Trader Joe’s founder Joe Coulombe owned a small chain of convenience stores in Los Angeles during the early 1970s, but began struggling from the success of his newest competitor, 7-Eleven. He lured customers back with what were then considered specialty foods, such as Brie cheese, Dijon mustard, and wild rice.
Inspired by the lure of these new “exotic” foods, his love of travel, a book he was reading called “Trader Horn,” and a trip to the Caribbean, Coulombe created the recipe for Trader Joe’s grocery stores. Wanting customers to feel they were going on an excursion for food, he decked out his stores with rustic and nautical décor. He named store managers “captains” and assistant managers “ﬁrst mates,” and dressed employees in Hawaiian shirts.
Make Sure the Trader Joe’s Vibe Stays Alive
Donning Hawaiian shirt puts Trader Joe’s employees into character. It reminds them that their job is to transport customers to a relaxing and lighthearted experience in the stores. Clarity and consistency at Trader Joe’s—all the way down to those shirts—keeps them hiring and retaining people who ﬁnd it part of their natural DNA to deliver a laid-back island vibe, plus a fulﬁlling shopping experience. Trader Joe’s describes itself as “Traders on the culinary seas, searching the world over for cool items to bring home to our customers.” Everyone is a part of the journey, from crew members in the stores to the CEO.
Trader Joe’s is so emphatic about building a culture consistent with the fun of wearing that shirt that former CEO John Shields would tell new crew members that if they were not having fun at the end of their ﬁrst 30 days to please resign. They don’t want anyone to stay who can’t “own” the vibe of the personal, lighthearted, and happy service you’d get at a roadside stand for juice in the Caribbean. For example, a June 28, 2008, blogger explained how the person bagging her groceries noticed that a package of salmon wasn’t sealed correctly; so he swiftly sprinted to get her a sealed replacement. This is the Trader Joe’s vibe. It’s the automatic sprint to get some new ﬁsh and a smile as an extra piece is tossed into the bag. Delivering on the vibe attracts and keeps its valuable workforce.
Voluntary employee turnover is only 4 percent, the lowest in the grocery industry!
Creating a Company Vibe Keeps Everyone Connected To Your Purpose
What can you do to remind employees of the vibe of your company? More important, do you have a vibe?
Many beloved companies have a certain energy that deﬁnes them. At Trader Joe’s, employees wear Hawaiian shirts and deck out their stores in rustic décor. The kitschy environment and attitude makes it hard to take themselves too seriously.
• Do you take yourselves too seriously? Beloved companies all laugh at themselves at times.
• Beloved companies have a certain personality that marks them in their customers’ memories. What’s yours?