Why do people love talking about Trader Joe’s’ snacks?

How Trader Joe's' low-stress shopping gets people to try new products

If you want to start a roaring conversation at a party, just ask everyone’s favorite snack from Trader Joe’s. 

(Mine are the peanut butter pretzel bites). 

Trader Joe’s has never done traditional advertising, doesn’t offer discounts or coupons, and only stocks ~4,000 products (compared to ~50,000 for most major grocery chains). Despite that, it’s grown from 150 stores (across 15 states) in 2001 to 505 stores (across 42 states) in 2020—and has the highest revenue per square foot of any major grocery store.

Limited product lines, so-so produce, and never enough parking should make shopping at Trader Joe’s a drag—except that people love Trader Joe’s.

How do they do it? Why do people love to talk about the sriracha potato chips, or the “reduced guilt” yogurt guacamole?

Trader Joe’s wins by being “Informative and seriously not too serious,” the title of an episode from season one of the Inside Trader Joe’s podcast.

And there are three key ways that TJ’s creates a great shopping experience:

  1. Make it easy. Shopping can be a chore. Sometimes people feel like they “should” know the difference between red and gold potatoes, or where they can find the pasta sauce. TJ’s takes steps to remove uncertainty from grocery shopping.

  2. Add novelty. How does TJ’s create a sense of discovery with only 4,000 products? Cutting down the number of choices for staples creates room to experiment with snacks. TJ’s adds novelty by reducing the risk of trying something new (through samples and other practices). 

  3. Make it fun. Hawaiian shirts, entertaining product descriptions, and cheery checkouts help “make shopping fun.” Because risk and uncertainty are reduced, shoppers are free to enjoy themselves in the store.

It might feel silly to talk about the emotional side of buying groceries—and it’s true that the actual stakes of a trip to Trader Joe’s are low. 

But at the same time there are emotional parts of shopping. Getting the wrong item, forgetting something, or thinking “I’m not sure if I’d like it” are all regular parts of shopping. By tackling them in-store, Trader Joe’s creates a different kind of retail experience. 

In episode 16 of Inside TJ’s, Trader Joe’s category manager for produce shares: “One of the things that I find really nice about Trader Joe's customers: They like to try new things.”

A huge body of research (for example, see this literature review) shows that stress can decrease “novelty-seeking,” or the willingness to try new things. Or, put less academically by Keith Johnstone in one of my favorite books:

“There are people who prefer to say 'Yes,' and there are people who prefer to say 'No.' Those who say 'Yes' are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say 'No' are rewarded by the safety they attain.”—Keith Johnstone in Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre

Some people default to saying yes, and others prefer no. Johnstone states that there are more “no people” than there are “yes people”—but he also argues creating a safe environment for exploration is what turns “no people” into “yes people.” 

When you make things easy, people are more willing to try new things.

And that’s exactly what Trader Joe’s does.

WTF are all these bell peppers? How Trader Joe’s takes the stress out of shopping

To be honest, I only started shopping at Trader Joe's this past year. So I always ask, "Hey, where's this, where's that?" And not only do they tell you where it is, but they show you. 

Unlike when you go to (BLEEP) and you say, "Hey, where's this?" and they're like, (gruff voice) "Aisle five!" 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."—Rae, Trader Joe’s customer, on episode three of the Inside TJ’s podcast.

The differences at Trader Joe’s are subtle and mostly simple, but they add up to a shopping experience that, as Rae describes, is just better than other grocery stores.

What are the key difference-makers?

  • Hiring. Google “Trader Joe’s hiring” and you’ll quickly find questions like “why is it so hard to get a job at Trader Joe’s.” A crew position typically takes two in-person interviews. On the Inside TJ’s podcast, hosts Tara Miller and Matt Sloan share that the hiring process is focused on finding “‘people’ people” before focusing on retail experience.

  • Stores are stocked during opening hours. Shelves get restocked while customers are in the store. TJ’s does this on purpose, because it means that it’s always easy to find someone to help you when you need help. 

  • Crew members walk you right up to what you need to find. If someone tells you to look “in aisle five, next to the batteries,” there are still things that can go wrong. Where’s aisle five? Where are the batteries? If you don’t find what you’re looking for, are you wrong or are they out of stock? TJ’s will walk you right up to the item you’re looking for. 

  • Forget something? Ring the bell at checkout. If you realize you want to put something back or that you forgot the butter, you can ring the bell while checking out and someone will go get it for you. Is there any other store that offers that level of service?

  • Instructions where there aren’t usually instructions. What’s the difference between a red and gold potato? What about the different colored bell peppers? You’ve seen people standing in front of a wall of produce trying to make a decision, right? TJ’s takes the opportunity to add quick recommendations that take the guesswork out of each choice. 

If you ever need to know which type of pepper to buy, here’s your answer. 

A quick guide to bell peppers, by Trader Joe’s. Every item in the produce section has a similar sign, which helps people who don’t want to think too much about what to buy. 

