Why Your Business Should Be More Like Trader Joe's

You don't need to take shortcuts to make profits.

learn more about Jess Ekstrom

By Jess Ekstrom • Apr 4, 2018 Originally published Apr 4, 2018

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

There are three grocery stores within a mile of my apartment in Raleigh, but I usually find myself driving 15 minutes north to Trader Joe's and always have to wait in line to check out (no matter what time of day). When you look closely, there are quite a few things that make this chain so unique, like no internal public announcement systems (they only use bells!) and there's a plastic lobster hidden in every Trader Joe's store (seriously, go look for it). But, beyond the bells and hidden shellfish, what's the secret to this loyal following who will drive out of their way and graciously wait in line to get their food?

Here are some things I noticed on my last visit:

Novelty of selection

I'm not going to Trader Joe's because I need to buy milk and eggs. I'm going because they carry items I can't get anywhere else (cough . . . cookie butter . . . cough). Trader Joe's does an awesome job of always providing new and unique options for customers and also following the trends of what they want, like churro bites and cauliflower pizza crust. The average grocery store sells around 50,000 items, but Trader Joe's sells around 4,000 items on average. Their focus is less on the quantity of offerings, and more on the quality and unique nature of their products.

Related: 10 Reasons Why Good Customer Service Is Your Most Important Metric

Try before you buy

I'll admit, as soon as I walk into Trader Joe's, I immediately make a beeline for the free sample table in the back. They always have something they're giving away that I've never tried before, and it's usually what I end up getting to cook because they have all the ingredients right there at the sample table.

One time, I was in the cereal section and an employee asked if I needed any help. I asked him what he thought of a particular cereal I was considering and he just ripped open the box and poured me a handful so I could try for myself. Trader Joe's isn't afraid to give samples away for free because they know their customers will love it if they try it. They'll even let you try wine (depending on state laws)!

Related: Steal These 4 Proven Customer-Retention Strategies

Keep their employees in the know

The other day, I was checking out and I was purchasing their coconut oil. As the cashier was scanning it, she said, "Did you know they dropped the price on this by 50 cents?" She was so excited to tell me that a popular product went down in price.

She continued, "Trader Joe's is always communicating with their vendors to get the best possible price, even if that means dropping the price for their customers." I was beyond impressed for two reasons:

  1. This employee was in the loop enough to be able to share information like this with customers.
  2. Trader Joe's discounted one of their most popular products because they got a better deal from their vendor, when they could have easily kept the extra 50-cent profit margin. Another fact I learned is that Trader Joe's only buys from manufacturers or growers, not middlemen.

Employees want to be there

At least, I always feel like Trader Joe's employees genuinely want to help make the most of your shopping experience. On multiple occasions, I've discussed recipes, local events, new products and different types of yogurts with employees. In some stores, asking for help feels like you're bothering someone, or they just give you an aisle number, but at Trader Joe's, I've never felt that way.

Related: 25 Tips for Earning Customer Loyalty

Localized atmosphere

When I walk into the Raleigh Trader Joe's, there are paintings and artwork specific to my city, which makes me feel like this isn't just another cookie-cutter chain. When I asked how they did that, they told me every Trader Joe's has its own in-house artist, which I thought was so cool. Also, putting all their fresh flowers for sale at the front of the store creates a good impression immediately when you walk through the doors.

Having fun

Trader Joe's is like the Southwest of grocery stores. When everyone else is just focused on profits and efficiency, Trader Joe's remembers that grocery shopping can be fun, not a chore. The staff have been wearing Hawaiian shirts since 1969! Their Fearless Flyer is a mix between a newsletter, catalog and comic book filled with stories about the store's latest products to keep you in the know and entertained. They also do social media contests regularly with fun themes prompting followers to use their products in creative ways and share.

As an entrepreneur, it's inspiring to see a company succeed without taking shortcuts or sacrificing customer happiness. An experience at Trader Joe's is exactly that -- an experience, not a daunting task on your to-do list. There's no coupon cutting because you trust that you're getting a great price no matter what. You can bring back any product for a full refund, no questions asked. Whether you show up to your business wearing a Hawaiian shirt or bring a plastic lobster, I hope Trader Joe's unique approach to business has inspired you to think differently about yours.

Jess Ekstrom

CEO and Founder of HeadbandsOfHope.com, Speaker and Author.

Jessica Ekstrom founded Headbands of Hope when she was a senior in college in 2012. She created the company to bring joy back to kids who have lost their hair and help fund childhood cancer research. Headbands of Hope has given tens of thousands of dollars to childhood cancer research and has donated headbands to every children's hospital in the United States.

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