I Feel More Human — Patrick Riley
It’s a grocery store here in the States that’s known for its Hawaiian shirt-wearing employees, for having only one of everything (there is only one type of syrup, one type of “cheerio” cereal, and one type of vanilla ice cream), and for its overall fun atmosphere.
You also may notice that Trader Joe’s does some things that are atypical of a “normal” grocery store. For example, they have an employee stand in the middle of the check-out line to tell you that you’re halfway through the line (a person’s whole job is to tell you that you’re halfway through the line!). Instead of employees squawking over a loudspeaker to ask for a manager’s help, there is a nice-sounding bell that’s rung to call a manager. And, the people working at the store genuinely want to help you and all the other customers.
There’s this great story on a Freakonomics podcast of an elderly woman who was looking for a $5 bottle of wine that wasn’t on that particular Trader Joe’s shelves. She asked one of the store’s team members if that wine was available, and knowing that a shipment had just come in, the team member went to the storage room and spent about 20 minutes finding this one ($5!) bottle of wine for this one customer.
When you go into a Trader Joe’s, you feel like you’re on vacation. Hawaiian shirts definitely scream “BEACH”. But those shirts are just one piece of the whole. The entire store is designed to give off vacation vibes. When the original concept for the stores was created, the designers envisioned a place where shoppers relaxed, enjoyed their experience, and left feeling fulfilled.
This is a very different ambiance from the other grocery store I visit. When I go to Safeway (a larger grocery store chain in the States), no one really wants to help me. I even check myself out via a self-checkout system that doesn’t exchange pleasantries with me like human cashiers often do. The store forces me to make tons of decisions as I look at each item I need and face nearly boundless options. It also seems like the loudspeaker is constantly blaring messages calling for someone to help with “clean-up on aisle 9.” All this cacophony and isolation is decidedly un-vacation-like and puts me on the defensive. I usually leave the store feeling like I just spent the last 30 minutes protecting myself and fighting for what I need.
But it’s different as I exit Trader Joe’s-I leave feeling excited and hopeful, pumped up even, by my time inside.
All because of the store’s design for how they interact with their customers.
And on top of it all, Trader Joe’s is likely the most profitable grocer in the U.S. at $1,734 worth of items sold per square foot (according to JLL); its stores aren’t much larger than 15,000 square feet. Compare this to Safeway whose revenue per square foot is right around $500.
As we think about Safeway and Trader Joe’s, three thoughts emerge for me.
First, how important customer experience is. Seth Godin wrote a on this idea. He made the point that when you see customer service as a “profit center” versus a “cost center,” you treat those doing customer service differently. You pay them more. You ensure that they like their jobs. And most importantly, you make sure they’re able to respond to customers’ needs. They’re able to find that $5 bottle of wine for an elderly woman. And they’re able to stay on the phone for as long as possible with an angry customer-as is the case with Zappos when you call their customer service-because their employer has realized that the most engaged a customer will be is when they’re on the phone with customer service.
Secondly, certain things should scale. Trader Joe’s distribution centers and logistics operations should and need to scale. Their ability to set up new stores should scale. But there are certain things that should never scale, like the ability to stand in a line with a sign showing a customer that they are halfway through the line. Because if you think about it, what is this person doing? They’re effectively creating a positive experience and interaction with a customer while they’re at the exact point where they could be frustrated (i.e., I’m only halfway through this line!). But now, someone is there, engaging that customer, ensuring that they’re as happy as they can be standing in a line. The customer doesn’t feel left unseen, fighting a nameless machine on their own. They know that someone who works for that store has seen them and their situation.
And finally, the thought emerges that the differences between the ethos of these two grocery stores all comes back to how we view humanity. I don’t feel like a human at Safeway because I’m not treated like a human. I feel anything but “safe.” I’m treated as a number (that I literally enter into the computer as I checkout) who should get in and out of the store without asking anything of anyone. But at Trader Joe’s, my humanity is on display. It’s a joy for the team members to help me get what I need to live my life.
And if you’re anything me, I’d much rather be known more for my humanity over my ability to scale.
Originally published at https://www.gan.co on December 8, 2021.