Why Do Trader Joe’s Cashiers Stay for 19 Years?
Employee engagement issues tend to be on full display in the grocery industry.
Ralph’s has a superstore within 50 yards of our front door. The employees are hairy, sweaty, and the men are worse. Kidding aside, the place is so disengaged that customers feel like intrusions. Most of the cashiers don’t give eye contact to customers and many of them talk with other employees while practicing the mindless frenzy of entering barcodes into the system. The disengagement at the front of the store is matched by the back. The worst of it is bringing home meat, poultry, and produce that gets rotten in 24 hours.
We typically visit the store with “ingredient emergencies.” You know, guests are coming and we forgot to buy coffee. For every dollar we spend at the store next door, we spend ten dollars with the competition. We willingly drive a few miles just to find people who work with pride. Gelson’s and Whole Foods are far better. But, the best? Trader Joe’s.
But, for every dollar we spend there, we give another ten dollars towards Gelson’s, Whole Foods, or Trader Joe’s. Rather than walking 50 yards, we usually drive a few miles. Next door, asking for help is typically greeted with a blank stare, disinterest, or irritations. It is the only store where meat, poultry, and produce often get rotten in 24 hours.
At all of these locations, there is only one person responsible for the encounter:
The CEO or the business owner.
When a CEO or business owner places shareholder value and C-level income above the interest of customers and employees, mediocrity always prevails. The trance of disengagement begins at the top. But, as a neighbor and a consumer, grocery stores are special. The quality of these stores helps define our neighborhoods. A couple of months ago, I wrote a letter to the Chair of Yucaipa Companies, which owns Ralph’s as well as a number of other large chains. In the midst of writing this letter, it dawned on me that over the course of 30 years, I have not had one bad buying experience at Trader Joe’s. Here is a store that provides low prices, high-quality products and employees who treat customers as precious assets.
Joe Coulombe, the founder of Trader Joe’s, worked his way through Stanford by holding a part-time job at Rexall. After his graduation, Joe opened up a small chain of convenience stores. But, as the market changed, he saw an opportunity to build a business with unique value. His concept centered around two game-changers:
- Don’t sell other people’s stuff. Control the quality and profit through private labels.
- Develop the best talent in the grocery industry.
Today, Trader Joe’s is more than profitable, it is a cult brand with the kind of fanbase that brings in new members of the tribe every-single-day.
One the employee side, how successfully did Joe Coulombe meet the target?
Did you know the average tenure of a Trader Joe’s cashier is 19 years?
While I was writing The Workplace Engagement Solution, one of my advisors gave me this figure and it boggled my mind. But Joe built a talent philosophy that many stunted CEOs can’t seem to comprehend. The philosophy is common-sense. If you want to retain good workers give everyone a wage that allows them to meet the most basic living standards of the communities they live in. Even as the business grows, stay connected to them. For years, Joe visited every store and asked what they wanted and needed to be their best. Then, he gave it to them. Even the Hawaiian shirts came out of a conversation where employees brought up the notion of wearing fun and comfortable clothes.
I read quite a few stories about what it is like to work at Traders. But none of them summarized the culture better than one of our favorite cashiers, Jessica in Westwood. She’s always recognized us and called out to us by name. I told her about the book and asked how the company has produced such long-term loyalty. She flashed a radiant smile and said,
“19 years is for new people. I’ve been here for 24 years.”
I asked, “What do you attribute it to?”
The smile grew.
“The leadership of Trader Joe’s is amazing. Many of us call it a democracy because everyone is respected. No one pulls rank. Here’s an example. The other day, I was the second person who showed up before the doors opened. Our General Manager was already here. He was in the bathrooms mopping the floors and taking out the trash. We are a family! Everyone is expected to be generous. If I had been the first one in the door, I would have been scrubbing toilets.”
As I studied the Trader Joe’s culture, one of the words that kept coming up was generosity.
Since Joe retired, he has been succeeded by Theo Albrecht, Marc Benioff, and their current CEO, Dan Bane. Each has mirrored Joe’s ethics and values about employees and customers. There is a recent story about Dan with his decision to stop selling bananas in bunches and simply charge $.19 for one banana. They used to weigh the bananas by the pound and then package them at the warehouse. Dan watched an elderly woman walk around a pile of the bananas looking at most every package. But, she walked away without buying anything. He ran after her and asked,
“Why did you not buy any bananas?”
She said, “I’m so old I might not live long enough to eat the fifth banana.”
Trader Joe’s culture of generosity includes a story of one young man that was going through a particularly rough time in his personal life. The stress was beginning to show up at work. The manager walked up an aisle and asked that he join him behind the store. Of course, the guy assumed he was about to be reprimanded, perhaps even fired. But, the manager handed him two cartons of eggs and instructed him to throw eggs against the wall until he felt better. Every day when he worked, that manager greeted him with empathy and provided a safe place for him to live through his challenges.
I came across an article from Katherine Baker from Spoon University. She earned a graduate degree in behavioral science, found a good job in the field only to discover it made her feel stressed out and emotional all of the time. She felt she had lost the game with the “adulting thing.” She took a part-time job at Trader Joe’s to help catch up on student debt. Soon it was a full-time gig. One night, her sister asked if she liked her job at Traders. Surprisingly, she responded, “I think I do.” Katherine continued, “I found myself while mopping floors, preparing hummus samples, and putting jars of cookie butter on the shelf. I remembered who I was, got in touch with what I wanted in life, and learned how effing important it is to follow your dreams – or at the very least, find the things in life that make you happy and unapologetically pursue them.”
The most engaged workers are drawn to employers just like this. Our country’s greatest talent doesn’t take jobs where they have to smother their light just to walk through the front door. There isn’t anything elitist about giving every single worker and customer generosity.
As I finished the letter to the Chair of Yucaipa Companies, I thought of how he might respond. Within a few days, the manager of the local store called me. Panic was in her voice. She begged us to come back and gave us a gift certificate for $50.00. I asked what was she going to do to make the store a better experience. As she responded, it was clear she was not telling the truth. Perhaps she didn’t even realize that the promises coming out of her mouth were what she was supposed to tell us.
I thought of the last time I had any kind of a problem with Trader Joe’s. The only one was a problem of my own making. I have this pair of high-end sunglasses. Over the years, I’ve spent a small fortune in replacing expensive sunglasses that got lost or destroyed. I had waited until I felt I had the emotional stability to get a nice pair of glasses and keep them. One day, I left them somewhere in the Trader Joe’s store and ran to the manager’s station. They had not been turned in.
As I drove home, the phone rang. It was the manager. He said, “Mr. Harder, we just found your sunglasses! Please come back and I’ll give them to you personally.”
I laughed and said I had such low expectations at stores but that Trader Joe’s has become a special place for us.
He laughed and said, “We’re here to make everyone happy. Thank you for being such a valued customer.”
So, just what is the point?
Among my clients, there are a number of senior human capital executives. In many cases, my role is to help them find great opportunities and avoid the misery that comes from a bad fit. The two most common and vital questions include:
Who is the boss?
Does the CEO lead the culture?
If the CEO assigns culture to human resources, I suggest they either turn down the position or take it and keep their bags packed. Every single day, human capital executives are shown the door because the CEO didn’t want to be bothered with people. How can you possibly build an engaged workplace if the CEO is disengaged?
How does that work?
Has it ever worked?
Sure, I realize that is the norm.
But, how does it work?
If you have any doubts, go talk to a cashier at Trader Joe’s.
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