Every week, I walk to the Center City Trader Joe’s to pick up a few small snacks for the work week. I go typically around noon; the store is usually packed to the brim with customers and a line that wraps around the entire store. The uninitiated might turn around and leave—but unintimidated, I proceed to grab my usual 3 items and try the free samples that are available. After waiting in line for about five minutes (that line moves faster than it looks), a friendly Trader Joe’s employee helps me and I’m on my way.
I sat down with Chris Condit, Category Leader at Trader Joe’s to get a better understanding of how Trader Joe’s works. Chris was instrumental in the creation of the wildly successful “Two-Buck Chuck” marketing campaign, in which Trader Joe’s made bottles of Charles Shaw wine available for $1.99 plus tax (1). We discussed what makes Trader Joe’s so successful while keeping a very minimal digital presence.
I asked Chris what he thought the Brand Personality of Trader Joe’s is, and he described how it simply mimics founder Joe Coulombe:
Joe is a person, so hard to beat the real thing.
Chris Condit: Joe is a person, so hard to beat the real thing. We tend to hire normal people, like yourself or myself or other people we know that you can have a conversation with. It’s so unusual that we have normal people, except that it is because a lot of times you go in retail and it’s like people that want to talk to the other co-worker or not talk to a customer. We don’t . . . We try to just be normal.
Trader Joe’s marketing strategy is nothing flashy. If you look online for a digital presence you’ll find a Pinterest page, an Instagram account, their corporate website, a Facebook page, and a recently launched podcast. The corporate website has an online store, which displays the items found on their Fearless Flyer and describes the story of how the item became a Trader Joe’s product. They can recommend products to you, or even give you a recipe to make with their items, but you won’t be able to purchase anything online. Each media channel is very minimal and designed to deliver the same message: promote their seasonal items, provide their customers recipes for meals that can be made with their products, and get their customers into their stores. According to Chris, this is all by design:
All that stuff goes on to the various digital outlets that we use, and all of them are there to get people to come into the stores.
Chris Condit: We’re a national chain of neighborhood stores. Our store is the brand. We want humans to come into our stores. We’ll put recipes together of some of the products that we sell and our flyer, then post that online. Our flyer is our main, sort of real-world marketing tool, and it provides the stories behind the products, and why we think and hope that you’ll like them and want to buy them. All that stuff goes on to the various digital outlets that we use, and all of them are there to get people to come into the stores. We don’t sell anything online. We’re not trying to make it so you pick up your groceries outside our store, and don’t ever come to our store. That’s absolutely not what we’re trying to accomplish.
Trader Joe’s recently decided to get rid of their delivery service in New York City, and I asked Chris about it. Having lived there myself, I understood just how important delivery is to New Yorkers. Here’s what he had to say:
Chris Condit: Everybody delivers in New York. We farmed delivery out to a service. Then we realized, “Why are we doing anything different there?” I would bet that most people didn’t even know we did delivery, frankly. I mean, if you ever went into one of those New York stores and saw how many kajillions [sic] of people were in there shopping and how few were even bothering with delivery, you would realize that most people, first off, didn’t know or didn’t care that we did the delivery, and it wasn’t us. What we’re all about is getting people in the store, so it was like, “Wait. If we’re not doing online, why are we doing delivery?” It’s surprising that we did it in the first place. I think we only did it because, “Hey, everybody in New York has deliveries.”
While many traditional brick and mortar retailers are closing stores, Trader Joe’s continues to open new stores and continues to pack customers into them. Customers love Trader Joe’s products and service. We discussed how the customer experience in stores is what keeps them coming back:
We win them over with all the great products in the stores, and then they become loyal shoppers and shop with us more.
Chris Condit: We want you to have a good experience. We want everyone to come into the store, we want them to find fun things. We want them to have actual conversations with normal human beings. We’re a product-driven company, so we try to get products loaded with a value that we think customers will love, and we try to get customers to go into the stores and buy those products. Try them at the demo counter, if they like them, buy them. Hopefully, over time, we win them over with all the great products in the stores, and then they become loyal shoppers and shop with us more.
The simple formula works and it resonates throughout different forms of social media, as the loyal satisfied customers generate great word of mouth advertising through user-generated content. Trader Joe’s might not have a significant digital imprint from a corporate level, but if you take a look at the different social media channels, you will notice how many organic handles, Pinterest boards, YouTube videos, fan pages, and more have been created by these loyal customers. According to a study conducted by Reevoo, “51 percent of Americans trust user-generated content more than other information on a company website,”(2). This type of content—essentially free advertising—certainly helps extend the brand and the brand image beyond the stores digitally.
Chris and I also discussed what metrics they look at to keep products relevant in their stores to keep the customers coming back. The answer turned out to be very simplistic:
Because we keep it simple, we literally drop the slowest selling item.
Chris Condit: We only have 3,600 items in a Trader Joe’s store compared to a supermarket that might have 60,000 to 80,000 items depending on the size of the store. What we do is we’re always putting stuff out there. We’re kind of noted for new products introduction so that, obviously, the simple math is if one item gets on the boat, so to speak, then something has to come off. Because we keep it simple, we literally drop the slowest selling item. If an item is the worst selling item, the fewest customers are buying it, it’s selling almost no units and almost no dollars, we clearly came up with a product that did not find an excited audience and we let it go, and we hope that the new product we put in sells better.
While the simplistic approach that Trader Joe’s takes to drive people into stores is working now, in the future Trader Joe’s might want to rely more on their digital presence to help them collect even better customer data. Trader Joe’s wouldn’t have to do too much to obtain such data. If they put a greater focus on using social media channels as a way for customers to interact directly with the brand, they could gain valuable insight into what to improve upon. They might want to open a community forum on their website where customers could discuss products and homemade recipes that Trader Joe’s could crowdsource and utilize in the future. There are other digital strategies that Trader Joe’s could use to stay ahead of their competition. What strategies do you feel would be beneficial to Trader Joe’s without sacrificing their simplistic business model?
(1) Brown, Corie. “The Secret to This Wine’s Popularity Is the Grapevine.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 7 Dec. 2002, articles.latimes.com/2002/dec/07/food/fo-wine7.
(2) Aksenova, Anya. “User Generated Content – Great for Content Marketing.” Curata Blog, Curata Blog, 26 Apr. 2017, www.curata.com/blog/content-marketing-user-generated-content/.
“Believe-Eat-Or-Not Recipe.” Homepage: Welcome | Trader Joe’s, www.traderjoes.com/.