Why is Trader Joe's Pleasantville?
March 21, 2015 1:12 PM   Subscribe

Why are they so happy?

My local Trader Joe's has a seriously cheery vibe to it. Like an eerily cheery vibe. Every time I check out, without fail the cashier remarks on one of my food items something like, "Oh, I love the mandarin chicken tenders!! Yummmmy!" Or, "My god, they brought back the organic frozen mangoes??? It's been a whole year since I've stocked those!" Like not just an enthusiastic remark about the food they are ringing up but a very enthusiastic remark. Once when I went in the song Tainted Love came on the radio and three of the employees started loudly singing and clapping along and saying, "Yeah!" Then another time the woman ringing me up said that she'd left her postdoc at the local university to work at Trader Joe's and felt like it was the best decision of her life. I was happy for her but it struck me as a little weird, also that she shared that.

Not to be too cynical about it, because pleasantness is nice -- But I do find the degree of it a little strange. On some level it feels like there has to be some kind of scheme behind it. Is there like a "winning attitude" rubric on employee evaluations or is enthusiasm connected to compensation or something? Or is this just a weird employee groupthink thing at my local branch?
posted by mermily to Society & Culture (31 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
It's a cultural thing within the company - they definitely hire and train for it. Many large retail chains have a defined "culture" that they work toward, from hiring to training to the way managers interact with staff. This is intentional, and it's definitely not just at your location.
posted by jbickers at 1:15 PM on March 21, 2015 [5 favorites]

Anecdotally, the checkers have chatted me up at every TJs I've ever been to. Most often they seem to comment positively on the items I'm buying, complimenting my taste in some way. Another preferred tactic seems to be to ask about my day: "How's your day been going today?!" to which I'm sorely tempted to reply, "Fine, all I've managed to do on my day off is put on pants and come here to shop, you?" I find it all rather forced and annoying, personally, but then I don't especially like small talk for its own sake. I'd suspect there's no formal rubric for it on their employee evals, but that it's an expectation of the job and a training item for them -- akin to "Pieces of Flair" at Tchotchkes.
posted by killdevil at 1:17 PM on March 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

I can't find a cite right now, but I think it is procedure for the cashiers to comment on at least one item you're purchasing.
posted by jaksemas at 1:22 PM on March 21, 2015 [8 favorites]

It's definitely a "thing" at all their locations. I've noticed this as well at multiple TJs and I like it. I'm assuming they're trained for this, but it really doesn't seem forced to me. I'd much rather have a clerk make a friendly comment to me than a clerk who never makes eye contact and just grunts. I've worked retail and I remember that the time seemed to go by much more quickly when I at least attempted to engage my customers.
posted by bookmammal at 1:23 PM on March 21, 2015 [5 favorites]

I agree, I had a clerk nearly have an orgasm over the cheese bread that I was considering. I worked retail and we had mystery shoppers with a rubric checking for similar things, I'm assuming so does TJ's. But also, who cares, you keep going back so must not be scaring you away that much.
posted by Toddles at 1:26 PM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's twofold: one, they hire and train for it, and two, TJs pays better and has better benefits / employee practices than almost any other grocery retailer. It's much easier to be enthusiastic at work when you feel like you're being treated close to reasonably.
posted by KathrynT at 1:26 PM on March 21, 2015 [40 favorites]

It's easier to be upbeat when you're paid well and get to rotate job duties regularly throughout the day.
posted by phunniemee at 1:27 PM on March 21, 2015 [8 favorites]

For what its worth, Costco employees always seem cheery, too. Costco also has much better than average employment practices.
posted by phunniemee at 1:29 PM on March 21, 2015 [15 favorites]

There's a book, and a Training guide which quotes
" Trader Joe’s starts with the job hiring process, as “job postings suggest that prospective employees should be ambitious and possess qualities that might apply equally to a cruise ship crew: outgoing, engaging, upbeat, fun-loving and adventurous.”
posted by Ideefixe at 1:32 PM on March 21, 2015

I have also noticed that they sell good food (healthy, nutritious, and something people look forward to eating) and have nice bathrooms. (I spend time in a lot of public/store bathrooms. I notice which places have horrible bathrooms, which have passably decent and which have NICE ones. The last time I was in a TJ's bathroom, it had very NICE bathrooms.)

