Wednesday, February 18, 2015

If Trader Joe's was a car, it'd be a Subaru (according to these guys)

How does TJ’s famous customer satisfaction compare to other brands, in other sectors?

The other day, my Google news feed led me to a story about how Trader Joe’s (and Wegman’s, another great grocery business) had displaced Publix as the customer-satisfaction champion in the supermarket category. When I tracked the story back to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, however, I learned that 2014 was the first year ACSI had questioned consumers about Trader Joe’s, so the results of the survey don’t necessarily indicate a change in the relative performance of TJ’s or Publix (which is also a chain that I respect.)

ACSI claims that the scores are comparable not just between brands in any one category, but between brands in different categories. With that in mind, I dug into their stats to learn how Trader Joe’s customers’ satisfaction compares to people’s satisfaction with, say, their cars or phones. The comparison was enlightening.

Trader Joe’s (and Wegman’s) scored 85 on the ACSI satisfaction scale. That’s epic. To put it in perspective, no airline got into the eighties last year. Even Southwest scored only 78. No major cellular telephone provider came close, either.

In the clothing category, VF came closest. The maker of Lee Jeans scored 84.

Of the major hotel chains, only Marriott cracked the ’80’ barrier, although amongst luxury hotel chains, Marriott’s Ritz-Carlton subsidiary beat out TJ’s with an 86.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Apple scored an 84—by far the highest among personal computer brands.

If TJ’s was a car, what car would it be? Subaru shares its customer satisfaction score of 85. Only Mercedes-Benz did better (although Lexus and Volkswagen were both within the margin of error.)

What about comparisons with other food categories, or other retailers? Well, Starbucks scored a paltry 76. I note that the highest score for all fast-food is “All others”. I.E., any small local fast food outlet will likely outscore any major national brand. That’s food for thought, eh?

Food manufacturers did much better. H.J. Heinz, Hershey, Mars, Quaker, Nestle, and General Mills all equalled or bettered TJ’s score. That supports my general theory that it’s TJ’s customer service—not products—that drives fan loyalty.

Among other retailers, Costco and Nordstrom put up functionally identical scores of 84 & 86, respectively. Amazon also scored 86—by far the best among web retailers surveyed, but they didn't ask about Zappos.

The ACSI web site doesn’t provide enough statistical background for me to tell you how significant a one-point difference in score really is. I suspect it’s not significant at all. Still, their brand rankings ring true. And one thing’s certain, TJ’s has built its incredible brand with far, far less advertising than any comparable brand, in any industry. If you want to know the secret of how they did that, you’ll have to read my book.

Thanks to Google, I found this photo of a Subaru in a TJ's parking lot while sitting at my desk in my pajamas. And yet, Google's own Customer Satisfaction score is well below Trader Joe's. Perhaps it's that we don't fear that, one day, Trader Joe's will actually rule the world as a dark and imperious overlord. (Just kidding, Google. I love you guys.)

Monday, January 26, 2015

A lesson IKEA could learn from TJ's (but probably won't)

Last year, IKEA came to the Kansas City metro for the first time. My friends asked me if I was going to get a job there, and write a book about that brand—the way I did when Trader Joe's arrived a few years ago.
Trader Joe's customer service is to IKEA's customer service what meatballs are to poo.
I didn't, but I can't help myself, when it comes to analyzing customer service in any retail setting. What I've learned is that, when it comes to front-line customer service staff, IKEA's no Trader Joe's. Based on my observations, IKEA could learn a lot from TJ's.

Read my article on Medium here.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The keys to TJ's success with 'Millennials'

I was recently interviewed by Hanna Chalmers, the head of research at Mediabrands—the ad giant Interpublic's in-house nerd department. The topic was, Trader Joe's success with 'Millennials'. (Millennials=people who came of age post-2000. Some demographers define this group as people born between 1982-2004.)

I'm quoted in this report. If you're interested in marketing to Millennials, you can download it by clicking the image.
The report was published by Initiative, a hip agency based in London, England, that is part of IPG. Here's the full text of my interview with Hanna. Do you agree with me? What do you think is the secret of TJ's success with younger consumers?

