Trader Joe's: The chicken or the egg?

January 10, 2012

Do customers make a brand good or does a good brand make for good customers? One brand that has been gaining more visibility as it grows financially and geographically is Trader Joe’s. And it’s starting to show up as one of those beloved brands.

It’s no secret that companies regarded as hallmarks of branding excellence deliver superior customer service and well-made products. Brand lore is full of well-worn tales of Nordstrom’s, Ritz Carlton, L.L.Bean, Zappos, Lexus…the list goes on and on. But I have always wondered which came first? Do customers make a brand good or does a good brand make for good customers? It’s the kind of chicken and egg causality dilemma that could help many companies understand why their brands do — or don’t — rank among the best loved.

One brand that has been gaining more visibility as it grows financially and geographically is Trader Joe’s. And it’s starting to show up as one of those beloved brands.

Trader Joe's is a chain of approximately 365 specialty grocery stores that are privately held by the German discount supermarket chain, Aldi Nord. Founded in 1958 in Southern California, Trader Joe’s has grown to have locations in 31 states as of October 2011. More than a traditional market, the stores feature a quirky mix of some staple foods, organic products and a rotating assortment of specialty snacks, ethnic frozen meals, gourmet and imported foods, and where allowed, beer and their famous discounted wines from around the world. In October 2009, Consumer Reports ranked them the number two grocery chain in the U.S. and MSN Money’s Customer Service Hall of Fame survey put them in the top two. With an estimated $8 billion in sales in 2009, (the company is highly secretive and doesn’t disclose financial information), there must be a reason for their success. Certainly their unique products and offerings put them in a different category from other grocery stores. But a brand that inspires the kind brand loyalty and love that Trader Joe’s does has another secret weapon: Their employees.

Did you find everything you’re looking for?

Trader Joe’s has approximately 5,500 employees nationwide. Employee engagement is present from the very first moment a person considers a job at Trader Joe’s. The application states: “We're always looking for friendly, helpful, ambitious and responsible people. All applicants must be willing to smile! Heck, why shouldn't you when you'll be working for a cool, casual, upbeat, people-oriented workplace that offers great salary and benefits?” The position description for a part-time crew-member emphasizes the need for every employee to create a WOW! Customer experience. Potential employees are asked to “live the Trader Joe’s Love Story” and “become smitten with customers.” More practically, future employees are expected to follow a long list of behaviors — from warmly greeting customers with a friendly hello and making eye contact to helping customers find their items by walking them over to an aisle. In some cases, zealous Trader Joe’s crew-members might even open up a bag of what the customer is looking for — say, chili and lime covered cashews — and give them a taste. Someone I know who is an employee at Trader Joe’s confirmed that there is a constant, strong and compelling push to deliver the “WOW” experience for the customer.

But the love seems to be mutual. There are endless web posts of customer’s mash notes (“I even enjoyed the conversation I had with the woman who was ringing me up”) to unauthorized cookbooks (not sold at TJ’s!) that specialize in store ingredients, an independent individual’s Trader Joe’s blog ( to a homemade pirate video commercial featuring a secret store visit and a jingle sung to the tune of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Waters of March” bossa nova.

So why the brand love?

I think what’s going on here is a phenomenon I’ll call reciprocal branding. It’s the relationship that is built over time between brand and buyer, company and customer, salesperson and shopper. It’s an experience that is constantly reinforced by positive interactions between both sides. Stores that have products that people like make people like the store brand. Employees who strive to deliver a WOW! customer experience attract customers who want to be wowed. It becomes a reciprocal, almost self-fulfilling relationship that is mutually supported though vigilant attention to employee brand behaviors and shelves stocked consistently with products that live up to the customer’s expectations.

In an article in Fortune magazine online dated, August 23, 2010, reporter Beth Kowitt notes that some Trader Joe’s employees are concerned that as the company continues to expand it will lose its charm and “quirky” coolness. But if the company can continue to reciprocate its brand with its customers, I think they have no danger of losing the love.

And by the way, at Trader Joe’s, you’ll find the eggs can be organic and the chicken is hormone free.

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