Trader Joe’s is navigating the coronavirus pandemic with the same originality and pioneering spirit with which it has built its brand. While the vast majority of grocers have not publicized workers testing positive at individual stores, the Monrovia, Calif.-based grocer is regularly communicating store closures due to COVID-19. Its website also lists scheduled temporary store closings for deep cleaning in harder hit areas, such as New York, even when employees have not tested positive.
On April 20, Trader Joe’s website posted 18 stores scheduled for daylong closures due to cleaning. All of the stores, with the exception of one in Metairie, La., were in New York.
“As the coronavirus ... affects our communities, our work as your neighborhood grocery store continues,” says the webpage devoted to temporary store closures. “We are vigilant; heeding all federal, state and local health advisories; and where it makes sense, adjusting efforts to safeguard the health and safety of our crew members and customers, as always guided by integrity and focused on doing what is right.”
Trader Joe’s most recent podcast offers a behind-the-scenes look at its direction and decision-making during the coronavirus pandemic. “This episode of Inside Trader Joe’s is a little different,” begins the podcast, which features commentary from President of Stores Jon Basalone.
“Nobody signed up for this when they applied for their job at a neighborhood grocery store,” Basalone said. “But it’s amazing to watch [our crew members] really care for their customers and communities.”
In the absence of federally mandated protocols, all grocers are challenged to implement health and safety measures in compliance with varying state and city guidelines, but with stores in 42 states plus Washington, D.C., Trader Joe’s has decided the best course of action is to go with its gut.
“What we’ve tried to do is not wait for them to tell us what to do, but to look at what we’re doing and say, OK, in this one little area, if we do some social distancing that seems to be helping. … Let’s not wait for the individual states and counties to tell us to do it,” said Basalone.
“Customers have noticed at this point that we’ve had some stores that have had to close for short periods of time after a crew member has been diagnosed with COVID-19,” added Tara Miller, Trader Joe’s marketing director. “What happens between the time that store closes and the time it reopens?”
“This is another instance where we are going above and beyond the recommendations of the local health organizations and the national health organizations as well," Basalone said. “If we have a crew member who tests positive for COVID-19 or even without a test, but they’ve given that diagnosis and they were last in the store within a 72-hour period, we will close the store.
"And while that 72-hour window lapses, [we’ll] do a thorough cleaning of the store. So thorough that they have to have a hygienist there to sign off on it. And when we close the store for that cleaning, all the crew members that were scheduled for that, get paid for those shifts.”
In some cases, Trader Joe’s is engaging an outside cleaning service without closing the store. “Every single case is different,” said Basalone. “When was the last time that crew member worked in the store? Were they showing symptoms when they were in the store? Things like that. Can we just do a thorough cleaning by a professional group overnight? Do we need to close the store for a day? Do we need to close the store for three days in order to make sure the environment is safe for everyone when we reopen?”
In areas harder hit by the coronavirus, such as New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, Trader Joe’s has started rotational cleanings where it closes the store, cleans it and reopens within 24 hours. “It’s a step we’re taking that is beyond what’s recommended, but we just think it’s the right thing to do,” said Basalone.
Trader Joe’s is also blazing its own path when it comes to limits on product purchases and more. Customers are asked to limit purchases to only what they need for the sake of their neighbors and communities. And rather than posting a social distancing policy, Trader Joe’s helps “customers form an appropriate queue.”
The grocer’s eschewing of a one-size-fits-every-store approach to shopper guidelines during the pandemic also extends to crew member inspiration.
“Our crew members are so good at that kind of thing too. … They will come up with solutions to these problems because they’re living it every day and they’re experiencing it, and what works and what doesn’t work,” said Basalone, pointing to a crew member who decided to serenade customers waiting to enter the store with a rendition of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man."
“We couldn’t possibly write that down on paper for them and have them do it as well as they do it on their own. … We did not tell Jess in Long Island to start playing the accordion for everybody in line, right?” said Basalone.