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Perky. Is it really the secret sauce?

Trader Joe’s has been hiring and cultivating perky new hires for many years. Article after article has been written documenting the success of this philosophy. The exact methods they use to create and maintain perky customer service people is a tightly held secret, however, it is no secret that getting hired at a TJ’s is highly competitive. Salary and benefits are generous compared to most other employers—particularly in the grocery store arena but also in most other corporate markets. I have a love/hate relationship with “perky.” Moving to California from the east coast, the first time my TJ’s clerk asked me, “So what fun do you have planned for the afternoon?” I felt a bit assaulted. But I digress. Clearly perky is working for TJ’s, and I too am becoming a loyal TJ’s consumer. But is perky the secret sauce or is it an ingredient to a winning formula that all organizations from nonprofits to corporations can learn from? Some facts

  • TJ’s is growing and increasing in market share.

  • Customers are loyal.

  • Being hired by TJ’s is very competitive.

  • Prospective customers beg and plead with them on social media to “Open a store in my neighborhood.”

So what can all of us learn from TJ’s? Consultant Mentality Every employee knows every product in the store. So when I ask the guy who is stocking frozen foods where I can find the coconut oil, he not only knows, but he walks me to it and explains along the way which brand he prefers. He also frequently mentions a new product he is excited about. He is excited about that product because he actually tried it and likes it. And somewhere between frozen foods and coconut oil he likely asks me about my plans for the afternoon (sigh). Nine times out of ten, I at least consider the product he mentions. And sometimes I grab it and plunk it into my cart. Other times I do it on a return trip. And I’m not too worried about about taking the risk because as he reminds me, I can return it—no questions asked. No Silos In many businesses, customer service people are experts in a specific area. This is also true in most grocery store chains. Would you be inclined to ask the person stocking the meat case at Safeway where the coconut oil is? Or, like me, would you assume that he is all about meat? I’m generalizing here, but in my experience the butcher would likely give me a quizzical look and say, “Hmm. Let me find someone to help you.” Being a tad impatient (sigh), I would head off on my own only to meet the butcher and another staff person also searching for the illusive coconut oil. Likely those two employees walk away shaking their heads about how a customer took them away from their limited time on their specific area or exchange a knowing glance about how little cross-training is happening. Either way, morale takes a dip as the employee consciously or unconsciously feels ill-equipped to take care of customer’s need. I’m not claiming this is the case everywhere but we’ve all experienced it somewhere. In organizations where employees operate in silos, I also see a great competition for resources. Not necessarily resources as in technology or office supplies but frequently in terms of time and attention of leadership, information (I have no idea what is happening around here), and territory (Hey, that’s my responsibility! Why are they in my business?). This lack of collaboration results in wavering commitment to the overarching mission and goals of the organization. Hierarchy and Org Charts When I start my work with a company, during the initial assessment I ask, “How does your written organizational chart reflect what is actually happening day-to-day?” even though I already know the answer. If the organization is struggling, the written chart and day-to-day structure often don’t match. TJ’s has a clear structure, and every employee understands it. They also understand what to do to grow with the company. This is one of the golden keys to retaining valued employees. Employees as Assets “Retailers start with this philosophy of seeing employees as a cost to be minimized,” says Zeynep Ton of MIT’s Sloan School of Management in a March 2013 article in the The Altantic. She goes on to say that TJ’s sees employees as an asset to be maximized. New hires go through a two-week training process, which includes training in communication, teamwork, leadership, and product knowledge. Now that’s an expenditure that doesn’t depreciate but instead provides TJ’s a huge return on investment. So many organizations I work with operate in “just in time” mode. They don’t get the idea of slowing down to go faster. When I ask how employees are onboarded, I’m told that they just have been so busy, they haven’t had time to develop a solid process. Operating in “just in time” mode means that when a candidate is hired, the need to fill the seat is so dire, they don’t believe they can dedicate even a week to a systematic onboarding process. Everybody is Influential At TJ’s, all employees feel connected to the mission and goals. They not only believe they have the ability to influence organizational goal achievement, they know they do. They understand that everything they do everyday builds customer loyalty and makes the company a success. And that success is not just enjoyed by the corporation. TJ’s salary and benefit packages are among the best in the country for people earning in the $45,000 range. The TJ’s model has been so successful that even Walmart is emulating it. With a significant reputation for underpaying employees, Walmart understands that to realize many of the same rewards as TJ’s, they need to invest in employees as assets. Read more here. So is perky the secret sauce? No—not really. That is, however, what we the consumer experience. The secret sauce is composed of a range of ingredients—each easily replicable by any organization:

  • Cross-train employees to be literate about all products and services.

  • Eliminate silos by encouraging communication and collaboration.

  • Treat employees as assets.

  • Clarify organizational structure to encourage retention and promotion.

  • Help employees understand how much influence they have in the success of the organization.

  • And yes: add a dash of perky!


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