If you are being paid decently and have good benefits and the work environment is physically pleasant and you feel like the work you do adds value to the world, that is going to result in a much more positive attitude than if you are underpaid, have shitty working conditions and ALSO feel like you are just adding to the world's problems by selling junk food that harms the health of your customers but it's all they can afford. Feeling like you are a victim of the system and also are victimizing others is not exactly a warm-fuzzy thing.
posted by Michele in California at 1:35 PM on March 21, 2015 [7 favorites]

I mentioned to the lady that was checking me out at Trader Joe's that I was having a bad day and she popped off to grab flowers to give me. Completely made my day. At any other place of business, if they even allowed something like that, she would have had to ask a manager's permission and fill out a form first. I think things like that, where they are allowed some lee-way to be people, helps a lot. I've had the same cheerful employee experiences at other business, but they all happen to be Christian run businesses (not Christian themed like Hobby Lobby). When people are treated well, they treat others well. It's a good business plan and I'm happy to see it work well. And since I am a naturally perky person (I was perky even on my bad day), I'm really comfortable in stores where the employees are happy.

On a side note- my local grocery store is Christian run. Employees are treated very well there. At least three of them come up and hug me and one of them kisses me on my cheek when he sees me. This is in the south where people are culturally more affectionate but it still hits me as a little funny every time it happens. As far as I've seen, I'm the only one they do this to. I could see them getting in big trouble doing that at most any other business. It kind of makes my day.
posted by myselfasme at 1:50 PM on March 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

I live about 500 feet from Trader Joe's and am in there probably three times a week. I've noticed this too. All I can say is that I don't think it's fake, because I often see TJ employees in the local coffeeshop, on the street, etc., and they act that way off-duty too. And a friend of mine's husband worked there and described it as an authentically enjoyable atmosphere. I think they just hire peppy people.
posted by escabeche at 2:03 PM on March 21, 2015 [5 favorites]

Yesterday I was in a Trader Joe's and the employees were going off on a new product amongst each other. Someone was reading the label on a frozen chicken product and when they got to 'with shitake mushrooms!!!' part, I thought it bordered on cult like behavior.

But I am not a person that gets excited about food. I don't think I could work there. Seeing this question is funny because I've been thinking about it ever since.
posted by readery at 2:31 PM on March 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think they're also empowered to act a little more independently than your average checkout person. For example, I know they can open up any product to let you try it. That's how I learned that while I like the idea of their spicy dark chocolate bar I didn't need to buy the whole thing.
posted by marylynn at 2:49 PM on March 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

I drive for a car service sometimes and one of our regulars uses us to get him from TJ to his gym. TJ closes at nine, and as a former retail store owner, I find it fascinating to watch the employees close the store when I get there early. They genuinely like each other. Can't hear anything but the body language and the smiles... I can see why this would weird some people out who have never felt like that about their co-workers.

I always strove for that at my stores. "How will this person fit in with the rest of us" was my primary concern. I fired 5 people in 15 years. In each case, it was for not playing well with others.

If you like the people you work with, you tend to be friendlier to the customers cause you are not worried about drama or backstabbing.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 2:54 PM on March 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

Emotional labour. For many people, especially people in customer service, part of the job includes feeling a certain way, or at the very least appearing to feel a certain way. Employers regulate not just what they do/how they behave, but how they are supposed to feel about it: It's not enough to ring up the mangoes efficiently, you have to be thrilled about it.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 3:06 PM on March 21, 2015 [11 favorites]

I worked for a year at a Trader Joe's in Campbell, California about 15 years ago (holy cow). At least when I was there, we had no directives to "be cheerful" or make specific comments, but it's fair to say a friendly, pleasant attitude was more important than experience. Sure, it may be unusual to run into such a consistently pleasant atmosphere across the chain, but to describe that as cult-like may reflect more on the customer than the store.

