits, cool outfits and a keen eye to hiring the folks who exemplify the brand. It must be a fun place to work.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:08 PM on October 21, 2013 [19 favorites]

Paid decently and they get health insurance, which is more than most grocery store chains offer, I'd imagine. Agree with you on their general chipperness.
posted by pravit at 6:15 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know a couple people who work, and have worked for them in the past. The pay is markedly better than other grocery stores, and the Heath benefits are pretty good.

They're a very culturally specific place to work, and if you don't fit into that culture you will be, and be made to be, miserable and probably won't last long. But, The people who flourish in that culture do very well for themselves.

I've been told that the un-chipper folk are generally not hired to begin with, and quickly weeded out one way or another.
posted by furnace.heart at 6:17 PM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

TJs employees do not stay at one work station more than two hours, which in retail is a huge awesome.
posted by Lutoslawski at 6:18 PM on October 21, 2013 [44 favorites]

Fair pay and hiring criteria are probably most of it, but I've also heard that they do tastings of their products for the employees, which might explain why they can all comment on at least one thing in your cart.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 6:19 PM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh yeah, employees get to try whatever they want. Heck, customers can taste anything in the store if they ask.
posted by Lutoslawski at 6:20 PM on October 21, 2013

I believe that when they are working at the checkout, they're supposed to comment favorably on something you're buying--to say they love the cheese you're buying, or suggest you try the trail mix in your oatmeal, that sort of thing. I also frequently have clerks ask me how I use certain things I'm buying, which is kind of flattering because then I get to blab about cooking.
posted by padraigin at 6:20 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just a note - the good pay and benefits may or may not make a particular employee happier, but they certainly will mean that they can choose to hire people who are more energetic and happy to begin with.
posted by amtho at 6:31 PM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have also found that even if the check-out person isn't at 100% CHIPPER POWER, they always find something to say, which can't be that hard as they sell more interesting stuff than your typical supermarket. I don't think they're recruiting or breeding super-humans.
posted by bleep at 6:35 PM on October 21, 2013

A few weeks ago I encountered a TJ's employee for whom this was clearly a challenge. He said all the right things and was perfectly friendly, but it was clear that the chipper extroversion did not come naturally to him. He looked uncomfortable and kind of apologetic. I really felt for the guy.
posted by phunniemee at 6:37 PM on October 21, 2013 [8 favorites]

I always figured it was part of the training -- I'd say 4 out of 5 times I buy dog food at TJ's, the checker asks what kind of dog I have. ("he's a sheltie mutt." "awww!") when they ask something else I'm kinda thrilled.
posted by changeling at 6:41 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have noticed that management is consistently present and active but not in a micro-managey way. If a checker needs anything they ring the bell and a supervisor comes quickly. When it's really busy they have someone managing the lines. I imagine it makes employees feel like they have support.
posted by radioamy at 7:05 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

A girl I know who works there said personality is definitely something they look for in their interviews - the chipperness should be apparent and at least not look forced. She also said it's part of their training to smile at the customer and ask pleasant questions, etc. As others have said, if you have a bad attitude, you don't last long there. She said it's kind of like working at Disney World.
posted by bluefly at 7:15 PM on October 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

You might find this AMA and this article interesting.
posted by Brent Parker at 7:17 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Personality and an existing love of the products are prereqs for getting hired there. I...know a lot of people who work there (and once was party to the ol' three-bells discount myself, via family).
posted by limeonaire at 7:32 PM on October 21, 2013

Trader Joe's is not unionized. In my experience, that correlates with young, attractive, hip, chipper workers, while union groceries in the same shopping center have older, disgruntled workers. My hypothesis is that because TJ's isn't a union shop, the workers know that their customer service is very important to their career. The chipper get raises and the grumpy get sacked.
posted by agentofselection at 8:58 PM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Also trust.

Whether it's the shift manager being able to pick the music playing or the person in charge of an aisle being able to arrange the products the way he or she sees fit, Trader Joe's puts a lot more trust in their people to do things right. These things aren't dictated by the corporate jukebox or brand's stocking guide, but by the employees wanting to make the place a better shopping and working experience. That freedom goes a long way.

Selling good products and working with good people helps a lot. And the pay must be decent, since one of the managers told me he made better money working at TJ's than as an electrical engineer.
posted by Mercaptan at 9:13 PM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

They probably look for people with certain personality traits when hiring.
posted by Dansaman at 9:52 PM on October 21, 2013

One of the things I've noticed about my local (across the street) TJ's is that the employees all look like the alterna-kids I went to high school with and I imagine not being told you need to remove your 20 ear piercings or that your hair can't be green makes it a refreshing retail experience.
posted by marylynn at 10:01 PM on October 21, 2013

Agentofselection, consider an alternative hypothesis, which is that places that treat their employees decently can attract better employees, whether or not they are a union shop. There are multiple unionized grocery stores in my area. Some of them have lousy service, some have ok service, and some have great service from chipper employees of all ages.
posted by Good Brain at 11:35 PM on October 21, 2013 [8 favorites]

We don't have TJs here, but Lush employees are very much the same. I once had someone coe up to me and enthuse about a lip salve while I was waiting for the cashier to bag the items I'd just paid for.
posted by mippy at 3:32 AM on October 22, 2013

My friend who worked there for ages, and i think even advanced up the ranks to being an assistant manager or somesuch(and when he goes anywhere near that store now, LOTS of people recognize him) had a secret:

He was stoned all the fucking time.

