Leading Listener: Trader Joe's

Customer feedback doesn't have to come from sophisticated research. At Trader Joe's, it's all about listening to people.

At first glance, Trader Joe's might not seem like a company that listens well. The specialty grocery chain, known for its private-label foods, doesn't have a way for customers to email it from its Web site. The 800-number on the site offers only a recording about store locations. And the company says it doesn't do focus groups.

But talk to almost any Trader Joe's customer, and you'll hear a story of how the company has listened and responded. Marynne Aaronson was surprised at how quickly her Reno, Nevada, store started carrying a soy ice-cream cookie she'd requested after trying it at a Southern California location. Susan F. Heywood was driving past her Phoenix Trader Joe's early one morning when she found it bustling, even though the store's official opening wasn't until 9 a.m. "A lot of people wanted us to be open early, so we try to be as often as we can," the manager told her.

And Mike Losey was tugging a cart full of flowers and wine in his Ann Arbor, Michigan, Trader Joe's when an employee stopped him and asked if he was throwing a dinner party. When Losey said yes, the staffer recommended a three-minute creme brulee after the two spent a few minutes discussing Losey's menu.

At Trader Joe's, listening to customers — and their valued feedback — is not about a carefully calibrated contact center or extensive customer research. Rather, it's about something much more simple, and simply human: a conversation among the customer and the "captains" and "crew members," as its Hawaiian-shirt-clad managers and employees are called. "We feel really close to our customers," says Audrey Dumper, vice president of marketing for Trader Joe's East. "When we want to know what's on their minds, we don't need to put them in a sterile room with a swinging bulb."

It's also about responding to what gets said. Captains spend most of their day on the retail floor and have a lot of autonomy to set up their stores to meet local needs. Employees can open any product a customer wants to taste and are encouraged both to recommend products they like and to be honest about items they don't. All store employees can email buyers directly with ideas or feedback from customers.

When customers do have questions or problems, Trader Joe's prefers that they contact their local store captain — hence, the info-only 800-number on the Web site. But the company does have a customer-service department and will hand over the number when requested. One question the department often gets is about ingredient labeling. In response, Trader Joe's began introducing allergy labels a few months before Congress passed related legislation in July.

In the end, Trader Joe's business model allows it to respond to customer feedback in ways that other supermarkets cannot. Suppliers do not pay stocking fees, or "rent," to place products on Trader Joe's shelves, a widespread industry practice that's anything but customer-focused. With drastically smaller square footage and inventories than typical grocery stores, the company removes items that don't sell well to make room for new products. In a sense, Trader Joe's entire inventory is a result of listening to customers — both their feedback and their dollars. "We like to think of Trader Joe's as an economic food democracy," says Dumper.

Runner-Up: Wachovia

There's more to listening than gathering data. What you do with it also matters. When Wachovia surveys customers — an impressive 25,000 every month — for feedback on its service experience, it doesn't just collect the results branch by branch. Rather, the bank asks customers about individual employees and uses those answers in one-on-one staff coaching. A recent 20-minute coaching session at a Manhattan branch made clear how this feedback — each customer surveyed rates 33 employee behaviors — can improve service. The branch manager urged an employee to focus on sincerity rather than on mere friendliness, to "sharpen her antenna" so she'd listen to customers more intuitively, and to slow down rather than hurry up. That focus on careful, sincere, intuitive service has paid off: Wachovia has held the top score among banks in the American Customer Satisfaction Index since 2001.

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  • Theresaskala Skala

    Please bring back the small loafs of fruit cake. Maybe just turn them into holiday chips. Slice very thin. Place on parchment paper bake 350 until crisp sprinkle with brandy let cool. Whip moscapone cheese with caramel topping use as a spread. Great with coffee. Thank you! Theresa

  • carolyn lucas

    Artisan Breads in Fair Oaks, CA label "Walnut Cranberry Bread". This leads one to believe you're going to get Walnuts and Cranberries. Would you agree, sort of, that you can count on bread having walnuts and cranberries?
    Well, it is so full of raisins you wonder if you picked the wrong loaf. I keep hoping--have bought this bread about three times looking for walnuts and cranberries. NOPE. Not there. Three or four walnuts finely diced NEAR THE TOP OF LOAF, and loaded, I mean LOADED with raisins. THEN, I see that rasins is one of the main ingredients. Nary a mention of it.
    I DON"T LIKE RAISINS. Nothing says it has raisins except ingredients. Like a pinch of soda in a recipe, the cranberries and walnuts are at the end (diminishing order, less important). I feel cheated. This is so intentional. PLEASE advise the bakers of the Artisan Breads for Sacramento area stores that mis-labeling is certainly not appreciated! It is, in fact, not legal.And by the way, this bread is $4.00 a loaf and it is a little loaf.

