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Trader Joes (inside) Episode 3: Informative and Seriously Not Too Serious

It's going so fast and so hot in here.

Yes. [Laughter].

From the Trader Joe's mother ship in Monrovia, California.

Let's go Inside Trader Joe's. [Music]

We're up to episode three of our five-part series. I'm Tara Miller.

And I'm Matt Sloan. On this episode, we're going to be informative, and seriously, not too serious.

Actually that's always our goal around here. We'll explore how and why we keep customers and crew members up to date.

I'll interview the editor of the Fearless Flyer, and I'm going to ask some really tough questions, too.

Uh-oh! Of course there's no better way to be informed about the new products at Trader Joe's than a visit to the demo station at your neighborhood Trader Joe's. We'll do that, too.

Also Hawaiian shirts, products that just didn't quite make it, and more. So let's get started.

My name is Mitch Heeger and I'm the executive V.P. of Marketing and Merchandising.

If there's a job to be done at Trader Joe's, Mitch Heeger has probably done it.

I've been with company a long time, 40 years with the company. Started off sweeping the parking lot and mopping the floors and actually vacuuming the carpet in the store. But I started off as a box boy.

There was carpet?

There was carpet. Yeah, and when you spilled the grape juice it wasn't a pretty picture. Or the bottle of wine. We used to have some really, really long wine tastings and the tastings were very different back then, and…

Was it drinkings or tastings?

Well they were they were tastings, but, and it's not about having a lot to drink. It's about really having some great discussion and having an ability to learn from people that could teach other crew members in the store. So, yeah there's probably some stories that I probably shouldn't share. [Laughter] Our business has changed so much that, you know where we might have opened up 12 bottles of wine and tried them and compared, and discussed, now a store may try a bottle of wine and a bunch of other products so they can learn on all the products in the store and that the focus isn't as much on wine.

Which really sets up in terms of this idea that we think of ourselves as wanting to be informative. We want to be an informative retailer.

We like to talk to our customers. You know, just seeing if they need some help, if they're looking for something, or they want some information on a product.

We're here at the Trader Joe's in Sherman Oaks California. We are releasing a podcast that's just sort of all about Trader Joe's. And a big part of Trader's Joe's are the people who shop here.

To be honest I only started shopping at Trader Joe's this past year, so I always ask, "Hey! Where is this? Or where is that?" And not only do they tell you where it is, but they show you. So, which is, I really like that. Unlike when you go to [BEEP BEEP], you say "Hey, where is this?" They're like, "Aisle 5." Here you say "Where can I find my almond butter?" and they'll direct you, and walk you, and give you recommendations on which is the best one, so I really like that.

We're not going to sound silly?

Well, you might. But that's OK. But what we're trying to do is really just get a sense of what are the things that make Trader Joe's an interesting place to work? Do you want to start, Tina?. You know

I love being here, it's like with my friends. It's my other family. There's good food, I get a discount. I laugh every time I come. It is nice to help people. It's amazing how much people, some people don't know, and some people do know. Like some people don't know that you, like our sliced Turkey is ready to eat. They don't know that they don't need to cook it, for example. Or like gluten free, vegan. It's nice to be helpful to the customers that have diet restrictions, or just started on diet restrictions and we can help them because we have all the knowledge here.

And in every section there's someone that's extremely knowledgeable. You've got wine, you've got cheese you got… I mean the list goes on and on. And for produce it's either me or Martín, me, Roberto.

You can come to me for anything. I know it all.

Our crewmembers do love to recommend the products. Just ask them.

We have a new frozen item that's a baked chocolate chip cookie that is really really good. Especially the scoop of vanilla ice cream on top it's amazing.

We've made a huge improvement in our new fresh salmon so that's certainly a favorite. I have that quite often.

And my favorite product at Trader Joe's is Charles Shaw wine.

Charles Shaw? Why?

And it's because it's our customers favorite product.

I think my current favorite would probably be our spatchcocked chicken. I've been cooking that a lot lately on the barbecue. Very good.

Right now, I would have to choose the Icelandic strawberry yogurt that we have. Oh, I can't stop eating it. It's so addicting! [Laughter]

We do try just about everything in the store, so our crew are very knowledgeable about our products. But we try to have a tasting once or twice a week, and our crew get an opportunity to not only fill their bellies but their minds, so they're able to pass on that information to our customers.

So we're at Trader Joe's store 49 in Sherman Oaks, California and we're talking to the store's Captain. I'll let her introduce herself.

Hi I'm J.J. Swayss.

How long have you worked for Trader Joe's, J.J.?

I've been with the company twenty-five years. I'm at the store where I got hired 25 years ago, which is pretty phenomenal for me. It was full circle. It was kind of a dream come true in some respects.