Mediabrands: What is at the root of Trader Joe’s success?
Mark Gardiner: They’d tell you, “We’re a product-driven company,” and that’s part of the story. But TJ’s incredibly strong brand—and the company’s sustained growth and financial success in a very difficult category—is rooted in millions of face-to-face interactions between shoppers and front-line retail staff. 
TJ’s ‘crew members’ are famously chatty and cheerful (sometimes annoyingly so!) The brand relies on the oldest trick in a merchant’s book: Friendly, personal service.
Mediabrands: Is their secrecy part of their success?
Mark Gardiner: Yes and no. The company’s cutthroat management style is not consistent with the friendly, laid-back vibe in the stores. For example, TJ’s didn’t stop selling red-listed fish until Greenpeace lampooned it with a Traitor Joe’s website. 
So they have to be secretive, in order to prevent a sort of cognitive dissonance amongst shoppers. But it’s to the point now that the company’s secretive ways are becoming the story. 
The counter-example here would be Patagonia. Their front line retail staff can be a little snotty, but the company’s management is remarkably transparent, and the company lives its brand values, all the way up the org chart, and throughout its procurement and manufacturing.
A collection of marketing and agency types gathered in Farringdon, in central London, to listen to Hanna and a few of her co-workers present their insights into Millennial consumers.
Mediabrands: Why is it particularly successful with Millennials?
Mark Gardiner: It’s worth noting that there are things you might expect TJ’s to do well, that they don’t do at all. For a hip California company with a devoted following of young consumers, they have almost no social media presence. The company has a relatively rudimentary web site, a moribund Twitter feed, and no official Facebook page.
At the product level however, TJ’s ‘gets’ Millennials. People under 35 today were the first demographic group raised entirely in the era of Hot Pockets, Lunchables, and the Starbucks drive-through. In the U.S., they attended schools in which Home Economics classes had been cut back. Sure, they watch cooking shows on TV, but they’re not big on practical kitchen skills. Perhaps that’s why snacks and prepared meals (particularly frozen meals) contribute most of the profit from TJ’s food sales. 
Relatively sharp prices and a good assortment of cheap, drinkable wine are also strong selling points for the under 35 crowd; in the U.S. they’re all still paying off their student loans!
One New York Times journalist called TJ’s “the home of lonely food”, which is an evocative way of describing the single customer who has worked late, and stopped by TJ’s on the way home to pick up a frozen mac ‘n cheese or pre-made salad and a bottle of Two Buck Chuck, that they’ll eat alone, while updating their profile.
In that context the warm, friendly TJ’s shopping experience is a welcome relief. The company may not get social media, but it understands the value of that real-world social experience. 
Mediabrands: What is at the essence of the brand?
Mark Gardiner: A fun, friendly shopping experience, that makes the things you buy there seem even better.
The key to this is, hiring the right people. As I explain in my book, “Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s”, you can train skill, but you have to hire attitude. 
TJ’s offers good wages and benefits, and the store seems like a fun place to work. (Imagine, as a 30-something, telling your peers, “I work at McDonald’s.” They’d think, “loser”. Tell them you work at Trader Joe’s and the response is, “Fun! I love that place.” As a result, TJ’s has its choice of employees. And it uses that choice to hire natural extroverts. 
Millennials are skeptical about a lot of the things companies do to promote their brands, but the authentic contact they make with TJ’s employees (who skew, age-wise, into the same category) isn’t perceived as “marketing” or “corporate”. It comes across as authentic, because it almost always is authentic. Crew Members create authentic connections with customers—not because they are told to do so, or trained to do so (although they are told, and trained) but rather because that’s who they are.
Mediabrands: What does it understand that other brands in its category don’t?
Mark Gardiner: A.) TJ’s doesn’t try to please everyone.  
Fun exercise: Google “Why I hate Trader Joe’s” and “Why I love Trader Joe’s”. You’ll see the same traits listed in both places. But TJ’s knows that if half of America’s grocery shoppers love its brand, that’s more than enough to be profitable; who cares if the other half hates them?
Wishy-washy companies that try not to offend anyone don’t give anyone a reason to love them, either.
B.) TJ’s understands that paying front line customer service staff a little bit more is a great investment. MIT prof Zeynep Ton’s research has amply proven that the retail chains that pay staff the highest wages have higher rates-of-sale and are more profitable. Retailers who increase customer service pay show increased profits, and retailers who cut staff costs typically lose profit as a result.
Trader Joe’s pays better than average retail salaries, and offers better than average benefits, so it can easily recruit employees who will naturally extend that cheerful, sociable brand. 
The company’s built one of America’s most valuable brands virtually without advertising. That savings alone would easily cover the cost of paying customer service staff another $2-$3 per hour.
Mediabrands: What is the future for Trader Joe’s – what risks do you foresee?
Mark Gardiner: TJ’s has lots of growth potential in the U.S.; it could easily double sales volumes by expanding into markets where it is not active at all, and many markets that have 2-3 Trader Joe’s stores could support twice that many.  
The company’s been successful because it’s always focused on the relationship between customers and the store, and saved the hard bargaining for its relationship with suppliers.
The biggest risk is that the company’s current CEO is an accountant, not a merchant. I think TJ’s is beginning to see it’s crew members as a cost center and not as a key source of the company’s profits.
Mediabrands: What can other brands learn from Trader Joe’s?
Mark Gardiner: Hire the right people, then have the courage of your convictions and really empower them to live and promote your brand values. The authentic connections they make with consumers are priceless—especially so when the consumers are Millennials who’ve long been jaded when it comes to ‘messages’ from brands.
If you’re a highly-paid VP Marketing, that’s scary advice. I’m telling you to place your brand—perhaps your company’s most valuable asset—in the hands of your lowest-paid employees. 
But think of it this way: Those front line employees have always been empowered to reduce the value of your brand. No matter how great your new product or ad campaign, if the customer comes to the store and is treated poorly, they’ll hate your company. 

