I shop at Trader Joe's at least once a week. Before my local store opened, I would uncomplainingly drive 45 minutes across the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge, a slog on most days and a $3 toll on every day, to the nearest TJ's two counties away. I could tell you that it's the low dairy prices, the free food and drink samples, or the Two-Buck Chuck that keep me coming back. But the truth is, what I really love about Trader Joe's is the way it tells its story.
Trader Joe's is a food merchandiser in love with words, jokes, bad puns, and stories. Its retail stores are filled with hand-lettered signs that talk conversationally about new products, hiring opportunities, and company history. (Many of the signs are neatly written in colored chalk; they're a delight to read. According to the corporate web site, each store hires local artists to create the signs: "Proudly supporting the arts, one chalkboard at a time," is how the site puts it.) The stores' brown paper bags carry not only groceries but also reproductions of nineteenth-century woodcuts accompanied by irreverent dialogue bubbles, like the one in which a child professes solemnly to a frock-coated older person, "I want to grow up to be just like Trader Joe, so I can eliminate the middleman and get my cookies directly."
Once a quarter, the company mails its "Fearless Flyer" newsletter to customers who've requested it; this copy-dense publication--illustrated with more of those woodcuts--contains charming, informative, believable stories about products you'll find on the shelves. Stories like this one:
Are you feeling lucky - well, are you? In some cultures, long noodles are associated with long life and eating them on or around the New Year is meant to bring good luck. Good news - we have 20 inches of potential luck for you! Our Spaghetti Lunghi (which translates to “long strings”) are made from a time-honored Italian family recipe. Select hard grain semolina and clear water from the San Giuliano Springs are combined to produce authentic Italian flavor and texture. We are selling each 2.2 pound bag of Trader Giotto’s Spaghetti Lunghi for just $2.99. You’re feeling lucky now – well, aren’t you?
That's quintessential Trader Joe's copy, from the pop-culture reference in the first and last sentences to the morsel of anthropology to the language lesson to the brisk summary of features. And then there's the brand-bending "Trader Giotto's." (Mexican foods are labeled "Trader José's.") Can you imagine Wal-Mart tweaking its own identity that way?
These mini-stories are subsets of the big Trader Joe's story, which has to do with sailing and island paradises and the spirit of aloha. (For no particular reason I can discern. The company got its start in the 1960s in Southern California.) The meta-story is as carefully conceived and implemented as all the mini-stories: employees are called "crew members" and wear T-shirts with a Hawaiian motif; when a crew member needs assistance, he or she rings a ship's bell. (And, sure enough, there's a handwritten sign at the check-out counter explaining the meaning of all the ring codes.) The other component of the meta-story is the company's commitment to low prices and customer satisfaction. Trader Joe's doesn't have sales or specials or club cards; it just has fair prices. (As well as stickers and balloons for kids not just on special occasions but every single day.)
While I was waiting in line the other day--something that happens rarely; Trader Joe's crew members are astonishingly swift, efficient, and good-natured--I read a sign that explained part of the customer satisfaction story in refreshingly honest language:
Some of our products that have been tested and tasted by our panel of experts do not find a loyal customer base. We've put these items in our bottom 10 percent, which is rotated out in order to bring you new and exciting products. We think you will like what you find!!
And here's what the web site says: "Trader Joe's is privately owned and operated. Bad news: can't buy stock. Good news: customers are king!" Note the absence of jargon and blather. The Trader tells it like it is.
When Trader Joe's opened its first Manhattan store in the spring of 2006, the New York Times tried to suss out the company's appeal (the reporter called it "a full-scale food cult"):
The stores are small, the selection is uneven and the corporate culture can be described as dorky. [Only if you're a Manhattan snob.--NF.] But because its products are often not available anywhere else; because they mysteriously appear, disappear, then reappear on the shelves; or perhaps simply because they often taste very, very good, Trader Joe's has become tremendously popular among Americans who like to be entertained and educated by what they eat, as well as nourished by it.
Combining education and entertainment with nourishment is no easy trick; Whole Foods manages the education + nourishment part of the equation, but is far too earnest--even missionary--to be mistaken for an entertainer. Trader Joe's nails all three elements.
I might love Trader Joe's even if it didn't have wonderful writing at every turn and touchpoint. But the shopping experience is infinitely more pleasurable--"stickier," in branding parlance--because of those amusing, informative, and expertly written stories.
Footnote: Trader Joe's fans like to share the love. Read fan sites here, here, here, and here, and explore Squidoo lenses here and here. If you're dateless and peckish in Seattle, you might enjoy this Yahoo Group.