And your trajectory just kept going up from there?

Little by little. I had a couple of kids in between. Everybody who I had worked with at that point were so supportive and just wanted you to grow. The best thing about it, and I'm going to get choked up here, is that no one ever told me that there was an obstacle or I couldn't do it.

It's OK. This is OK. This is real, this is how you feel.

…that I was pushed, and made me feel like I can accomplish anything. They promoted me, pushed me on, gave me direction and always, always said "Keep going." So and that's the direction I went.

Is there anything that we didn't ask about Trader Joe's, or about you and your life at Trader Joe's and how it's how it's impacted you?

Well I hope I can put this in a nutshell. But it has changed my life. It's giving me opportunity. It's given me security. It's giving me hope in people. There's nothing standing in my way to achieve anything I want to achieve. Same thing for every single one of our crew members. You know, no matter what race, creed, religion you are, nothing ever stops you from achieving those goals if they're really your goals and you want to achieve them. You've got to put some work into it. Absolutely, it's not easy. None of it's easy. It shouldn't be easy if it's worth it, and it's definitely worth it.

Then of course, we also have to keep crew members informed about the products that are going away. Yeah, it happens.

The tasting panel does such a good job choosing products to bring into Trader Joe's, but even they miss sometimes.

And in hindsight we probably should have known that some of those products were going to be misses.

Like what?

Well, like all good things that sound great on paper, or even when you're thinking about it, Laplander Cuisine Soup just…[laughter] is necessarily tricky stuff. So we had a line of soups that were cuisine from the land of the midnight sun, and this is on-the-go Laplander Cuisine for those of you pressed for time, but still wanting a bit of that authentic old-country taste, and we had Cream of Venison soup.

Ooh…

And it was in a very gold foil can. It looked fancy but really, no one wanted it.

We thought they might though, huh? OK.

We really did. And you know, a lot of times an opportunity will present itself, something that seems on the surface like a negative situation, and you turn it around and you try to make it positive, and you still wind up in that awkward negative spot. So there was actually a large peanut crop failure that led to a peanut shortage that led to a peanut butter problem. We didn't have enough peanut butter to sell. And people love peanut butter. So what we found was cotton seed. Cotton seed actually, is plentiful, abundant, and it produces lots of oil, and we thought, "Wow, if you just blend this up, whip this up, it's like a cottonseed butter. Who's not going to love this? Apparently no one loved this. [Laughter] So, swing, miss. Another similar situation: there was again, we're going back some time here into the late 70s really early 80s, there was a shortage of what they called chunk light tuna. We needed more cans of tuna to sell. Well, there's another fish it's sometimes known as an alewife, or a pilchard. We thought chunk pilchard in a can would be great.

Yeah.

And the rest is history. [Music]

And so this, actually, just also in from the mailbag here, we get this, a lot of crewmembers get this question: How many Hawaiian shirts do you have?

I'm not sure I can provide a count. But my closet has changed dramatically in the time that I've been with Trader Joe's. They used to be all like, you know, gray and blue suits, and now it's like, the brightest-colored Hawaiian shirts you could possibly find are in my closet. And about once a year I make a donation to a nice charity of Hawaiian shirts.

So Matt, how many Hawaiian shirts do you own?

Well, you know without giving an incriminating number, I have enough where I can wear a different shirt for each day of the week for at least two months. Although I have the same six that I always go back to.

So, we asked a bunch of our Trader Joe's crew members the same question.

"What did they say?".

I have 14.

Some people have a full closet. I only have a small row.

Probably close to 40. My kids laugh at me. But there you go.

A lot. Believe me.

Can you start off by giving us your name, and what city you live in?

Yeah, my name is Xavier Bert and I live in South Pasadena, California. I just was telling the gentleman at the register that I read the Fearless Flyer cover to cover because it's super engaging and the writing is really great and I gave it to another person I cook with because I was like, "You need to read this about food. It's really good". I came in last night and bought all the stuff I found in the Fearless Flyer that was interesting that I never had. So last night I made sunchoke. I'd never even had a sunchoke. And you know, just nerding out on food.

OK. Well, I write the Fearless Flyer so you just made my whole day. Thank you. That's fantastic.

This one's great. I just was sitting there and my wife was sleeping, and every time she woke up I was like, "I'm still reading this thing". And she like, dozed off. And I was like, I'm still reading this thing.

Lining birdcages near you. It's the Fearless Flyer Show. [Laughter]

So Tara, what is the Fearless Flyer?

The Fearless Flyer is Trader Joe's main way of talking to our customers. We call ourselves a store of stories, and the Fearless Flyer is that idea made manifest on paper.

But it's a specific set of stories, right?