Since your customer service staff can already reduce your brand equity, you have nothing to lose by empowering them to increase it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Comedian's 'ode' to Trader Joe's: It's Narnia

One reason I know I'm right about Trader Joe's -- by which I mean, I know TJ's built its brand on the strength of those chatty, cheerful crew members -- is that TJ's corporate culture has entered American pop culture. Check out this bit by Gary Gulman, appearing on the Pete Holmes show. It's as if he read 'Build a Brand Like Trader Joe's' and set about turning into comedy.

Monday, January 27, 2014

A supplier outed, along with some unsavory business practices

One of the most popular items in Trader Joe's salty snack aisle are these peanut butter-filled pretzels. We used to sell case after case of these on days leading up to big football games, and I can only imagine how many are currently being stocked up in anticipation of the Super Bowl. 

But they've left the owners and employees at a Maxim Marketing Corp., a California-based snack company, with a bad taste. According to a lawsuit between Maxim and Con-Agra, a giant food conglomerate based in Omaha, Con-Agra has stolen Maxim's Trader Joe's business.

Maxim's story is that, for years, Con-Agra supplied the pretzel "pockets" that Maxim filled with peanut butter and then sold to Trader Joe's. I'm not sure if Maxim claims to have actually invented the filled pretzel, but they do sell a similar product that they call, "The Original Pocket Pretzels®". 

Now, it seems that Con-Agra has gone around Maxim, and is filling its own pockets. 

Internally, Trader Joe's talks a lot about it's sharp—some might say, ruthless—buying practices. The story told to employees is that the company cuts costs in order to sell to consumers at the lowest possible price. But while eliminating one step in the peanut butter-filled pretzel supply chain has, presumably, resulted in a cost savings, Trader Joe's sells the Con-Agra product in the same packaging at the same price, $3.79 for a one-pound bag. (Maxim's original pocket pretzels are sold in other outlets, at a suggested retail price of $2.39 per 8 oz.)

Luckily, Maxim has other customers. Trader Joe's buyers love being a small company's only customer, though that has obvious risks because TJ's projects a "South Seas" vibe but the company acts more like a cutthroat pirate when negotiating supply deals. 

Anyway, Maxim will miss the $10M in revenue from selling (my guess) about 7M bags of pretzels to Trader Joe's per year, but it will survive this setback. Whether it succeeds in its suit against Con-Agra will hinge on two things: did their contract include a non-compete clause, and; can a much smaller company possibly win a fight with a giant?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Stuck in line at Trader Joe's? This guy wrote a charming essay about it...

In the produce section of Trader Joe’s store in the Chelsea section of New York, Karl Holman holds an eight-foot-tall sign that reads “End of Line.” It’s six o’clock on a Tuesday, and Holman is managing the line for the second time this shift. While customers test peaches for ripeness, Holman holds the towering metal pole aloft, making the banner’s orange and yellow lettering visible to anyone who gazes up from the shelves. For the next hour, the line’s end moved constantly.

Short and stout, with a salt-and-pepper goatee and a grey Trader Joe’s T-shirt, the forty-nine-year-old Holman addresses a knot of stopped customers who are blocking traffic. “Are you ready to check out?” he asks. “Step right here.” Customers glance at his sign and then file into place.

As the line forms in front of him, he takes tiny backwards steps to keep pace with its telescoping end. His moving target keeps him in motion, and he marks it with the dedicated poise of a Beefeater at Buckingham Palace. 

Starting by the tubs of cut pineapple, he inches deeper into the produce area, backing past the baby carrots and fresh herbs, past the clear bags of salad greens, and, while smiling and greeting passersby with a “Hi, how are you?” he hooks around a freestanding rack of fruit before stopping near the entrance. In a few minutes' time he has traveled so far back that, without meaning to be metaphysical, he has transcended the proverbial end of the line and arrived at the beginning.

