The Trader Joe’s Guide To Building A Cult Following

by anna on September 2, 2009

Just don't drink the pomegranate infused tea.

Just don't drink the pomegranate infused tea.

Have you ever stopped for a moment to marvel at the phenomenal success of Trader Joe’s? Well, I have. I mean, I know why I like them–they’re cheap, and they specialize in tasty, easily accessible, mostly already prepared foods, and we have one right in our neighborhood. But if you had told me, back in the 1980s, that the place that sells crazy stuff like hummus and tapenade (before most Americans had ever heard of such things) was going to be so astronomically successful in the late naughts, I doubt I would have believed it. I certainly would never have believed that by 2009, it would become impossible to get in and out of a Southern California Trader Joe’s parking lot without risking two or three accidents.

And yet, here we are.

So what makes Trader Joe’s different form other grocery stores? Is it just the fact that they always seem to have some kind of inside track on whatever the latest bougie food trend is just about to spider out into the suburbs? Well, that probably helps. But cognoscenti stuff like that is actually just a symptom of Trader Joe’s’ genius. The reason that Trader Joe’s is so successful is because they have–and have always had–a very clear idea of who their ideal customer is. And if you want to build a cult following for your product or business, you might consider taking this page out of the Trader Joe’s Guide to Building a Cult Following, too.

Step One: Create a Detailed Portrait of Your Ideal Consumer. And Name Him/Her.

Joe Colombe, the creator and original owner of Trader Joe’s, started his company based around an idea of a consumer among whom he lived and worked. He looked around his general socieconomic environment and noticed a group of academics who have spent the past year in Europe. They have been eating well for not that much money, and they are going to long for this kind of thing here. They cannot get it at supermarkets. But they can get it at Trader Joe’s. And the company was built around serving this group of people, a social group which they distilled into one ideal consumer. Now, when I say that Trader Joe’s has a clear idea of their ideal consumer, I don’t mean they guess that he’s 30 and drives a mid-sized sedan. I mean, they know things like he is “overeducated and underpaid.” If money were no object, he would choose a Mac over a PC. He likes Tina Fey. He has been to Europe, and probably was on some kind of academic fellowship. He would have voted for Obama over McCain, and he probably has a few kids. &c. This ideal consumer–I’m going to name him Professor Mack–is the guiding principle to all of Trader Joe’s decisions as a company. Instead of asking what they should do, they ask, What Would Professor Mack Do? Because their success depends upon their fidelity to Professor Mack’s code of behavior.

Step Two: Do Everything–Everything–With Your Ideal Consumer In Mind.

At Trader Joe’s, everything from the store layout to the choice of products to what the employee wears is done with Professor Mack in mind. Why do the employees wear hawaiian shirts? Well, because it calls to mind the kind of casual, devil-may-care attitude that Professor Mack admires–it says, to Professor Mack–I don’t have time for your uniforms, all the while distracting Professor Mack from the reality that the hawaiian shirt itself is a form of uniform. And even if Professor Mack notices this fact, he doesn’t care–because that delightful piece of consumer irony will appeal to Professor Mack. He’s that kind of guy.

Step Three: Locate Innovative Ways To Work Around Problems For Ideal Consumers.

Even if you plan very well for your ideal consumer, there will be times that you have to allow for limitations. For example, Trader Joe’s ideal consumer, Professor Mack, fancies himself the kind of guy who patronizes Mom & Pop establishments. He is wary of corporate America–that’s one of the reasons he’s overeducated and underpaid. Now, in the late eighties, Trader Joe’s was purchased by a very large European–German, in fact–grocery chain. This is not likely to please Professor Mack so much if he spends a lot of time thinking about it. But there’s nothing you can do. You are a German grocery chain and you’re trying to cater to Professor Mack.

So what you do to keep Professor Mack from noticing this fact–along with the fact that your employees are non-union and probably working at just slightly above minimum wage–is you start by making each store appear to be a little different from the next. You don’t set things up exactly the same way. You make the inventories just slightly different, so that no two stores has exactly the same inventory, despite the fact that there are many staple products available at all of them. You make it seem–as much as possible–that this is a smaller, non-chain, non-corporate store. Because that’s the kind of store Professor Mack likes to patronize. And even if Professor Mack knows, somewhere in the back of his brain, that Trader Joe’s is not just a little corner store, he will buy into fantasy, provided he can keep getting his Two- Three-Buck Chuck and Gorgonzola flavored crackers.

Step Four: Create A Tangible Culture Around Your Product.

One thing about Trader Joe’s that I always thought was funny were those Fearless Flyers that they come out with every few months, and then advertise as though it’s some kind of fantastic wonder–The Fearleass Flyer is Here! As if we’re going to drive by and think, “Well, thank God, FINALLY, finally, an overly wordy explanation of all of the various food products available at Trader Joe’s with which I’m already intimately familiar has been provided! Finally, somebody has collected vintage clip art from revolutionary Massachusetts and typeset it with blurbs about kettle chips!”

