Christian Retailing

CompeTuition April 2011: retail lessons from other businesses Print Email
Written by David Amster   
Thursday, 05 May 2011 04:01 PM America/New_York

Trader-Joes-Answer-Person1Trader Joe's: finding style in the grocery aisle


The mere mention of the name Trader Joe's lights up the eyes of many a consumer that has shopped one of the funky stores found in nine states. The specialty chain has captured a unique position in the grocery channel with emphasis on three essentials: great product selection, creative communication and engaging staff.

But just copying someone rarely works for three reasons. First, they are the originators, and if they're good, they've figured it out. Chances are you're not going to top them; you'll only be a ‘knock-off' or a mediocre copy that can be easily spotted. Second, they have the advantage of having made the mistakes that come with being an originator and perfecting what they do. Third, and most important, the "why" of their distinctives is as important as the "what," but is a question that is rarely asked.

However, looking at Trader Joe's can offer insights into how they are employing the principles of great retailing that
connects with consumers, turning them into shoppers and then into customers.

The first glimpse comes at the company Web site——which traces the business' history from the 1950s. "We ... decked the walls with cedar planks and donned our crew in cool Hawaiian shirts. ... we started putting innovative, hard-to-find, great-tasting foods in the Trader Joe's name. That cut our costs and saved you money. Still does. And that's important, because ‘Value' is a concept we take very seriously."

That positions the business as whimsical and may draw you in to check it out, but if the stores didn't have the foods people wanted to buy, it would fall flat.

But in-store, you find distinct product selection. Trader Joe's stocks lots of foods and brands the typical grocer doesn't focus on. While the selection is broad, it is perhaps only a quarter of a full-line national grocery chain store. There are pizzas and frozen entrees, but not the national brands. In fact, forget about trying to find a national brand in the store. Many are its own brands with twists on typical items such as potato chips to offer the uniqueness that people want.

How does that translate, considering that, without question, you're going to carry many of the same book titles as all Christian retailers? Well, does your competition ignore the charismatic market? Do you have a growing Hispanic market that the competition is under-serving?

When you visit the gift marts, start looking for products that are different from what is available in every other store. Consumers want to "discover" unique merchandise. It is your job to make that happen.

Great, eye-catching communication is the specialty retailer's next strength. There is not a single "printed" sign. They all look handwritten in a whimsical style. The main signs are on chalkboards. The copy is usually delightful to read and always tells you what you need to know about the product.

Sadly, in my years visiting Christian retail stores, I cannot begin to tell how many times I see signs printed on white paper with black lettering or signs printed on neon paper that clash with everything in the store. Then there are poorly handwritten signs. Consumers have so many choices today for purchasing merchandise—poor signage is just one more roadblock to shopping in a store.

But, communication is more than just signage; it is the display of the merchandise itself. Retailers must become visual merchandisers if they are going to be successful at creating eye-catching displays.

Finally, Trader Joe's excels with knowledgeable and friendly staff. The chain is famous for its Answer Person roaming the aisles with a tall question-mark sign. He or she gives answers quick and not just on, "Where do I find this?" It's about relationships, and staff always convey genuine friendliness and a desire to help.

Case in point: When the checkout is really busy and a line opens up, the checker will come over to you to tell you instead of announcing it loudly. This eliminates a rush of people. 

Very few Christian retail frontliners are "walking computer databases" with answers at the tips of their tongues, but they can have the resources handy to find answers. Learn how to get answers to shoppers' inquiries online, and always communicate that you are eager to help.