Sunday, November 20, 2016

Trader Joe's: Are We Having Fun Yet?

[ed. Original story here.]

John Shields, the former chief executive of Trader Joe’s, would famously tell new workers that they should quit if they weren’t having fun a month into the job.

Mr. Shields seemed to believe there were two kinds of people in the world: those born to be Trader Joe’s “crew members,” as the company calls its rank and file, and those who weren’t. The born crew members were naturally warm and cheery and couldn’t help sharing their warmth and cheer with customers. The rest would find working at Trader Joe’s, where employees are instructed to convey their “delight” in tending to each customer, to be a special form of torture.

It turns out that Mr. Shields was half right. There are certain people who are cut out to work at Trader Joe’s, but it’s not so much because they find it fun. Several times during interviews for my story on the company, current and former crew members told me they saw the job as a kind of acting exercise. They excelled at it by embracing the challenge of getting into their Trader Joe’s character.

One former employee said many of her colleagues were in fact aspiring actors logging hours at the store until they could make it on a bona fide stage. Another told me he had acted in high school and college, and drew on his acting experience at work. “You have to motivate yourself,” said a third, Christopher Livingston, who spent a few months at a Washington, D.C., Trader Joe’s. “And it’s a lot easier to motivate yourself if you’re in a good mood.”

(Reflecting on my story, David Colon, who once worked at a location in Brooklyn, highlighted another approach not unheard-of in the performing arts: “Some of us were also stoned,” he wrote in The Gothamist. “Like, really stoned.”)

It was revealing, but maybe not surprising, to hear that managers at several Trader Joe’s stores aspired to a customer experience worthy of Disney, which calls its theme park workers “cast members” and pays many of them to impersonate actual Disney characters. Thomas Nagle, the recently terminated Manhattan Trader Joe’s worker at the center of my story, told me that his managers once experimented with a policy requiring employees to wave to customers as they left the store, in the way that Disney theme park characters wave at visitors.

As with Disneyland, the Trader Joe’s version of “acting” tends to be a bit hokier and altogether more crass than the Hollywood version. Who among those of us who have shopped at Trader Joe’s hasn’t wondered how it’s possible that every flavor of kosher hummus you buy just happens to also be the favorite of your checkout clerk?

Mr. Nagle’s girlfriend, Vanessa Erbe, who worked at the same store, said managers were so intent on encouraging such banter that they once hatched the idea of “register bingo,” in which workers would cross off products on laminated cards as customers brought them to the register.

Suffice it to say, the psychological calisthenics necessary to pull off “register bingo” are not trivial. “They hire nice, cool, friendly people who have the ability and sensibility to be real enough without making it seem forced, but there’s still a double consciousness going on,” said one former worker at the Brooklyn store.

by Noam Scheiber, NY Times | Read more:
Image: Joshua Bright