Recently, a friend and I were shopping together at my local Atlanta-area Trader Joe’s. I had a list in hand. We were going to cook dinner at my house that night and needed just a few things to complete the recipe (plus a restock of TJ’s famous Two-Buck Chuck).
Then suddenly, our cart was full. Far beyond the seven or eight items on my original grocery list. “How does this ALWAYS happen?” I mused aloud, looking at my accumulation of sauces and condiments, enough to carry me through the next six months. “I don’t know,” she said. “It happens to me all the time, too. I always fall for the descriptions they put next to the item and think I just NEED that in my life! It’s like they just understand me …”
She was right! Five minutes prior, I never would have considered purchasing a coffee syrup. But I walked by and spotted the product description, which said something like, “Up your dessert game—try this poured over vanilla ice cream.” I bought it. And then some vanilla ice cream I didn’t need either.
Whoever Trader Joe’s sales copywriters are—they’re geniuses. And, they’re consistent. From Trader Joe’s direct mail piece—called “The Fearless Flyer”—which gets sent out to neighborhoods within the vicinity of any one local store, to their in-store product descriptions, product names, detailed labels, and online presence, it all exudes the laid-back, relatable, quirky, yet trustworthy personality they’ve become known for. They seem to not take themselves too seriously even though their rabid, almost cult-like, fan base takes the store VERY seriously.
So, how does this 60-year-old grocery store take customer understanding to the next level? Below are six reasons why so many people say Trader Joe’s just gets me.
1. They really know their customers
Their target audience: over-educated and underpaid shoppers. Founder, Joe Coulombe, owned a grocery store called Pronto Markets in the 60s when he noticed a trend: college grad salaries were falling. So, he slashed prices and increased inventory on another product that his educated customer base appreciated: booze. “We essentially married the health food store to the liquor store,” he said. Customer understanding is about more than knowing your target audience and their demographics. It’s about understanding what drives them, what inspires them, their motives, aspirations, personalities, and lifestyle. It’s about understanding why they do what they do—not simply what they do—and then delivering products, services, and experiences to complement that. As Dawn Colossi, CMO of FocusVision, stated in this article, ‘‘What I learned in the first 90 days as CMO’’ “No data can speak louder than your customer.”
2. Their messaging is on point
Trader Joe’s knows their customers and they know how to speak with them. People look forward to receiving the Fearless Flyer in the mail not only to learn about new seasonal products that just hit the shelf, but because Trader Joe’s takes them on a storytelling journey. Mango O’s cereal is not just another Froot Loops copycat, but as seen in this description, ,they are “Sweet and tart, and O so crunchy, Mango O’s are destined for great things – in a bowl with milk, mixed into yogurt, as topping for ice cream, or even combined with our Marshmallows for a groovy mango version of a cereal-based snack treat.” Trader Joe’s maintains a relaxed brand voice while explaining their products in such detail that it becomes storytelling. They have mastered explaining to their audience what they need to know, why they need to know it, what they need to do with that information, why they need to do it—all wrapped in a message that is both entertaining and memorable.
3. They make grocery shopping a fun and relaxing experience
What other grocery store has cashiers dressed in Hawaiian t-shirts that ring maritime bells when they need assistance? Trader Joe’s stores are small and can get very crowded, especially on weekends, but the experience and ambience are always consistently pleasant. I remember a time when I had my increasingly impatient two-year-old fighting me to get out of the cart when a Trader Joe’s employee appeared with a roll of stickers and squeezable fruit pouch. She tapped my shoulder and with the objects hidden behind her back said, “Can I give these to your daughter?” Of course, thank you, thank you!! I practically shrieked in her face with joy. The employee then proceeded to tuck a few extra snack pouches in my purse and said, “This is on us!” That small gesture kept my daughter entertained for the remainder of our shopping trip, created even more brand loyalty for me, and became a shareable story that I continue to tell my parents and friends.
4. Their customer experience lines up with their brand story (as we’ve written about before)
Trader Joe’s employees are different than most other grocery store employees. They’re much happier. In this Forbes article, the author interviewed several Trader Joe’s employees and discovered that “the company fosters an environment where collaboration is crucial to pulling off a successful day’s work. TJ’s employees aren’t working independent retail jobs—they’re working on interlocking pieces of a project, and that project is to make you happy.” They’re also known to receive great benefits such as medical, dental, vision, and retirement contributions. They’re also paid very well compared to others in the industry. For instance, store managers (aka “Captains”) earn over six-figures. It’s no wonder these Hawaiian-shirt-clad “crew members” are so quick to offer a helping hand with a smile.
5. They don’t overwhelm you with options
People crave simplicity in their lives. And with 1/4 as many SKUs than most grocery stores, with 80% being their own private-labeled products, Trader Joe’s delivers on their promise of curating a small amount of high-quality grocery items that customers have learned to trust. This ties back to creating a laid-back, relaxing experience. I have to admit, having five options of pasta sauce (that I know are all healthy, affordable, delicious options) at Trader Joe’s versus the 35 options at Kroger, definitely makes an over-thinker like me save time and feel more relaxed.
6. They deliver on product innovation at consistently low prices
Trader Joe’s is known for continuously creating new, high-quality grocery products at low prices. They’ve adopted a customer-value-driven pricing model where prices are based on buyers’ perceptions of value. Trader Joe’s is known for discontinuing products as soon as their suppliers try to increase prices beyond what they’re comfortable passing down to customers. They spend a lot of time testing different products and international cuisine to bring new and exciting items to market.
So, what’s the Trader Joe’s message for transformational marketers out there? Tell your story with ruthless consistency. Live out your story with ruthless consistency and ensure that your customers’ experiences match what you’re claiming. TJ’s is a notoriously secretive company that clearly slaves over every detail of its customer-facing collateral and products. From the storefronts, to the copy, to the in-store decor, to all that colorful hand-painted signage (did you know TJ’s staffs dozens of full-time calligraphers?), everything at TJ’s offers consumers the same life-affirming message: For the next 10 to 90 minutes, life is going to be affordable, friendly, stress-free—just about everything you want it to be. They are on point because they tell the same heartwarming story in their Fearless Flyers that they do in their insanely successful podcast.
If TJ’s success is about the proper alignment of strategy with a simple but powerful story, how can you tell whether you’ve achieved simplicity and alignment in your own messaging? Download our Transformational Marketing Playbook or order a copy of Marketing, Interrupted to find out. Or consider subscribing to our blog where we share case studies, tips, and insights into transforming your marketing and your customers’ perceptions of your brand.