What is the unique appeal of Trader Joe’s? How did they rise to be among the top three grocery stores in surveys of nearly 13,000 customers? Of the best grocery stores ranked in 2017 on attributes like best value, fastest service and cleanliness by Market Force Information, friendly service and cashier courtesy brought Trader Joe’s near the top of the list.
The top five ranked grocery stores in the U.S. in 2017 were Publix and Wegmans, followed closely by Trader Joe’s, H-E-B and Aldi. Stores were ranked on several different measures, such as cleanliness, value and fastest service.
Here are some survey results:1
What made the difference between the top stores? Customer service and courtesy are clearly important factors for consumer satisfaction. Friendliness is a high priority, particularly at Trader Joe's and Publix.
In an article by L. Ron Hubbard called “FIRST POLICY,” he says: “Maintain friendly relations with the environment and the public.” The highest-ranking stores seem to know this natural law and apply it daily.
Here’s a somewhat more obscure back story about Aldi and Trader Joe’s. They are actually related.
The company we know as “Aldi” was founded in Essen, Germany, in the mid-twentieth century when Karl and Theo Albrecht—the founder’s sons—took over the company after World War II. Aldi became one of Europe’s largest supermarket chains with its motto “The best quality at the lowest price.”2
However, in 1960 they decided to split up the company due to an argument on whether or not to sell cigarettes in their stores. Even as separate companies, though, they continued to work together, stocking the same products and organizing their stores the same way. They even agreed on a common name: Aldi, short for Albrecht Diskont. Theo’s company became Aldi Nord; Karl’s became Aldi Süd.
Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd also agreed to divide up which countries they expanded into. Aldi Nord, for example, runs the Aldi stores in France, while Aldi Süd oversees the Aldi stores in the United Kingdom. When the internet era hit, they also joined together to create a common international website.
That brings us to America.
In 1976, Aldi Süd established the first Aldi stores in the United States. But America was (and is) a big country, so Aldi Nord also began looking for a foothold in the U.S. In the late 1970s, Aldi Nord’s Theo Albrecht took notice of a small but growing chain of stores in California founded by a man named Joe Coulombe, and in 1979 Theo bought Coulombe’s store—Trader Joe’s—outright.
So Aldi Nord owns Trader Joe’s and Aldi Süd owns Aldi U.S.
On paper, that would make the two stores cousins. However, in practice, Trader Joe’s and Aldi U.S. operate very differently from each other, with different pricing and very different atmospheres. Some shoppers claim that the two stores stock identical products under different labels, and that may be true; but we’ve found that some of Trader Joe’s products are very different than Aldi’s, so that part may be a matter of debate. There are also far more Aldi stores than Trader Joe’s currently in the U.S., with the former’s 1,400 locations versus Trader Joe’s mere 400-plus.3
It’s as if Trader Joe’s is part of the Aldi portfolio but sort of operates outside it. Trader Joe’s has a unique illustrated newsletter for their monthly specials called Fearless Flyer, which is humorously written with in-depth product descriptions, especially of new products. And there is a nearly cult-like devotion to their stores, especially among millennials. Trader Joe’s consistently snags the highest INDEX score among both millennials and consumers 35-plus.4
So, what makes Trader Joe’s different from the rest? For one, they pay their employees very well. Most clerks and even stockers can start at much higher than minimum wage, and according to a 2010 CNN Money article, Trader Joe’s full-time crew members (the people who stock the shelves, ring up and bag groceries, and help customers in the aisles) can earn starting salaries between $40,000 and $60,000 a year with benefits. Also, Trader Joe’s annually contributes 15.4 percent of employees’ gross income to tax-deferred retirement accounts. By industry standards, that is A LOT.5
Some shoppers love Trader Joe’s for the conciseness of product selection in a small, manageable footprint. They stock only about 4,000 items, compared to over 80,000 to 100,000 in most large grocery stores. And for a quick and easy shopping experience, offering the right blend of ingredients, you can’t beat Trader Joe’s.
Another point is they always have enough staff scheduled on a shift, so that a staff member ringing up groceries or stocking shelves doesn’t have to feel stressed if he wants to engage in a conversation with a customer (and they often do.)
“They encourage you to be nice to customers,” said an employee.6 They are extremely customer-centric and will go out of their way to help a customer. Here is one example of a typical TJ’s employee/shopper interaction:
One customer said: “Upon seeing my purchase of the famed and wonderful mini heirloom tomatoes, my cashier once asked me if I’d ever paired them with fresh ciliegine [mini mozzarella cheeseballs] and balsamic glaze. When I then admitted, wide-eyed, that I had not—but definitely wanted to—she ran and got the other ingredients for me while I unloaded the rest of my cart.
“Not only did that cashier give me the gift of a delicious snack recipe I’ve made again and again (and save me a few spare steps), she earned the store some extra bucks without making me feel sleazily upsold. That’s how to do customer service, folks.”
Treating your employees well isn’t just admirable. It also pays off. Per the Market Force survey, the friendly and courteous cashiers of Trader Joe’s trumped the lower prices at Aldi. Trader Joe’s is successfully applying a natural law, as is Publix, with their slogan “where shopping is a pleasure,” and Wegmans, who ranked highest due to their specialty department service.
Trader Joe’s recipe for success includes delivering a great product selection, adding a ration of excellent customer service, and topping it off with some extra quantities of friendliness. By so doing, you can get excellent results and your customers will love you too.
1. Timmermann, Mike. “America’s Grocery Stores Ranked from Best to Worst.” Clark.com. Clark Howard, 10 May 2017.
2. Johnston, Joshua. “Aldi vs. Trader Joe’s: How Are They Related?” AldiReviewer.com, 21 Dec. 2017.
3. Carlton, Jimmy. “Six Indisputable Reasons Aldi Is Better Than Estranged-Brother Trader Joe’s.” OnMilwaukee.com, 1 Oct. 2017.
4. Golen, Bobby. “Millennial Marketing Top Brands: Trader Joe’s Wins Big with Trade Up/Trade Down Mindset.” Millennial Marketing.com, 31 July 2015.
5. Byrne, Christine. “23 Reasons Trader Joe’s Is the Best Grocery Store That Ever Was.” BuzzFeed.com, 21 Aug. 2013.
6. Cattanach, Jamie. “10 Reasons This Penny Hoarder Won’t Shop Anywhere but Trader Joe’s.” ThePennyHoarder.com. Taylor Media Corp, 24 Sept. 2016.
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