The point above was covered about getting to pick the music and the displays, but it also goes further than that. Another friend-of-a-friend i met worked at one of their stores just drawing the cute little shelf labels for things, endcap art, big posters for the store, etc. That's all she did there, nothing else. Apparently other employees who wanted to also got to take turns making them in addition to their other duties. She had a generic job title like "visual merchandising" which at a lot of other stores would mean "poor fuck who has to work until 5am regularly re arranging how piles of wine boxes or racks of jeans and suggested outfits look on endcaps".

Until then i always assumed those were just pre-rendered in photoshop at some central office to look artsy and home-made like that. But nope, made in the break room by some girl who loves her job.

There's a lot of just that kind of stuff going on there. In some of those kind of ways it feels almost more open ended than the neighborhood "chain of 1" grocery store next to my childhood house i almost worked at and had friends that did, which actually had some pretty bizarre draconian rules.
posted by emptythought at 3:49 AM on October 22, 2013 [8 favorites]

Trader Joe's is not unionized. In my experience, that correlates with young, attractive, hip, chipper workers, while union groceries in the same shopping center have older, disgruntled workers.

At the Jewel where I live, I don't think it's the union that's making them disgruntled. It's the dehumanization and humiliation they are subjected to. A cashier I'd gotten to know was told to STOP talking to customers about their purchases and stuff; the claim was that it was slowing her down but she was very fast. She's gone now.

Don't underestimate the power of the managers at the store level. Which I'm sure is decreed from on high with a view towards keeping a certain atmosphere. Soon after my local Trader Joe's opened, I overheard a manger berating one of his employees while ignoring long lines that were forming. It was fairly ugly but what's remarkable is that I never saw that happen again; someone cleared that up right quick. It's the same at the local Costco. The workers are less young, hip and educated but they appear empowered. I had a friend who was a supervisor there and I know that some thought is put into the development of employees.
posted by BibiRose at 5:42 AM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Trader Joe's store managers, aka "captains," can make in the low six-figures, and full time crew members can start between $40,000 and $60,000. Additionally, TJ's contributes 15.4% of employees' income annually to 401Ks. (source)

I also remember reading somewhere that employees are required to make a comment or ask a question about one of the products being purchased.
posted by Flamingo at 7:25 AM on October 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

As a TJs booster who's loved the brand for decades, this depresses me because I absolutely HATE checkout chatter, would rather not hear any commentary about what I'm buying.

But it's my experience that I generally don't receive such interrogations at Trader Joes. However, no question the crew is enthusiastic -- my assumption because they're working in a nice place, selling good stuff. My dad's always impressed with how everybody there is so happy, both customers and employees..
posted by Rash at 8:27 AM on October 22, 2013

As a former Safeway checkout girl who sat all day at the cash register, I would have been a lot perkier with customers if I'd had the chance to move around the store and do other tasks during my shift.

If the TJ's staff know they're only on the tills for two hours at a stretch, they can psych themselves up for being nice and chatty, knowing they get to go work in the storeroom or whatever and get away from people. Because retail work is exhausting mainly because you have to deal with humanity.
posted by vickyverky at 8:55 AM on October 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Mod note: Comment removed, please let the union derail drop.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:00 AM on October 22, 2013

A great article on how another company 'encourages' chipper-ness here.
(Although I am sure the lovely young lady at the Pret on 53rd and Third Ave. REALLY thinks it's cute that I always get two chocolate croissant and two cream cheeses. *she likes me*!)
posted by exparrot at 11:03 AM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I worked at Trader Joe's for a bit, actually one that's kind of known for not being as good a place for employees as others in the area.

Still - the managers managed to generally hire interesting and nice people. I didn't get any explicit instructions for chatting with people at the cash, but the example set by others was generally chatty, and I'm a generally friendly person, so it often came easily to me. There were times when I just rang up and didn't make conversation and that was never an issue. But generally pleasant interactions with people help make the day go by nicer. I liked seeing pictures of people's dogs and cats. I liked feeling like more of a human being having an interaction and less like a human substitute for a self checkout. It also helped that the way the line was organized, no one was waiting for my specific cash, so it felt less pressured to just rush people through.

Also there were some people who really didn't like chatting with customers, and by the time they got any seniority at all (eg, 6 months), they could generally switch their register hours with someone else who actually preferred them.
posted by Salamandrous at 4:36 PM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

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