But the joke is on me, of course. Because there is a group of people who are looking for this very kind of thing–people who crave superfluous, useless reading materials that they can consume. They seek out things like the Fearless Flyer as part of a desperate attempt to quell their unending need for knowledge on topics about which nobody in the real world gives a crap. That audience? Academics! Professor Mack is sooo into superfluous reading material. He lives for that stuff. And Trader Joe’s knows that, hence the Fearless Flyer.

Now I’m sure that at some point, people were like, “Seriously? We’re going to create a promotional flyer that has no coupons or deals, no free gifts, no pictures of food, even, or anything really new in it? That’s printed on newsprint and has kitschy clip art characters as graphics?” And Joe Colombe must have said, “Oh yes. That’s what we’re going to do.” Because Joe Colombe knew his market–his market was himself and his friends. And what do professional academics and intellectuals like to do? Read lots of text! A grocery store that puts out a publication like this made them feel at home–like Trader Joe’s was their store. And so the Fearless Flyer was a means of creating a piece of culture for their store that their patrons could take home with them.

Step Five: Sit Back And Watch Them Evangelize

And if you build a store just for these kinds of people, and do everything you can to make people like your store–not all people, of course, but the right people? Then you get to sit back and watch them do the recruiting for you. They will tell their friends about you. They will tell their students. They will even make You Tube videos in tribute to you, all for making them feel like you “get” them. I’m not sure Jim Jones could have done much better.

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{ 21 comments }

1
Elizabeth September 2, 2009 at 8:45 am

Ahh, the Gorgonzola crackers. My favorite find aside from the apricot white Stilton or the gluten-free pasta and granola. Trader Joe’s has just found our area and already there’s a following – but only of certain, Professor Mack-like, folks. The other ones, they’d rather go to Kroger. Which suits me fine.

2
Neil September 2, 2009 at 9:19 am

Are you saying that I would get more followers onn Twitter if I wore a Hawaiian shirt in my avatar?

3
anna September 2, 2009 at 9:28 am

If you chose a hawaiian print background instead of the green Iran one, maybe. But that depends–do you want overeducated and underpaid to be your “brand,” Neil? If so, I’m your target market. So let that settle in for a few minutes.

4
Kerry September 2, 2009 at 9:47 am

On the one hand, I’m a little miffed that I’m that easily manipulated (although I’m not over-educated…but I would be if I’d had the money).

On the other hand, now I’m thinking I’ll walk over there and get a spinach and goat cheese quesadilla for dinner.

5
anna September 2, 2009 at 9:56 am

You and me both, Kerry. Though I’ve been eating their gorgonzola walnut salad lately.

6
anna September 2, 2009 at 3:12 pm

I just brought home four bags from Trader Joe’s. So clearly my keen eye for cultural criticism is paying off.

7
Kerry September 2, 2009 at 3:30 pm

Those four bags should be tax deductible. It’s research.

(DISCLAIMER: Don’t take tax advice from an ex-HR person)

8
anna September 2, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Using that theory, our whole grocery bill, more or less, for the past 13 months could be written off. Hmmm . . . .

9
Kerry September 2, 2009 at 4:40 pm

Not to mention the Apple ear buds, the expensive socks, and all the other Consumer Fetishism stuff.

Hey, now that I think about it, you probably SHOULD talk to someone who knows something about taxes, because that stuff might actually qualify. You never know.

10
anna September 4, 2009 at 11:45 am

I think I can do some of that, but I have to ask the CPA to know exactly how much. Like if I actually write about it, it can be written off? Because if that’s the case, I think I need to do a Commodity Fetishism post on a new car.

11
Wayne September 3, 2009 at 12:01 am

I will print your piece and post it in our break room at the Trader Joe’s Temecula. Thank you for the kind words, we at TJ’s appreciate guests like all of you that patronize our store.

12
anna September 4, 2009 at 11:44 am

Wayne, thanks for stopping by. I am certainly a loyal customer to Trader Joe’s, even if you manipulated me in order to become one. (Just kidding).

13
Kerry September 3, 2009 at 6:44 am

That last comment from Wayne brings up a good reason why I love shopping at Trader Joe’s:

When I go the regular grocery store, my conversation with the cashier goes like this:
Hi.
Do you have a saver card?
Sign the pad.
Have a nice day.

And actually, the “hi” and “have a nice day” are often omitted.

When I shop at Trader Joe’s, I have an interesting conversation EVERY SINGLE TIME. I don’t know if it’s just my store, but they have the BEST people working there. I am not actually one to chat with cashiers, but I always do there. All of the people who work at my local store are interesting people with interesting things to say. I love that. I also see the same people all the time–very little turnover (although my store’s not quite two years old yet).

I would love to know how they recruit, because they’re obviously doing something right.

14
Deb on the Rocks September 4, 2009 at 10:13 am

Trader Joe’s fascinates me, and I’ve never been to one. They spin a nice myth. Users talking about their cheap Chuck is what first caught my attention–hipsters bragging that they were slumming it with such a great no frills wine, letting them afford other ZOMG luxuries without guilt. To make consumers on the opposite coast who have never seen a paid ad for your brand wonder if they are missing something is pretty good work.

