• Kelly E. Middleton

Trader Joe's - A Model for Customer Service

Updated: Dec 14, 2018



Trader Joe's ranks among the top companies in customer service (and tops among grocery stores) every year. Who would ever think that a grocery store chain could garner such customer loyalty as to be ranked the second best overall company at customer service by Forbes? It's not the industry you'd think would be on such a list. So what makes them so special?


Everyone from Fortune to Forbes to Buzzfeed has reported on the “Trader Joe’s Experience,” even evoking a comparison to Disney World. The grocery chain ranked in the top 5 of customer service companies in 2015 by PR tech company Talkdesk.

Why all the buzz? Forbes reported that Trader Joe’s, affectionately called “TJ’s,” came in first overall among grocery chains when it comes to satisfied customers. Within the study, TJ’s ranked first in atmosphere and fast checkouts, as well as second in courteous staff, cleanliness, merchandise selection and accurate pricing. What may come as a shock is that they were not even in the top 5 in terms of low prices, sales/promotions, one-stop shopping or convenient location. Notice that the areas where Trader Joe’s excels are operations-based areas where the actual people on the front lines are making an impact. It turns out that the secret to endearing yourself to customers isn’t by being the cheapest (WalMart has proven that theory), but by providing a better shopping experience than competitors.


What sets TJ's apart from other grocery stores is their well-trained employees who buy in to the fun, positive culture. Ever have that awkward silence between the “hello” when the cashier begins to ring you up and the moment when you’re told your total? Sometimes it lasts minutes if you’ve got a big order and it’s just terribly uncomfortable. At Trader Joe’s, cashiers are almost always friendly and chatty, but know when to zip it if you’re not in the mood, which removes that awkward moment and leaves the customer with a positive experience in the waning moments of their time in the store.


At the end of the day, it’s the employees' enjoyment of their work that makes customers rave about their service and keep coming back. A typical grocery store employee is simply not passionate about his or her job, but at Trader Joe’s, it’s different. David DiSalvo of Forbes says there are “emotional contagions in the air at TJ’s and its customers catch an infectious psychosocial buzz. … There’s nothing robotic or scripted about the transaction.” Wouldn't it be great if someone described your school this way?

We in public education can take a page from Trader Joe's book by thinking of our school system as a brand. What makes your school special? What is its identity? If you don't know, it's worth thinking about as you walk the halls and interact with students and staff. Building identity (also called "school culture") can take time, but once you get rolling on it, you can see the results snowball in a positive direction.


In my latest book, Competing for Kids, I outline several methods to build and improve school culture in the "Give Great Customer Service to Employees" concept. What I've found is that the more you and your staff can buy into the mission of improving school culture, the more infectious that attitude becomes. Just like at Trader Joe's, a great school culture is a result of leadership molding the identity of the organization, hiring staff who fit that identity and surrounding the students with the positive energy that will get them on board with it too. If you've ever been really excited about something around kids and they've caught the fever as a result, you understand how powerful this connection can be.


So next time you are strolling the halls of your school, try to identify the culture you see, hear, feel, etc. and begin to shape that culture using these lessons from Trader Joe's. Speaking from experience, there's nothing like an entire school that embraces the positive energy you've created and fostered.

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