Do you really know when you would choose a red onion vs yellow onion vs white onion? 

If you do, you know more about cooking than me—and than most people. This type of signage (also on their product packaging) makes shopping easier.

Which opens the door to trying new things.

How Trader Joe’s makes you willing to try their pimento cheese dip

“They don’t overwhelm you with choice, which is why you’re more willing to examine each novel choice...

...Oh, let’s see what kind of candy bars they have. They usually have cool candy bars. Let’s see what kind of deals they might have on wines or cheeses, or their prepared-foods section is kind of cool. What might they have that could add some more variety to the house?”—decision researcher Sheena Iyengar, on Freakonomics 

How do you turn a “no person” into a “yes person?” If no people are “rewarded by the safety they attain,” the way to get people to try new things is to reduce the risk of trying new things. 

Everything that Trader Joe’s does to make shopping easier also helps create an environment that leads to novelty-seeking. 

Even the number of products offered helps. Trader Joe’s only offers around 4,000 products, which means there are only 2-4 options for most staples. You don’t have to stand around deciding between 8 varieties of flour. 

Sheena Iyengar is a Columbia professor and top researcher in decision-making science. As she says on the Freakonomics podcast, “It [Trader Joe’s] doesn’t overwhelm me. It usually gives me just a few choices per domain.”

Cutting down on normal shopping decisions makes people more willing to explore. Then Trader Joe’s makes it easier to explore. 

Free samples are hardly revolutionary, but they work. Here’s famed copywriter Claude Hopkins writing about one of the first-ever “free trial” offers in his 1923 book Scientific Advertising.

“The maker of the electric sewing machine motor found advertising difficult. So, on good advice, he ceased soliciting a purchase. He offered to send to any home, through any dealer, a motor for one weeks’ use. With it would come a man to show how to operate it. “Let us help you for a week without cost or obligation,” said the ad. Such an offer was resistless, and about nine in ten of the trials led to sales.”

Free samples are important for an obvious reason, and a slightly less obvious reason:

  1. You can see if you like the product. You get to try something new, and might discover a new household favorite. Trader Joe’s gets to show off their latest snacks.

  2. You can make sure you don’t dislike the product. You don’t have to risk buying a new snack and not liking it.

(A quick tangent, and a confession: There used to be a Trader Joe’s on the way back from my gym. Sometimes I would go in to try the free sample and not even buy anything). 

A free sample station isn’t unheard of, but Trader Joe’s goes one step farther—crew members will actually open a package for you to try. I still remember the first time I asked if a snack was good and they just opened it. It felt so wrong! But Trader Joe’s is willing to go that far to take the risk out of trying something new.

Even if you’ve never had a free sample, you’ve probably gone through checkout and had the cashier say “oh I love these.” Last time it happened to me was for their vodka pasta sauce. Regular tastings for employees make sure that everyone can give a good recommendation—and it feels good when the cashier compliments you on your choice.

All that, plus the products are good. I’ve never tried the pimento cheese dip, but I’d be willing to because most TJ’s products I’ve tried have been at least ok. 

The work they put into product development is a hot topic on the Inside TJ’s podcast. As Matt Sloan says in episode two: 

“We all love the glass of wine that we had on the Amalfi Coast after a long day traipsing up and down the Cinque Terre, but that same wine tastes differently at 10:00 AM under fluorescent lights on a Thursday. And if it’s great that Thursday we know we’ve really got something.”

Remember, Trader Joe’s has the highest revenue per square foot of any grocery store. That comes from their ability to get people to try new products—and make purchases they wouldn’t think to make otherwise. 

How does Trader Joe’s get you to try the pimento cheese dip?

  1. Make every other part of shopping easy

  2. Take every opportunity to give you a free sample

  3. Make you feel good about what you bought

Conclusion: Here’s what makes Trader Joe’s “fun”

“Trader Joe’s has built its entire brand on the premise that we’re going to make shopping fun.” Matt Gardiner, author of “Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s,” as quoted in CNBC

Trader Joe’s explicitly makes shopping fun in these three ways:

  • Fun product packaging, fun copywriting, and handwriting fonts throughout the store

  • Hiring “people people” through a harder-than-normal interview process

  • Everyone wears Hawaiian shirts (you can read the backstory here, or listen to episode two of Inside TJ’s)

These “make shopping fun” practices put the in-store experience over the top—as Tara Miller, Trader Joe’s’ “Director of Words and Phrases” argues on Inside TJ’s, they are trying to create a “store of stories.”

At the same time, everyone knows that person that tries too hard to be fun. Why doesn’t Trader Joe’s feel kitsch or silly? 

Because it handles stress first

Before the Hawaiian shirts, the “unexpected cheddar cheese” packaging, or the TJ’s magazine The Fearless Flyer, Trader Joe’s creates an in-store experience that:

  1. Takes the stress out of shopping

  2. Makes it easy to try new things

After shoppers are already at ease and ready to explore, they layer in the fun.

And that’s why everyone wants to talk about their favorite snack from Trader Joe’s.