Life Lessons from Trader Joe's
By Rick McCartney
I had the opportunity to work at Trader Joe’s off and on from around age 16-22. This spanned the end of my time in high school, all of college, and while I was working at my first hospital job after college.
When I applied for the job, I had never heard of Trader Joe’s, tried any of their food items, or really knew what I was getting myself into. My brother gave me enough of an overview to pass the initial interview: “They wear funny Hawaiian shirts, and their chocolate covered pretzels are bomb. Just show up and be enthusiastic. They will hire you.” I needed to buy a car and pay for gas. $8/hour was going to help get me there, and I was running out of people in my network who needed yard work completed. Over the next 6 years, I got a lot more than gas money out of that experience. Below I will highlight a few lessons that stand out to me at the moment, though this is by no means an exhaustive list.
“Rick, what are you doing?”, asked my manager as I was punching in. It was 5am, my shift’s scheduled start time. I just needed to change my shirt quickly and grab my name tag from the staff lounge, and I’d be off to the races. The person I would be working with that morning to unload the incoming delivery truck was opening the back door to get started. I was “on time”, in my mind. My manager pulled me aside and explained that while my shift started at 5am, we had a lot to do each day to open the store, and starting these tasks at 5 would make that process run more smoothly. She asked that I punch in at least 2 minutes prior to the shift start time, dressed and ready to start a task. I could then quickly receive instructions on the task, and start without delay. To borrow an often abused phrase, she closed with, “Early is on time. On time is late. Late is unacceptable”.
My conclusion from this is that when you are working in a company, your work is often influenced by, and influences, other people. In order to help the process to flow smoothly, showing up ready to work is essential. Time, preparation, skill set, and many other things factor into this equation, but at the end of the day, showing up early and ready to go is one of the best ways I have learned to greet the day.
Put your game face on
Anyone who has shopped at Trader Joe’s know that they intentionally create an interactive shopping experience. Crew members are taught to be outgoing, engage customers, and be a resource in the shopping process. Not everyone starts out as a “people person”, but if you work there for any length of time, you quickly get out of your shell and represent the brand. For me and many of my colleagues, catching a stranger’s attention and engaging them in conversation was not a common practice. Some of this is cultural, as Boston does not have the reputation for being the home of the most outwardly warm and fuzzy people in the world. Much of this is a matter of skill, practice, and comfort level. I noticed that while at first this warm engagement felt forced, it quickly became a new normal.
I also learned that this trait is not just something that is heavily screened for in the hiring process. Attitude and the approach to coworkers and customers is trained. I remember distinctly when Kelly Reynolds broke down the importance of our work experience and the environment that we create. It started with a personal and genuine recognition that each of us is human, and that we come through the door with a unique set of challenges, strengths, and emotional baggage. Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid bad moods or tragedy. “Leave it at the door. Everyone should have the right to a pleasant shopping and working environment. If you aren’t able to engage with other people on a helpful and supportive level, then you are not well enough for the job. Let your manager know, and you can have the day off. Come back when you are engaged and ready to do the task at hand.”
Kelly was great. I have good overall memories of our work together. She was also very tough. She was an athlete in college, and practically functioned as a referee on the floor. But it was good. It kept the team on track, and protected each team member. It is hard enough to leave your own baggage at the door. It’s near impossible if the people you are working with are complaining or acting miserable. “Take the time you need to deal with it, and then come back. But when you come back, you will be expected to be fully back in gear, with your game face on.”
Know your product
I showed up on my first day having tried only one of the thousands of products that Trader Joe’s sells: the “bomb” chocolate covered pretzels that I bought on my brother’s recommendation when I interviewed for the job. I was a 16 year old high school student, and my parents had never shopped there. We were a Market Basket and Costco family, and Trader Joe’s was relatively new to the area.
On the first day, I learned a Trader Joe’s practice that still surprises shoppers today: if you don’t know what it tastes like, open it up and try it. This taught me to experience the product with the customer. Try it out. Discuss it. Honestly say what you like, don’t like, or alternative products that may be more appealing. The more time I spend developing my own products, the more I realize the value of the “crack it open and try it” approach.
After a week, I could discuss many of the products that customers had questions about, share the input of other shoppers, and have more confident and natural conversations with customers. I was quickly turning from a high school kid who needed gas money to an informed resource with a decent game face.
Know your team
In retrospect, I didn’t work with many people who were like me. I was usually the youngest person on a shift, often by a few decades. Many of my coworkers had kids, or even pets, who were my age. But when you are working together all week every week, you get to know each other quickly. You learn who can break down a pallet the fastest, who you want organizing the freezer with you, and the person who knows the exact price of every item in stock. You start to appreciate the strengths of people who aren’t like you. After all, you are working towards one unified goal. Helping each other out, and asking for support on tasks was the norm. Two of us accomplishing one task, and then tackling the next task together was almost always much faster than each of us working independently on different tasks. It’s also much cleaner for the store if you quickly work one section at a time, instead of slowly disrupting two sections.
Working together helps you to know your team well, and knowing your team helps you to best identify the ideal partners for different tasks. This positive feedback loop made each responsibility manageable, and enjoyable.
Working at a grocery store, it was easy for people to accept that this was not the final stop for most employees. At no point in time did I feel that my co-workers or managers were trying to get me to stick around as long as possible, and to forget my future dreams of college, grad school, and patient care. “If you want to help people, you can start by helping people”. From about 13 years old I knew that I was interested in helping people to lead healthier lives. While that path has taken me in directions I would be lying if I said I had expected, I can track many areas of growth back to this initial job at Trader Joe’s. “If you want to work with patients who are sick, shoppers who are hungry should be great practice.”
I have worked in a number of environments over the years. Learning to take bagging groceries and turn it into life lessons that help me to develop as a person has suited me fairly well in life. In each challenge that I face, I try to ask myself “what can I learn from this? How can this experience shape me into the person I want to be? If I could do that again, what would I have done differently?”