Perhaps no other grocery chain inspires a cultlike following like Trader Joe’s. The retailer has 367 stores in 32 states, and captivated consumers frequently petition for more. Groups named Bring Trader Joe’s to My City and My State abound on Facebook. Although seemingly satisfied employees guard their trade secrets, we asked outside experts to share top ways to emulate the company—or to improve upon its practices—in order to create a similar customer loyalty.

Retail consultant

  • Tell a story.
    Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer is not merely a catalogue of goods but a collection of stories—maybe with a bit of whimsical fiction—about products. Charles Revson, creator of Revlon, once said, “In the factory, we make cosmetics; in the drugstore, we sell hope.” You will sell products by telling stories in your print pieces, on your website, on your shelf tags and on your Facebook page.
     
  • Stock unique products.
    Trader Joe’s sells items you’d struggle to find anywhere else. To differentiate yourself from the competition, concentrate on finding distinctive products, rather than selling commoditized ones for cheap. During my time as director of purchasing for a natural products retailer, I made this effort by having eight meetings every week with my buyers and our standing New Products Committee.
     
  • Cultivate a worthy private label line.
    Don’t put your name on a cheap knockoff product. You’re a leading source of health and wellness goods in your community, so your brands should reflect that value. Trader Joe’s private label line consists of quality products in very nice packages. Invest in growing your brand—its quality, its look and its breadth—and that, in turn, will grow sales.

    –Bill Crawford, director of retail programs at New Hope Natural Media in Boulder, Colo.

Human resources specialist

  • Foster superior customer service.
    Give employees opportunities to work on different tasks throughout their shifts. When a staff member runs a register for fewer than two hours at a stretch, she’s more likely to keep her sparkle with customers. No employee should be considered “above” doing a needed job. Expect managers to cashier, sweep and stock when it’s busy.
     
  • Hold employees accountable.
    Trader Joe’s is selective about who it hires, and it sets high work standards and reinforces them with thorough training. In your store, establish a meaningful trial period for new hires, ask coworkers for feedback on their performance, and quickly part ways with those who can’t or won’t keep up the pace. Hard work can be fun if everyone on the crew keeps a positive attitude and pulls his weight. Keeping slackers demoralizes the hard workers and sends the message that their efforts aren’t appreciated.
     
  • Focus on your mission.
    If selling national brands for a large chain inspires Trader Joe’s employees, yours could be invigorated by supporting local producers and promoting community health. Involve your staff in an “Eat Local” challenge or a “Buy Local” campaign. Take them on farm tours to meet local growers. You are authentically local. Trader Joe’s can never be.

    –Carolee Colter, Owner of CDS Consulting Co-op in Nelson, B.C., Canada

Trader Joe’s customer

  • Keep prices right.
    Trader Joe’s has a large selection of natural, organic and private label items at reasonable prices. When I travel to Ann Arbor, Mich., for up to six weeks each summer, I always buy extra Indian sauces, tortellini, trail mixes, nuts and more to bring home to Colorado. I can find unique flavor combinations with ethnic influences that really aren’t available anywhere else. The prices are also great. A 12-ounce bag of nuts may cost only $3.99.
     
  • Promote signature items.
    What’s not to love about Two Buck Chuck? My friends in Michigan buy it by the case. Given the low prices of other wines at Trader Joe’s, I can take a chance on my purchases. If I end up with a red wine that I don’t care for, it makes a good base for sangria.
     
  • Remember the little people.
    My son loves using the tiny carts at Trader Joe’s. He gets excited about picking out foods he would like to try, and he keeps them in his own basket. I usually let him choose whatever he wants from the produce section. It makes shopping with my son more interactive.

–Nancy McLaughlin, Trader Joe’s seasonal customer in Erie, Colo., who will welcome the chain’s first Colorado store in 2013