Skip to main content

What Trader Joe's has Taught Me about Business

· 5 min read
Yiyang Hibner

Subscribe at

Let’s all take a moment to think of a weekly routine -- you work hard on weekdays, and spend time with family and friends on the weekends. Unless you eat out every single meal, there’s something you can never skip --- which is going to some certain grocery stores.

There’s a chain grocery store that’s really behind on technologies -- they handwrite all their labels, there’s no app, there’s no loyalty rewards program, there are no delivery options, there’s no self-checkout, there’s no discount any time of the year regardless of any holidays in America. However, this chain grocery store has developed a huge amount of followers all over the country. I am definitely one of them! There are a lot of Instagram non-sponsored fan-based accounts, books about this grocery store’s success as well as one official podcast. Any guesses on which grocery store this is?

Yes, this lovely place -- aka my happy place is Trader Joe’s! I am a huge fan from day 1 - I listened to all Trader Joe’s podcasts, I will go there at least once a week to try the new products like “Everything but Bagel” yogurt dip or Brookies (brownies + cookies) and get my weekly staples (like chicken dumplings + spinach). Yes, I know I am not good at cooking but somehow stir-fry Trader Joe’s frozen food (with some “Everything but Bagel” seasoning) makes me feel like a celebrity chef. Even better, I get inspired by simply walking inside and looking at store art and new decorations - the crew members, the artsy environment, and the pure awesomeness of trader joe’s just make me and many others so happy!

You may be wondering: how did Trader Joe’s get here? How did it amass all these crazy followers like us without spending millions of dollars on ads, without fancy technologies?

After years of observations through in-store experience, podcast listening, Instagram reading, I summarized in a few points on what makes Trader Joe’s stand out and successful, and how we can learn from it.

The biggest advantage is Branding. The start of Trader Joe’s came from its founder Joe Coulombe in 1958 in the LA area. 20 years later, Germany’s Theo Albrechet (who also owns Aldi) bought the company and few of us know that today. Why? Because Trader Joe’s has kept its independence and culture flavor unique. When we talk about Trader Joe’s, we think of them as the neighborhood-friendly store that keeps the price low for years and it’s true. Trader Joe’s has been the leader in organic and gluten-free products and compared to Whole Foods, it won’t cost you a whole paycheck. Trader Joe’s has kept true to its branding with the in-store arts, free samples, funny Fearless Flyer written all by its own employees. It’s branding is so good that usually we think frozen food is unhealthy, but for some reason, frozen food from Trader Joe’s is magically much better and can get us all excited. Similarly at big corporations, we should think how we can keep our core brand true to our values -- the kind that will make us stand out and unforgettable.

The 2nd advantage is quick turnaround for feedback, not just from “the Captain” and “the Crews” who work there but also from customers. There are “Crew Tastings” where they learn how the food was made, harvested etc. to gain a broader knowledge of Trader Joe’s products and provide feedback. Trader Joe’s really listens to customers’ concerns and implements the changes. For example, have you ever wondered why they sell bananas individually but not in 4 or 5 bundles? It actually has not always been like this. Their CEO Dan explained it in their podcast. One day he was in a store and saw an old woman walking up to the bananas, looked at all of the packages but walked away without putting these bananas in her cart. So Dan asked her: “Ma’am, if you don’t mind me asking, I saw you looking at bananas but you didn’t put anything in your cart.” Then she said: “Son… I may not live to that fourth banana.” The day after that conversation, the chain decided it would only sell bananas by the singles and it has been 19 cents for almost 15 years. That’s the amazing speed of taking action and making changes. Whether you are an entrepreneur or working to climb the ladder, always listen to your customers and incorporate feedback into the product life cycle. The extraordinary result might surprise you in different ways.

The 3rd advantage sounds cliche - but it’s all about that positive workplace. Trader Joe’s hires people that embrace its uniqueness with some sense of humor and they truly care about its products and customers. The people at Trader Joe’s are also as happy as their lovely customers! Whenever I go to checkout or just look at items in the store, these crew members will make personal comments on how they cook the food and they genuinely ask how your day is. Because they love Trader Joe’s as a workplace and enjoy working with each other, we can feel their passion from their smiles and chitchat. Looking back at my previous experiences, the ones I enjoyed the most also brought me valuable friendships. People come and go at companies, but the connections we make are the things that stay.

Trader Joe’s stands out as a grocery store chain magically because they keep true to their branding, because they have a quick turnaround for feedback, and because they create and keep a positive workplace. I hope whenever we shop at Trader Joe’s, we can get inspiration not only from its beautiful frozen aisles but also from its inner beauty and eventually create our own brands that everyone cannot stop talking about! What do you like the most about Trader Joe’s? Tell us in the comments!