I spoke to a former employee who worked at Trader Joe's for a year, and he gave me the inside scoop on how the company is run, the little-known details of the return policy, and what the point of those somewhat-annoying bells is. Spoiler alert: there's no real dirt (I tried!), but what I got was interesting, behind-the-scenes intel that made me an even bigger fan of the store.
There's a reason the customer service is so good.
Trader Joe's strategy in providing a quality customer-service experience is simple: overstaff. "They totally overstaff so that you don't feel like your stocking duties or your register duties trump interacting with customers - they encourage you to be nice to customers." That's why you can almost always find someone in a Hawaiian t-shirt or crew-member uniform walking around and waiting to help you find anything.
The employees try all the new products so they know what to tell customers.
"Each Trader Joe's has a break room, and they have one person who's in charge of cooking new stuff that the store gets and making it available for the entire staff who comes through the store that day to try it. They want you to try all the products so you can have an opinion so that when you recommend stuff to people, it's not baseless."
The pay is REALLY good.
This guy started out at Trader Joe's making $12/hour, which was above the state's minimum wage. You not only start out making a good amount, but it gets even better quickly. After three months of working more than 30 hours a week, you get health insurance and a 401K. You'll also likely get a raise once or twice a year. A friend of this employee worked at Trader Joe's for over five years and made $21/hour - that's an annual salary of $42K.
They donate all unsold food.
"Trader Joe's donates a ton of food. It's called 'spoils,' which just means it's not in perfect shape. There's nothing wrong with eating a lime with a couple brown spots, but if you wouldn't buy it and be excited about buying it, then it gets put with spoils and typically gets donated. They donate flowers, produce - everything - to local organizations."
There's a method behind the bell ringing.
You've sometimes noticed employees ringing bells while you're checking out, right? There's a method to the madness, and it's sort of like the store's secret language for various customer-service needs. "One bell means everyone to your register, which means the lines are getting too long and they need everyone at a register. Two bells means you need an employee to come over and help with something. For example, let's say the bag of spinach you bought is partially opened or looks bad; you ring two bells and an employee will come over and grab a new one for you. Three bells means a manager needs to come over."
Every store has an in-house artist.
"Literally all of the signage around the store is custom-made by two or three artists who hang out in the back and almost exclusively do that, and register work every once in a while." That's why every store has location-based art throughout the store - pretty cool, right?
You can return ANYTHING.
Seriously, you could open a bag of popcorn, try it, and bring it back if you didn't like it - for a full refund. "You see that a lot. You get people who come back and say, 'Hey, I tried it, but I didn't really like it.'" Excuse me while I go try every single thing in the snack aisle.
They strive to create an experience that's beyond grocery shopping.
"They really push this whole, 'we don't want you to feel like you're just grocery shopping' thing. They want it to be an experience - something that pulls you out of the monotony of your everyday life."