They have a great combination of interesting choices and low prices, and we were encouraged to open new items and try them. And maybe because the stores are relatively small (in my experience) no task was particularly overwhelming. Decent pay and benefits are great for morale. Also, free shirts!
posted by Glinn at 3:28 PM on March 21, 2015 [5 favorites]

Yes generally but when I'm grouchy-ish/quiet they don't seem to push the cheer, which I guess is a slight indicator of authenticity. I'll probably start trying to mess with them now, oh well.
posted by sammyo at 4:57 PM on March 21, 2015

My personal anecdote to add is that I was friends with someone who roomed in a house of Trader Joe's employees. I went to a party once at their house, and the entire party consisted of, like, twenty employees. And they spent the entire night bitching and complaining about Trader Joe's. Their manager, their shifts, the horrible customers, various drama that had happened between workers. I'd shopped at their TJs plenty of times, and the store was consistently extremely friendly and peppy. It's part of their corporate culture to demand a ton of emotional labor. And while employees who stick around might have less taken out of them by acting upbeat, it's still a retail job, with all the dead-end panic that comes along, too. It was an interesting night of having the veil lifted. No one is that happy about frozen pear tartlets. No one.
posted by missmary6 at 5:22 PM on March 21, 2015 [7 favorites]

I'm really interested to hear from former or current TJs employees - hope more pipe up - but I did have one cashier tell me that they are rotated off each job after two hours. That's got to make a difference in morale.

I also once saw a TJs employee go grab an item off a distant shelf for someone who had forgotten to get it but didn't want to lose her place in line. So I guess that is another anecdote about the leeway thing.

The fact that you see TJ employees wearing their shirts off duty all the freaking time seems to indicate that they don't hate their jobs too much (unless the folks I'm seeing around, like my old roommate, found the t-shirts while digging for goodies in a Trader Joe's dumpster which are in my opinion a Gold Mine. A slimy gold mine, but one that contains tiramisu.)
posted by latkes at 7:50 PM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'l underscore "job conditions" as part of the reason (as part of company culture, too). One example. I live in Massachusetts where we had an awful winter, as you probably know. Last time I was at TJs, they asked us if we wanted to fill out an entry to win a trip to Hawaii that was being offered as a sweepstakes at only 11 MA stores. We filled it out, and then asked our checker, "so do you guys get to enter this, too?" I was expecting a "Ha ha, yeah, wouldn't that be nice but whatever", and what I heard instead was "yes! If we're a winning store, three of us get to go, too."
posted by Miko at 8:51 PM on March 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

This is funny because I have always been impressed by TJ's helpful employees but last night for the first time I met not one but two who didn't live up to their reputation. I asked an employee walking for something I didn't see on the shelf. Without stopping she said in a flat affect We don't carry it any more, you can use our brand. Normally, the person would actually stop and show me where their version was. But okay, fine, except I couldn't find their brand on the shelf either and she was long gone. So I asked someone else walking by and he said he'd check and disappeared. Since I was in a rush I asked another person walking by. Coincidentally it was her again and without stopping she repeated the same thing, but in an irritated voice, her back already to me. Then she said I should ask the cashier. I was kind of surprised at her attitude and her unwillingness to help me find this item since she was stocking this aisle and we were both a few feet away from it.

Then I get to my cashier and he's also unfriendly. I'm thinking, Am I in a parallel universe? He wasn't rude or irritated, just cold and silent, even when I made a few comments. All in all it was an atypical night at TJs. I'm not saying this to criticize them, btw, they'd probably both had a hard day just wanted to add a datapoint.
posted by lillian.elmtree at 6:52 AM on March 22, 2015

We have become so cynical haven't we. Good service and nice personalities are the exception, not the rule. LOL

I grew up in SoCal so I am a TJ's native. I now live on the east coast and am a regular at my local store. I've become one of their most ardent critics (read that in a friendly way). I'm talking to the manager all the time about how they're constantly moving things around the store. Sometimes I just want to get in and out. So, I suggested they put up a sign saying they've moved X to the next aisle, just as a way of helping the customer. It seemed only logical. And so customer friendly, you'd think they should have thought of that one.

Last week, I came into the store and the manager grabbed me and led me to the aisle I'd been complaining about the week before where they moved everything from one side to the other and vice versa! There he had put up a big sign. I had been heard. But they hadn't gone far enough. They need to let us know where they've moved things. But I did have a big laugh.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 11:08 AM on March 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

This is funny to read. Almost every time I go into Trader Joe's (we don't live near one so this is 2-3 times per year), I stand at the checkout quietly and the person ringing up my stuff rings up my stuff and we do not talk. Sometimes, after I pay and smile a goodbye, they tell me I am a restful customer.

