There's a reason why the grocery chain has a cult-like following.

Karla Walsh
April 10, 2020
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With more than 500 stores across 42 states, Trader Joe's has nowhere near the dominance of Kroger, which has over 2,800 stores, or ALDI, which has 1,900 stores across the country. But Trader Joe's has launched more food trends (think: cauliflower gnocchi or everything bagel seasoning) and has more loyal fans than any other supermarket, according to a survey by the research group YouGov. And the unique ways its 50,000 employees and leadership team are responding to the coronavirus pandemic will likely earn them even more devotees.

In the latest episode of the Inside Trader Joe's podcast, "crew members" dished about how they quickly pivoted and adjusted their hours, cleaning protocols, store capacities and more. The result? A safer and less hectic shopping experience for guests and happier, healthier staff.

While we're still planning to steer clear of all grocery stores for the next couple weeks, these details specifically caught our ear—and might just inspire us to make our next stock-up trip to TJ's instead of one of their competitors.

They started a bonus pay pool.

As Americans stocked up pre-quarantine, Trader Joe's leaders naturally noticed an uptick in revenue. But rather than add that to the bottom line, they decided to create a bonus pool for each store based on the individual location's increased earnings. That pool of money would then be divided by hours worked by the staff employed there, and they'd add that to the hourly pay for each crew member. This worked out to about $2-3 per hour.

"It's our way of saying thank you to them for dealing with this in such a short concentrated period of time," said Jon Basalone, president of stores at Trader Joe's.

Basalone said, "The panic-buying has stopped and the sales have actually dropped down a little bit to levels a little bit below a normal week in March. So we thought, well...let's do something different and let's do some thank you pay. And we kept that at $2 an hour extra for every hour worked. So we don't have an end date on it...because we want to continue to pay this to our crew members as long as there's this sense that we're running an essential business."

They're making it more about community than control.

Rather than putting hard limits on the amount of items shoppers can purchase and potentially making their crew members at the check out be the "bad guys" to panic-buyers, the TJ's team chose to ask customers to limit purchases to only what they need.

"Our customers embraced it," Basalone said. "Their patience and their ability to embrace all the things that we're trying to put into practice is what really makes it work."

They find ways to lighten the mood.

While the supermarket can be a scary place these days (with emptier-than-usual shelves, social distancing mandates to abide by and the risk for spreading germs), certain Trader Joe's stores have found ways to ease the collective anxiety of their staff and shoppers.

A San Diego, California Trader Joe's shopper was greeted at the door with sanitizer and given a sunflower on her way out. And in Burbank, California, shoppers waiting in the 30-minute line were entertained by a crew member who quizzed everyone on TJ's trivia and new products.

We likely won't be ramping up our shopping trips anytime soon, but we certainly will look at our freezer full of cauliflower pizza crusts a bit differently now.