  • bree

    Please understand that I don't complain... Usually, I just don't go back. Ever. However, I just called "Trader Joe's Customer Service Line" and talked to "Amy" about Trader Joe's poorly written, badly designed, useless website form. Yeah, the site looks really cool (cool doesn't translate to increased business if it doesn't help customers), but it is so useless that i will never use it again. I have a been a Trader Joe's Customer since it's inception. However, after talking to "Amy at Trader Joe's on the No Customer Service line" I've discovered that Trader Joe's hate's their customers, or doesn't care when the customer want's to help (free help, I might add). I quote "we don't administer our website, and we have NO PLANS TO IMPROVE IT". My request was simple. Please inform your marketing manager (whom must me a moron according to amy) that I used their "map" feature to try and find a location for a friend while traveling through New Mexico and it was useless. You have to type in New Mexico (in the city/state box), then you have to select 'New Mexico' again in the Drop Down menu" but then nothing happens. I want to know where the locations are in a state. Period. But, It doesn't say "sorry, we don't have a location in New Mexico", It just defaults to blank. My response, (especially being someone who is a web designer) was, "well the marketing manager might like to know that this form is designed poorly" but AMY in customer service could care less. I voiced my concerns to AMY IN CUSTOMER SERVICE at Trader Joe's and, a: I still don't actually KNOW that there are NOT any locations in NEW MEXICO because the website doesn't inform me... and ...B: the website hurts sales. But AMY was adamant that the company HAD NO PLANS TO CHANGE THE WEBSITE! We don't have anythign to do with our own website.. Really? Sooo Trader Joe's just doesn't care. period. I will look up the responsible managers and I will send a letter to the CEO, and anyone else who is interested that the TraderJoe's Website looks cool but it functionally useless hurts business. Cool doesn't sell, functionality does.

  • G R

    We can change the way that Trader Joe's does business by making it clear to the company that their customers and prospective customers demand that they get serious about sustainable seafood. This is exactly what we plan on doing. We'll have a lot of ways that people like you who care about our oceans can get involved. Check back here soon for an activist toolkit that has everything you need to be part of this campaign – regardless of where you live! It’s going to be fun.

  • G R

    Ahoy George!

    Traitor Joe here. I'm up to my eyeballs in red list seafood. My stores have so many red list fish on ice, that I’d bet there aren’t any left in the oceans. Seafood gets red listed if it’s fished using methods that harm ocean habitats or other critters, or because there just aren’t that many of the fish around anymore. But have I helped save them? Heck no!

    Greenpeace released the third edition of their supermarket scorecard and Trader Joe's came in at the bottom of the list again (17out of 20). Ouch! In fact, this is the third time Trader Joe’s scored as the worst of the national supermarket chains surveyed about sustainable seafood. Just call me your one-stop-shop for ocean destruction.

    If ocean destruction bothers you, and you want Trader Joe’s to get out of the business of trading red list seafood, then visit my website traitorjoe.com, and do something about it. Send a singing fish telegram to Trader Joe's and tell them to stop destroying the oceans and passing the guilt onto their customers.

    But, I hope you won't, though, because that way I can keep confusing my customers, all while turning a profit.

  • Rick Mitchell

    We like TJ's very much and do the great majority of our shopping there. I have found them to be excellent in terms of service and (most importantly) selecting REALLY good food items. It is only rarely that we find something that is lacking in quality (their packaged scones come to mind). The only complaint I have is re my (so far) zero batting average on requests. I had requested a certain brand of bread at Safeway and they immediately honored my request (and kept the bread in stock also).

    But at Trader Joe's my impression is that they have certain items that they are determined NOT to carry, and repeated requests are to no avail. I asked if they could carry some (any) kind of natural cola drink (as I don't care for root beer and they regularly stock several types of that). Their response was that it "didn't sell." I suspect, however, it is due to some kind of pressure from Coke or Pepsi. TJ's sold Crystal Geyyser mineral water (and it sold extremely well), but suddenly they took it off the shelf and replaced it with their own 'branded' version, which they claim is the same, but a taste test quickly reveals it's not. This may have been an economics thing, as the new water seems to be a cheap substitute, and the CG water is higher priced everywhere else. I also has the experience of finding a great peanut butter bar that also got discontinued - but by this time I didn't even ask, as I knew it would do no good. Moral: Don't get too fond of any particular item as it might not be there next week.

    I'm writing this, as a VERY faithful TJ's customer, simply to point out a discrepancy in the article's claim they are "good listeners." In my experience, that has not always been the case.