When a 50-year-old mother of two and former professional services consultant tried to reenter the workforce in Denver after taking time off to focus on her children, she found that what would have been a challenge during normal circumstances was seemingly impossible in the midst of a global pandemic. But she knew that grocery was one industry that was still actively hiring, and as a longtime shopper at Trader Joe’s, with its cheerful and upbeat employees, she thought her local TJ’s might be a good point of workforce reentry. She was hired as a crew member and thus performed a variety of roles, including working the checkout, bagging groceries, stocking shelves, working the front door, managing the socially distanced line, etc. She has since moved on from Trader Joe’s to take a position more aligned with her professional background, but as she was not authorized by Trader Joe’s to speak with WGB, she asked to remain anonymous.
Jennifer Strailey: Trader Joe’s is known for having some of the most engaged and enthusiastic employees in grocery. Is the enthusiasm authentic, and if so, how does Trader Joe’s achieve it?
Former crew member: For the most part, it is authentic. The crew at Trader Joe’s are some of the best people I’ve ever worked with—both management and crew members. While not everyone has the same underlying joy about the store, I think the enthusiasm is genuine—for one, because Trader Joe’s pays significantly more than most grocery stores. They also hire based on personality. They hire people they want to work with regardless of what the resume says.
Their proprietary products are also a huge draw and they do a great job getting customers and employees excited about new products coming into the store. Once a month they publish a manual, for employees only, of new products and seasonal products that are coming back into the store. It gives a complete description of the product and suggests pairings like this would be great with that.
I also think people are excited to work for Trader Joe’s because they operate like an inverted pyramid. The customers are at the top, then employees and at the very bottom is management. Everything is to support the workers who are in front of the customers the most.
Crew members are also encouraged to constantly present ideas like how we can better support our customers who are essential hospital workers or make it safer for the elderly to shop the store. If it’s a good idea, management’s goal is to figure out how to make it happen. Managers also do everything in-store from putting product out to working the checkout and working the front door. They are a part of the team.
In your previous career, you were a training development consultant for a global Fortune 500 company. What did you think of Trader Joe’s onboarding and training program?
This is one area where I think Trader Joe’s could grow. But I also want to say that every store is different, and my experience may have been what it was because of COVID and employees being stretched to do so many different things—we had two people washing carts and one person opening and closing the front door—so it took crew members away from other tasks.
The onboarding consists of watching a two-hour video about the corporate culture, the Trader Joe’s mission, how to stay safe, and so on. Then they pair you with someone on the floor and that person trains you. There’s no checklist that says, ‘These are the things she needs to learn.’ Some people are really good teachers and some are not. You definitely learn different methods of doing things, but you don’t learn the way the company would consider the ideal way of doing things. And you have holes in what you know.
What can you tell me about your experience as a shopper of Trader Joe’s vs. an employee? Once hired, was the job and company culture what you expected? If not, how did it differ from your expectations?
It was exactly what I expected. It probably exceeded my expectations as far as feeling part of a family and a team. On the surface, people seemed really friendly, and I know that sometimes appearances aren’t reality, but at Trader Joe’s it really is genuine. We were all part of a team and we all worked our asses off. I was so impressed with the work ethic of 99% of the people working there.
In addition to higher [than average grocery store] base pay, employees are making $2 an hour more because of COVID, and there are great medical benefits. [Trader Joe’s employees] call it the “golden handcuffs.” You can’t find benefits like that anywhere else so people who work there, typically stay there.
What did you love most about the job?
The people. I loved my co-workers. I loved the managers. The whole crew are exceptional people. At the store in which I worked, I’d say about half of the people were artists of some sort. Really creative and bright people. There was such a variety of people—happy and kind people.
What did you like least about the job?
Accounting for every minute of my day—clocking in and out and having to ask for a 10-minute break. I think it’s because I haven’t had a job like that since high school. Also, the scheduling is inflexible.
Trader Joe’s is known for having an almost cult-like fan base of shoppers. What were your observations?
Kringles! They are such a big deal, so I bought one thinking I have to understand why people are so crazy for them. Kringles are definitely a cult thing. They’re a kind of Danish pastry, and the flavors change seasonally. They come in frozen and Trader Joe’s sells them thawed, but we’d have people call the store and ask to buy a whole case of them frozen. They sell out like crazy. It’s bizarre. Another funny thing is that florists come in all the time—at least once a weekend—saying they’re doing a wedding and buying out an entire section of flowers.
I used to be a regular TJ’s shopper, but since the pandemic, I’ve been turned off by seemingly constant lines wrapped around the block of every Trader Joe’s in town. What do you think of Trader Joe’s response to the pandemic, how quickly do those lines move, and do you have a sense about whether some customers have chosen to shop elsewhere?
As a shopper, I’ve never stood in line for more than 15 minutes, and once shoppers are in the store, they recognize the reason for the line. You don’t have Instacart people reaching over you, the lines at the register are short and you can do your shopping and get out quickly. Now that I’ve worked there and I continue to shop there, when I go to another grocery store, I’m like, ‘Why am I here?’ There are people who aren’t wearing masks and security guards who aren’t enforcing it.
The managers at Trader Joe’s are fiercely protective of the people who work in the store and the customers who are shopping it. Management didn’t make us enforce mask wearing, but we were empowered to ask people to do so. If we didn’t feel comfortable asking a customer to put on a mask, we could get management, and they would enforce it. People who refused to wear a mask were asked to leave the store.
When I worked the front door at Trader Joe’s, numerous customers would say how much they appreciated the lengths we were taking because it made them feel safe to shop the store.