The Trader Joe’s Guide To Building A Cult Following
Have you ever stopped for a moment to marvel at the phenomenal success of Trader Joe’s? Well, I have. I mean, I know why I like them–they’re cheap, and they specialize in tasty, easily accessible, mostly already prepared foods, and we have one right in our neighborhood. But if you had told me, back in the 1980s, that the place that sells crazy stuff like hummus and tapenade (before most Americans had ever heard of such things) was going to be so astronomically successful in the late naughts, I doubt I would have believed it. I certainly would never have believed that by 2009, it would become impossible to get in and out of a Southern California Trader Joe’s parking lot without risking two or three accidents.
And yet, here we are.
So what makes Trader Joe’s different form other grocery stores? Is it just the fact that they always seem to have some kind of inside track on whatever the latest bougie food trend is just about to spider out into the suburbs? Well, that probably helps. But cognoscenti stuff like that is actually just a symptom of Trader Joe’s’ genius. The reason that Trader Joe’s is so successful is because they have–and have always had–a very clear idea of who their ideal customer is. And if you want to build a cult following for your product or business, you might consider taking this page out of the Trader Joe’s Guide to Building a Cult Following, too.
Step One: Create a Detailed Portrait of Your Ideal Consumer. And Name Him/Her.
Joe Colombe, the creator and original owner of Trader Joe’s, started his company based around an idea of a consumer among whom he lived and worked. He looked around his general socieconomic environment and noticed a group of academics who have spent the past year in Europe. They have been eating well for not that much money, and they are going to long for this kind of thing here. They cannot get it at supermarkets. But they can get it at Trader Joe’s. And the company was built around serving this group of people, a social group which they distilled into one ideal consumer. Now, when I say that Trader Joe’s has a clear idea of their ideal consumer, I don’t mean they guess that he’s 30 and drives a mid-sized sedan. I mean, they know things like he is “overeducated and underpaid.” If money were no object, he would choose a Mac over a PC. He likes Tina Fey. He has been to Europe, and probably was on some kind of academic fellowship. He would have voted for Obama over McCain, and he probably has a few kids. &c. This ideal consumer–I’m going to name him Professor Mack–is the guiding principle to all of Trader Joe’s decisions as a company. Instead of asking what they should do, they ask, What Would Professor Mack Do? Because their success depends upon their fidelity to Professor Mack’s code of behavior.
Step Two: Do Everything–Everything–With Your Ideal Consumer In Mind.
At Trader Joe’s, everything from the store layout to the choice of products to what the employee wears is done with Professor Mack in mind. Why do the employees wear hawaiian shirts? Well, because it calls to mind the kind of casual, devil-may-care attitude that Professor Mack admires–it says, to Professor Mack–I don’t have time for your uniforms, all the while distracting Professor Mack from the reality that the hawaiian shirt itself is a form of uniform. And even if Professor Mack notices this fact, he doesn’t care–because that delightful piece of consumer irony will appeal to Professor Mack. He’s that kind of guy.
Step Three: Locate Innovative Ways To Work Around Problems For Ideal Consumers.
Even if you plan very well for your ideal consumer, there will be times that you have to allow for limitations. For example, Trader Joe’s ideal consumer, Professor Mack, fancies himself the kind of guy who patronizes Mom & Pop establishments. He is wary of corporate America–that’s one of the reasons he’s overeducated and underpaid. Now, in the late eighties, Trader Joe’s was purchased by a very large European–German, in fact–grocery chain. This is not likely to please Professor Mack so much if he spends a lot of time thinking about it. But there’s nothing you can do. You are a German grocery chain and you’re trying to cater to Professor Mack.
So what you do to keep Professor Mack from noticing this fact–along with the fact that your employees are non-union and probably working at just slightly above minimum wage–is you start by making each store appear to be a little different from the next. You don’t set things up exactly the same way. You make the inventories just slightly different, so that no two stores has exactly the same inventory, despite the fact that there are many staple products available at all of them. You make it seem–as much as possible–that this is a smaller, non-chain, non-corporate store. Because that’s the kind of store Professor Mack likes to patronize. And even if Professor Mack knows, somewhere in the back of his brain, that Trader Joe’s is not just a little corner store, he will buy into fantasy, provided he can keep getting his
Two- Three-Buck Chuck and Gorgonzola flavored crackers.
Step Four: Create A Tangible Culture Around Your Product.
One thing about Trader Joe’s that I always thought was funny were those Fearless Flyers that they come out with every few months, and then advertise as though it’s some kind of fantastic wonder–The Fearleass Flyer is Here! As if we’re going to drive by and think, “Well, thank God, FINALLY, finally, an overly wordy explanation of all of the various food products available at Trader Joe’s with which I’m already intimately familiar has been provided! Finally, somebody has collected vintage clip art from revolutionary Massachusetts and typeset it with blurbs about kettle chips!”
But the joke is on me, of course. Because there is a group of people who are looking for this very kind of thing–people who crave superfluous, useless reading materials that they can consume. They seek out things like the Fearless Flyer as part of a desperate attempt to quell their unending need for knowledge on topics about which nobody in the real world gives a crap. That audience? Academics! Professor Mack is sooo into superfluous reading material. He lives for that stuff. And Trader Joe’s knows that, hence the Fearless Flyer.
Now I’m sure that at some point, people were like, “Seriously? We’re going to create a promotional flyer that has no coupons or deals, no free gifts, no pictures of food, even, or anything really new in it? That’s printed on newsprint and has kitschy clip art characters as graphics?” And Joe Colombe must have said, “Oh yes. That’s what we’re going to do.” Because Joe Colombe knew his market–his market was himself and his friends. And what do professional academics and intellectuals like to do? Read lots of text! A grocery store that puts out a publication like this made them feel at home–like Trader Joe’s was their store. And so the Fearless Flyer was a means of creating a piece of culture for their store that their patrons could take home with them.
Step Five: Sit Back And Watch Them Evangelize
And if you build a store just for these kinds of people, and do everything you can to make people like your store–not all people, of course, but the right people? Then you get to sit back and watch them do the recruiting for you. They will tell their friends about you. They will tell their students. They will even make You Tube videos in tribute to you, all for making them feel like you “get” them. I’m not sure Jim Jones could have done much better.