Friday, March 11, 2005

The UX of Trader Joe's

For those of you unfortunate enough to lack a nearby Trader Joe's, my condolences. Follow along as best you can.

Trader Joe's is a unique grocery store. Started back in the 1960s with an emphasis on cheese, nuts and inexpensive wine, TJ's is now in 19 states, offering more than 2000 food products. In recent years, it has enjoyed a significant expansion and boasts more than 200 stores. Here in SoCal, it has something of a cult following that includes the high and mighty (Hollywood stars and politicians) and most everyone else.

What is Trader Joe's secret? Interesting, delicious and generally-natural products at reasonable prices certainly play a role. Yet I think it is the Trader Joe's experience that is the heart of its success—an experience that suggests lessons for Web UX. A few observations from my semi-weekly visit yesterday:
  • There are always new discoveries at Trader Joe's. Despite a popular mailed circular (more on that in a minute), you never know what new items you'll find on the shelves. While there are a few dash-in-and-out shoppers, most linger in the aisles, scanning the shelves for newly-introduced treats. TJ's knows that people love the thrill of discovery and so they maximize the possibilities.


  • Shoppers have instant access to TJ's people.They're always on the sales floor. There's usually a person (the "Helmsperson") solely dedicated to answering questions—but you can ask anyone anywhere for help. They'll drop everything and take you directly to what you're looking for, chatting all the way. (There are no curt "Aisle four" answers at Trader Joe's.) Checkers always ask if you found what you needed—and routinely encourage shoppers to add items at the last second. Managers (they're called "Captains" and "First Mates") aren't hidden away in an office; they're in an open booth that's the nerve center of the store. It's all about the personal touch at TJ's.


  • Trader Joe's has mastered the skill of great communication. This is part of its mission: "to bring our customers the best food and beverage values and the information to make informed buying decisions."

    It begins with the monthly postal circular, The Fearless Flyer. Originally written by (now-retired) Joe himself, the Flyer is a folksy, even hokey, newsletter chockfull of information about products old and new. It still looks like it did 20 years ago—a hastily-assembled pastiche with bold hand-drawn circles and the ubiquitous Victorian illustrations enhanced with quippy speech balloons. (This carries over on the TJ's Web site.) Products get a paragraph or two explaining their origins, ingredients and suggested uses.

    This continues in the store with the famous blackboards—ornately done in colored chalks—that describe featured products. Most stores have small kitchens where chefs whip up samples and give away recipes. Every "Crew Member" is ready to tell you stories about new products, personal favorites and serving ideas. Indeed, TJ's describes itself as a "store of stories." How's that for understanding the importance of narrative?


  • Then there's the Trader Joe's style. It's down-home and quirky. Employees wear Hawaiian shirts and T-shirts. Many (most?) are offbeat sorts and always personable. Each store employs a "sign artist" who creates shelf tags and those great blackboards. TJ's pokes fun at itself and enjoys a good pun. Old-fashioned neighborhood contests are common—best holiday pet photo, coloring contests for kids, treasure hunts in the store. In short, Trader Joe's is unpretentious and welcoming.
I won't belabor the point that TJ's success comes from understanding the needs and wishes of its shoppers—and using that knowledge to profoundly shape a UXCentric experience. It's something many Web sites need to learn.

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