Rather than just show people a product and a price like a traditional grocery store, or a circular would do. We tell stories about our products. We talk to the people who've developed our products. We want you to know a little bit about what's in it. We want you to know a little bit about what it tastes like, and what a great value it is, so we tell you the price.

The usual grocery playbook says item price or BOGO for you jargon fans out there (buy one get one). It's none of that. It's a lot of words. It's a lot of words but they are words that have a look, like you can spot it at 50 paces. And, why does it look like that?

Originally it looked like that because it was the least expensive way to put something on paper. So, our founder Joe Coulombe would type it on a typewriter and make mimeographed copies.

"I wrote The Fearless Flyer for all those years."

Originally, it was for crewmembers. It was intended to give information about products, specifically wines, to crew members. It was called The Insider's Report. And he started doing that in 1970 and customers got wind that this was happening and said, "Hey, I want to see that, I want to know about that wine. I want to know what that's all about." The cartoons that are in the flyer? You know it's got these old-timey Victorian-era art pieces.

"We've put in the cartoons. Lighten it up. Don't take them so god-damned seriously."

They were royalty free, and Joe didn't want to have to pay anyone to create art to put in it, and didn't want to have to put pictures of products in it because that was expensive, too.

These old engravings, that was absolutely out of necessity to not spend money on it. And it became over time a look.

A cross between Mad Magazine and Consumer Reports. The initial cartoon image on the flyer was of someone who looked like he was flying. And I don't know if he looked fearless or terrified, but Terrified Flyer probably wouldn't have worked very well at the name, so you know, fearless, fearless it was fearless it is.

Is there any option for, like a paid placement? Can someone buy a spot in this?

No, it's not an option. There's, that's just not part of how we do our business. We put things in the flyer that we think are interesting, and hopefully our customers agree that they're interesting.

I'm Tara.

I'm Curtis.

I'm the Marketing Director at Trader Joe's. Why do you shop a Trader Joe's?

I shop at Trader Joe's because I love the products. I love the staff. I love how helpful they are and friendly they are. And I love to sample their food! [Laughter].

Do you sample products from the demo?

Absolutely. And I get a lot of ideas for dinner, and for lunches for my boys.

So what a lot of people might not know, is the biggest marketing expense we have at Trader Joe's is actually just letting people try our food. Today we're with Angel at the Demo station in our East Pasadena California store. What's for lunch, Angel?.

Ooh,today we've got a little beef brisket. This is the corned beef brisket on rye bread with mustard, a little cabbage, and a Swiss cheese.

So you don't just put out the food, you actually make things that customers could make at home?

Yeah that's what we're striving to do. We're looking for ideas, for inspiration, things that are easy, and that they could do for themselves at home real quick.

I've got a tasty sample for you here. You're very welcome to try, guys. Please, have a taste.

I'm so full.

Good afternoon, Miss, how are you?

Fine, thank you. What is this?

This is actually a little sandwich we made with our corned beef.

Mmmm, really?

Not bad, huh? Want to try some grapes, too? Because they're really crunchy and good.

That was very tasty. Thank you.

Thank you, sir.

You need a glass of wine next time. Think about it.

I'll work on it.

Ray Miller at our original Trader Joe's in Pasadena California was one of the first crew members to work the demo station.

Well, in the early days, before we had potato salad I brought out my potato salad, and I was quite proud of that. Unfortunately it's not on the shelves but I thought it was delicious and the people used to love to have it when I would do that. At the demo station, you never know what you're going to be. You may be a nurse, you may be a secretary, you may just be a counselor. You know, we are many things, but because everybody come to the table, as the bishop would say, from a different place of enlightenment. And we just have to deal with the situations as they come, you know?

You're listening to a five part series that takes you inside Trader Joe's. If you like Trader Joe's and you even liked this podcast, rate us on Apple podcast or wherever it is you found this.

Oh, we'd like that. And here's what's on the next Inside Trader Joe's: we'll go to Napa Valley, California to sip some wine.

Merlot's one of the great easy drinking, you know, one of the most approachable varietal wines there is, and people hate Merlot. They just hate it. "I don't want Merlot! Merlot? Merlot is dead to me".

You sound like a jerk if you order Merlot.

Yeah, if you order Merlot you don't know what you're doing. You're a complete loser.

The store is our brand.

This store is our brand. People can't understand, why aren't you selling products online?

And just to be clear, we are not spying on you. We don't have access to your data at Trader Joe's, because we don't have any data on you.

I see my other friends, that don't work for the company, and the things they complain about, or how they don't have friends at work, and I'm just, I, they don't get to drink wine at work or any cheese…! [Laughter] I fit in…

That's on the next Inside Trader Joe's.

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