business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Did you ever wonder why some businesses have an unusual and enviable glow about them that you struggle to achieve? It may be that they are simply more willing than you are to toot their own horn and in the right places.

For countless years Trader Joe’s has been ranked as one of the most popular and best places to shop for food despite the chain’s limited assortment, especially in fresh foods. But the truth is that TJ’s shoppers love the place, love its quirks and shortcomings and forgive in those stores characteristics for which you might be excoriated.

BuzzFeed recently ran an article on some of those unusual attributes of TJ’s, and what struck me is how commonplace many of those “special characteristics” actually are.

Let me preface this by admitting that we shop TJ’s occasionally and we do enjoy it, even though we know we cannot find a wide range of items that are regulars in our fridge and pantry. TJ’s, unlike many supermarkets, is quirky, fun and unusually engaging even if the products they do carry are harder to locate due to a less than regular layout and merchandising pattern. 

(For example, visit a TJ’s and notice how many items are stocked over the frozen food coffin cases that aren’t connected to frozen foods. The placements don’t always make sense, but they force me to pretty much walk down each aisle.)

But let’s consider a couple of points in the BuzzFeed article.

First, there’s the limited assortment, which increasingly shoppers seem to like whether it’s in Costco, Aldi (TJ’s cousin thanks to family ownership) and many dollar stores. As has long been documented in research, the range of choices in aisle after aisle of so many stores is overwhelming shoppers. 

Incredibly the same shopper who complains in your store if you don’t have 47 varieties of extra virgin olive oil, takes some delight in not having to make choices in other stores. Perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at some of that inventory.

TJ’s also gets lots of love for its seasonal products, which like most items in the store are private label. Here again, your customers might argue if specific items only appear at certain times of the year, but maybe there is something to be learned from TJ’s and the notion of scarcity. (By the way, the Christmastime Joe-Joe cookies are fabulous!)

And lastly, consider that TJ’s gets love - certainly from the BuzzFeed reporter - for donating products to local food banks, something that nearly every supermarket I know does with regularity. Again the difference may be that they talk about what they do.

My hope is that a quick glance at the BuzzFeed article will get you asking why TJ’s gets so much credit and praise for doing things you do as well or better. 

In some ways, it is very simple - Trader Joe's excels at telling its story, both in its stores (even the Hawaiian shirts worn by the employees and the plastic lobsters that adorn the walls tell a story) and in the Fearless Flyer mailer that it sends out with regularity.  More recently, Trader Joe's has a podcast - 

again, the goal is to tell its story in unique ways.  

Unique.  But not inimitable.

I'm not suggesting that you imitate Trader Joe's.  You have to be authentic to your own brand.  But you can learn from Trader Joe's, telling a story about your stores in a way that customers can easily come to know and love.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at

His book, “THE BIG PICTURE:  Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available here.

And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon here.

For information about hiring Michael to speak at your next meeting or conference, click here.