Schools Should Be More Like Trader Joe’s

VIVA Teachers Grocery

by Mark Anderson

Prior to becoming a special education teacher in the Bronx through NYC Teaching Fellows, I was a novitiate store manager at a Trader Joe’s in Queens. I was only there 10 months before I moved on to the classroom, but I learned a lot about warm service to others, hard work, and leadership by example that I continue to apply in my work each day with children and their families.

There’s a running theme in education that schools are not businesses, because children are not products. Children are most definitely not products, but the public business of schools is to better educate our students and prepare them for future success. We do that in schools through services such as the curriculum we prepare and teach, attentive conversation and feedback, caring environments, firm discipline and clear structure, enriching extracurricular programs, and other support services such as counseling, speech therapy, and targeted interventions. These services are our products. Children (and their families) are our customers.

Some schools do a pretty good job of providing such services, but unfortunately, other schools seem to have lost sight of the real end-game—the success and well-being of children—and instead choose to focus on test scores or teacher evaluations.

Here’s a secret I learned from Trader Joe’s: if you want to demonstrate quantifiable measures of success, then focus on making people happy.

How does Trader Joe’s do it? Here’s science writer David DiSalvo’s take:

Trader Joe’s employees are different, and the difference they bring to their work changes the psychological experience of the store’s customers. There are emotional contagions in the air at TJ’s and its customers catch an infectious psychosocial buzz…

First, TJ’s hires a certain sort of person, and I don’t mean specific personality types. I mean they hire people who are unabashedly engaged in what they do. And they do everything, from stocking to cashiering to cleaning. TJ’s wants people working there who care about their jobs, no matter what their job is…

Someone placing your groceries in bags and boxes at a TJ’s genuinely cares about doing it well.”

It’s true. Yes, Trader Joe’s is a retail job, and like all retail jobs, the hours can be ruthless and the work physically demanding. But the employees typically exude a warm, contagiously positive vibe. They are frequently having fun, and they deliberately engage with their customers. Part of this is basic: employees are provided with steady raises and feedback, comparatively decent wages, and decent health care—all rarities in the realm of retail.

Another aspect of this is that they are trained to go the extra mile: they will open up products for a customer to sample, walk a customer to the aisle where a product is located, and discuss why they prefer this or that cheese or chip more than the other (employees are encouraged to taste and become deeply knowledgeable about the products they sell).

Some of the customers that came into my store weren’t always happy. I was bagging for an elderly woman during the holiday season one winter afternoon, and I could tell she was depressed. She looked like she hadn’t cracked a smile in over a decade, and she was unresponsive to my cheerful attempts at conversation. Her sadness stayed with me as I began bagging for the next customer.

I could have just let her leave without a second thought, moving on to the endless customers in the line that extended down the aisle. But I had been drilled to go the extra mile, especially as a manager and leader in the store. So I grabbed one of the mini rosemary trees we sell around that time and ran out the store and handed it to her as she was wheeling her cart up to her car.

“Why are you giving this to me?” she asked.

“You deserve it. This is my gift to you,” I said. “Happy Holidays!”

Her face melted, and she began to sob. She informed me that she hadn’t been given a gift in years.

This was a small act on my part, and a small write-off on my store’s part. But through that small act, I was able to provide her with a moment of happiness. And not just her—it made me feel happy, too— even today when I think back on it.

That’s the kind of service that wins loyal customers and employees and makes Trader Joe’s money. You bet that the company has an eagle eye on its profits, just as any business must in a cut-throat sector. But unlike many other companies, Trader Joe’s recognizes the simple truth that profits come as a result of designing and strategically fostering positive community.

As DiSalvo puts it in his article:

“The second thing that’s become clear to me is that the environment in a TJ’s isn’t strictly commercial. It’s a community. I realize that it sounds quaint to say a store has a communal feel, but walk into a TJ’s and the feeling wraps its arms around you. TJ’s employees interact like friends working together at jobs they genuinely enjoy…

TJ’s employees tell me that this doesn’t happen by accident. The company fosters an environment where collaboration is crucial to pulling off a successful day’s work. TJ’s employees aren’t working independent retail jobs — they’re working on interlocking pieces of a project, and that project is to make you happy.”

Isn’t this exactly how we would want a child to feel when they walk into a school anywhere in our nation? To feel a warm, caring community that “wraps its arms around you,” where the staff are working in collaborative, “interlocking” positions that they “genuinely enjoy”?

Yet in some schools, both children and adults walk into environments where they feel threatened, and where they feel isolated.

Maybe it’s time schools started paying attention to what strong businesses are doing well.

Mark-Anderson-150-Mark Anderson is a 7th and 8th grade Special Education teacher in the Bronx, NY. He participated in the VIVA New York Task Force.

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