Sometimes when I am walking around the store someone will ask if I need something. There must be some expression on my face that says I am just browsing before I get the word out, because they usually say "Okay! Just let me know if you need help!" and then they go.

As a very introverted introvert, I really appreciate these people who are such masters of body language and facial expression that I do not even have to talk when I go into their store.
posted by AllieTessKipp at 12:47 PM on March 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm 95% sure the comments on the food is Store Policy from On High. To help bonding or something. Several of my friends adore this kind of interaction, while I want to not talk about the food. I do appreciate the general friendlyness in store, though, so I guess the policy of niceness does mostly work.
posted by Jacen at 2:00 PM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

There he had put up a big sign. I had been heard. But they hadn't gone far enough. They need to let us know where they've moved things.

My view (with some retail in my past) is that they don't really want to fix this. They sell more when people have to hunt, because people will see new items and it's more likely they'll ask a salesperson, which adds another sales opportunity.
posted by Miko at 7:54 AM on March 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

When I was interviewing to work at Trader Joe's, they talked with you about food. Relative to comparable work, they pay well enough that they can be selective for things like, 'cares about food', 'relates well to people,''seems like an interesting and nice person' etc. At least in the one I worked at, I had my orientation with a little cohort of four or five people, and a lot of our first shifts were together, so you kind of start out with a social base, which makes things easier and friendlier. The more senior employees were generally really nice and helpful to us, probably because they were hired in part for those qualities and that's how they were treated starting out, and because the store kept the staffing levels high enough and expectations realistic enough that they had time to helpful and nice. At my store, you generally started out working closing shifts, and had at least a couple of hours stocking with no customers around, where you could get to know colleagues chatting while working next to each other. I liked my co-workers, they were diverse and smart and interesting, which makes work much more pleasant. When I trained to work register, it's basically shadowing and then being shadowed by someone more experienced. She chatted to customers and commented on products etc and so I did too. The goal is for everyone to be able to work anywhere, but once you have some more time in, even my store (which I think was one of the more poorly managed ones, at least at the time), made it pretty easy to switch some assignments, so introverted people who didn't care for working demo or register could trade with extroverted people who found it preferable to stocking veggies or whatever and were happy to be there. It was also pretty straightforward to take a bathroom break whenever you needed it.

This is not to say we didn't do plenty of complaining about management, customers, etc. But it was generally a good place to work with colleagues who were (selected for being) nice and interesting, and a lot of us made friends and spent out of work time together too. Emotional labor is a thing, but I felt like they made it easy and appreciated (and possible to opt out of as needed, by trading for an assignment at the box breaking machine or whatever).
posted by Salamandrous at 9:39 AM on March 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

I always bag my own groceries at TJ's, and the cashiers never fail to thank me for it. This is fine, because I don't trust anyone else to pack things they way I want them (since most of the stuff stays in my trunk until I get home and blah blah blah), but what pisses me off is that they ask e to enter a drawing and I never win.

Really? After like three years of semi-weekly visits? Never? I love their good cheer, but I wish they'd give up on this aspect.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:00 AM on March 24, 2015

nd while employees who stick around might have less taken out of them by acting upbeat, it's still a retail job, with all the dead-end panic that comes along, too.

I think this is partially true. But there were regular (6 month) performance reviews, with raises, there were sick days and and paid vacation days, there was health insurance, if you started long enough they put money into your 401k, and TJ's promotes from the inside and in the short time I was there at least three crew members for sent up for management training. I think you could get up to over $20 per hour within a couple of years just as regular staff, and junior managers started at $26 per hour plus time and a half for (sometimes significant) overtime, and went up from there.

A lot of people want it as a temporary thing (I did) but it doesn't have to be a dead end.
posted by Salamandrous at 10:35 AM on March 24, 2015

We have become so cynical haven't we. Good service and nice personalities are the exception, not the rule.

Totally have! It really is nice and I am a bit embarrassed to find it slightly creepy. Thanks for the answers.
posted by mermily at 9:18 AM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

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