To read the rest of author Aaron Gilbreath's wonderful essay, and see more of illustrator Marc Pearson's cartoons of life in a busy Manhattan Trader Joe's store, check out

Friday, November 15, 2013

It's not a SNAP, but we could eliminate food injustice

There’s been a lot of talk over the last couple of weeks about the reduction in SNAP (aka ‘food stamp’) benefits, which were the result of the end of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Although I’ve never received SNAP benefits — in fact, as a foreigner there’d be a five year waiting period, and after that, as an able-bodied adult without dependents I could only collect benefits for three months in any three-year period — I did work in the grocery business for a year while researching my book Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s. I’ve got plenty of experience with the SNAP program from the other side of the cash register.

At the Ward Parkway Trader Joe’s store in Kansas City we served a very diverse community because the location was essentially astride two very different neighborhoods. The area west of our store, in Johnson County, Kansas, was upscale and predominantly white; the sort of well-off Republican voters who tend to sympathize with old Mitt Romney’s characterization of people receiving benefits as ‘takers’. The area immediately east of our store was also predominantly white but not as well off — the arty/liberal enclave of Waldo. 

Troost Avenue was about a mile east of our store. Anyone who knows Kansas City knows that Troost has long been the border of the predominantly African-American community. Much of the landscape beyond Troost is pretty grim; it features drugs, gangs, and a school system so bad that the state of Missouri wrested control of it from school board.

While researching Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s I handled hundreds (probably thousands, but I wasn’t counting) of SNAP transactions, serving people of all ages and ethnicities. Some looked ‘poor’ although our store was not really that easy to get to, if customers didn’t at least have access to a car. Most looked like many other ‘cash’ customers, which is consistent with the observation that most families that receive SNAP benefits are headed by adults who have jobs, albeit low-paying ones. I did EBT transactions for a few Trader Joe’s crew members, which tells you something; even though the store paid far better-than-average wages in the retail sector, most employees still qualified.

(As an aside, the well-off white customers from Johnson County often displayed the gulf of understanding between the 1% (or maybe the 10%) and the working poor in the service sector. I remember one guy about my age, obviously pretty well off, who commented that my job seemed a lot more fun and social than his job as an accountant. He told me, “I wish I could work here.” I told him that he’d have to be ready to take a pay cut. “Yeah, I guess I couldn’t afford it,” he said, adding “What do you guys make? Like, $20 an hour?” I just smiled and shrugged it off, but I thought, Is that really what you think?)

I can tell you from experience that most people who bought food with EBT cards weren’t buying booze as well (even though we sold plenty of beer and wine to people paying conventionally.) I saw one clear-cut case of something many people would’ve called ‘abuse’ of the SNAP program: a woman buying about 10 cans of tuna told me, “They won’t let you buy pet food with food stamps, so I feed my cats tuna.”

By and large, the nutritional choices made by EBT customers were no worse than the choices made by the other customers. I often saw EBT customers make conspicuously good choices, which is to say their carts arrived full of ingredients, not prepared foods. 

Ironically, poverty in America is marked by obesity, not starvation. The issue is clearly not that many people will starve because SNAP benefits have been cut, or would starve if they were eliminated altogether.

Anyone with a nuanced understanding of the American food industry knows that the system is stacked against a healthy population, from corn subsidies on down. This has resulted in a situation where Americans spend a very small percentage of their income on food, but 10 times as much as other developed nations on health care.

I’m not going to solve this problem in a single blog post, but I’ll tell you this: Some of the SNAP recipients who live east of Troost in Kansas City managed to get to Trader Joe’s. But many of the people who need SNAP benefits live in neighborhoods that are food deserts. Those people have no choice but to use their SNAP funds to buy expensive, unhealthy prepared foods in bodegas, convenience stores and gas stations.

Rich white people who are obsessed with ‘food stamp fraud’ would eliminate far more waste— and save far, far more on future health costs — by spending their time and effort figuring out ways to make healthy food available in poor neighborhoods.

The reduction in SNAP payments is a tiny part of a much larger food injustice issue. Let me tell you this: if the U.S. really set out to solve the problem of food injustice in its inner cities — if the country really made it a priority and, step by step, did whatever it took to ensure that the country’s urban poor understood and had access to proper nutrition — in the process of solving those problems, all the other problems of the inner city including crime, gangs & drugs; the collapse of public education in the inner city; the whole fucking poverty cycle... You’d wake up one morning and realize that you’d solved all of those along the way.

Happy Thanksgiving.