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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Trader Joe’s: Can you join a cult slowly?

Trader Joe’s arrived in my community last month. I had reviewed them before, but inspired by this week’s post at Write The Company, I planned an excursion to see if the home town service encounter was more compelling than the one I wrote about on a trip to the west coast.

Not unexpectedly, the place was packed.

Trader Joe’s enjoys a cult-like following wherever it crops up, and suburban Kansas was no exception. The number of patrons was the major difference between this visit and those I’ve had previously, in mostly west coast stores, and those other customers that finally turned the light on for me as to what the Trader Joe’s experience was all about.

It seemed every time I picked up a store-branded item – I’d guess 6 times in a 30 minute visit – a nearby customer either asked me whether the product I’d picked up was good, or offered their opinion on the product. The customer-to-customer interactions were rich throughout the store, and all based on the unique merchandise that Trader Joe’s carries. As time went on, I felt badly, as though I wasn’t contributing as much to the experiences of other shoppers as they were to mine.

All of my previous visits to Trader Joe’s had been in the middle of a mid-week day, few patrons, mostly rushing in to rush out. Now, I had seen it for the other side – where unhurried customers stroll through the store, asking other customers about the products and referring products they like to them, in a social network defined by the outer walls of the store.

At the checkout, the attendant gave me details about each of the products that I had purchased. When I asked her what proportion of customers she thought had been Trader Joe’s customers in other areas of the country and were familiar with the store, she astonished me with a reply of 90%.

90% seems like a high estimate. But even if it were half that, you’d have a retail store, completely foreign to the region and open less than a month, where almost half of customers were familiar brand users. That’s still amazing.

I used the word “cult” before, and I think it does apply, in that a cult – in this case the Trader Joe’s experience – doesn’t make sense to people that aren’t “in” it, but it makes complete sense to those who are. My service encounter was terrific, and as a result, I'll go back and get a little more familiar with the cult-ure.

A sign near the exit reads, “There’s no place like Trader Joe’s.” The quote is likely a an outsider's nod to Kansas culture based on their perception, but for those that have indoctrinated into the experience, it’s an apt comment. For cult members, there really is no place like Trader Joe’s.

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