15
anna September 4, 2009 at 11:43 am

Yeah, it’s pretty amazing how much people know about Trader Joe’s, even if they’ve never been there. And, also, the lengths people will go to get to one is also funny.

16
Jasmine* September 6, 2009 at 7:55 am

This article is so thoroughly awesome on so many levels. Rock on.

17
Melanie S September 6, 2009 at 9:25 am

Great article! It’s full of inspiration!

18
Maure September 14, 2009 at 11:32 am

With all the Professor Mack types at the U. of Illinois, we have been long waiting for TJ to come to Champaign-Urbana in Illinois. May the cult soon come to the Heartland! Why should we have to drive several hours to St. Louis or Chicago for great TJ food? Then I would shop more often, and many of my friends as well.

19
Deborah September 16, 2009 at 2:02 am

I have tears in my eyes from laughing. I LOVE TJs, yet have always wondered how everyone there seems to be a member of some exclusive club I haven’t gotten an invite from.

Awesome post. Love it!

20
Liz CEP September 21, 2009 at 5:17 pm

I Love this article – my roomie and I are bona fide TJ fans – I mean who else has delectable microwavable Paneer Tikka Masala and yummy 2-minute-oven-ready Tandoori Naan for less than $6 bucks…

My love for TJ’s aside {and quite the audible pfft at your poignant edification of my consumer stratum}, the information provided is invaluable intel on establishing a “brand”. I have forwarded this to my fellow entrepreneurs in the hopes that we can all apply the infallible TJ magic to the growth of our business!

Thanks for sharing!

21
SE Jesse October 7, 2009 at 11:42 am

Let me start by saying this: Trader Joe’s is the probably the only reason I’ve been able to sustain throughout college and work—I love it there.

And I think you mischaracterized it.

“If money were no object, he would choose a Mac over a PC.”

An overeducated person who would seriously prefer a Mac is just someone who spent a lot of years on campus and never learned anything about computers while they were there. Besides, the type of pseudo-hipster indie snobs you seem to be describing most likely pat themselves on the backs for using Ubuntu.

“… along with the fact that your employees are non-union and probably working at just slightly above minimum wage …”

You really need to do your homework. As of 2004, part-time work at TJ’s started at $8-$12/h, and first-year supervisors averaged more than $40k/year. It took me five years of promotions to earn $8/h at my local farmer’s market (although I did eat everything for free there, and the food was better than equivalent products from Trader Joe’s). They offer a retirement plan, health insurance that includes dental and vision, paid time off, disability…

Oh, I apologize—I didn’t realize your “guilty liberal” mentality forces you to divide your attention across so many issues at once that you are left with no choice but to assume that the only relevant information in this world comes neatly-packed in nice labels like “non-union”—that way you already know your opinion about it, or more applicably, whether or not you should “like” it when your friend comments on the subject on Facebook.

When I think of TJ’s, I don’t imagine them catering to a crowd of thirtysomethings that run around parading a banner of faux-worldliness. I think “This is what Wal-Mart would be like if they weren’t evil.” I go there because I spend most of my money on comics and the piece of paper that will help me make more money once I’ve finished my overpriced college education. I go there because going to school means not always having time to bake, ice, and decorate a palatable chocolate cake (in between classes… to cheer myself up… because it turns out the guy I just stared at for half and hour is straight). I go there because sometimes, $3 is all I have and I’m really, really hungry.

However… While TJ’s offers convenience, cheap products, and a genuinely kind staff—their food isn’t the stuff of gods or anything. Their tabouli and hummus makes me long for the homemade ones I ate when I worked at my friend’s Persian restaurant. The same goes for dumplings, arrabbiata sauce, hot sauces (seriously, I’m surprised they don’t have that—even a scotch bonnet would be nice), lavash, tzatziki (the sour cream makes me throw up… that really doesn’t belong in there!!), pizza dough, samosas, halva, dolmeh… The list goes on.

Trader Joe’s is nice because they have a lot of vegetarian-friendly food and their easy meals taste better than the other ones on the market. Ideally, you should make all of your meals from scratch, and you should find another store to buy your ingredients for that. You say they’re trying to please people who miss eating in Europe, but anyone who’s ever had authentic, fresh, and homemade versions of those meals shouldn’t be able to tolerate the not-quite-there renditions that one sees at Trader Joe’s.

Just some things to consider… I don’t fantasize that TJ’s is something other than what it is, and I don’t care. I love the food at local gourmet shops, but I would never *pay* for it. Anything worth eating is worth learning how to make, and only a few things come better when they come out of a factory (i.e. tortilla).

And how is it even *possible* to support Apple Inc. *and* be weary of Corporate America at the same time? If you’re going to use a computer, build one yourself—or at least buy MSI, ASUS, Acer, lenovo, etc. Use OpenBSD, and then maybe, just *maybe*, you’ll finally be able to sleep at night. :/ Jackass.

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