A Review of the Data: Trader Joe’s

I recently finished the “Trader Joe’s (inside)” podcast and was blown away. It sounded too good to be true. Giving back millions of dollars to local communities, a job people actually enjoy, utilizing people as people instead of people as machines, high-powered executives regularly bagging groceries. So I did some digging, and found (1) a handful of anecdotes about employees being treated harshly (e.g. fired for not greeting customers genuinely) and (2) a lot of people complaining about the ways in which TJ’s products are sourced. I’ll be tackling these two issues individually.

Editorialized TL;DR: Shop here! It’s far and away the most ethical option when it comes to chain grocery stores. Trader Joe’s receives higher (anonymous) ratings from its employees than any other chain grocery store I could find. And while people say that their product-sourcing isn’t transparent enough, it’s still just as, if not more, transparent than every other large grocery chain out there.

Employees

There are a lot of think-pieces about Trader Joe’s employee culture and how its store managers have pushed its employees hard or been bothered by employees’ attitudes, but that can be said about almost literally any service industry business. Scott Alexander expertly explains the problem with this kind of example-based reasoning. To put it briefly, when you have enough people in a system, you’ll always have enough bad people to generate sensationalist news. I also believe TJ attracts more of this attention because of how it frames itself as an employee-friendly business and everyone loves a subversive narrative. Nobody would read a story about how someone quit Walmart because of working conditions (since this is obviously common), so stories like that don’t get reported.

All this being said, the best usable data we have is from glassdoor, which aggregates thousands of anonymous rankings from individual employees across many different criteria:

grocery storerating out of 5 from employees% that would recommend to a friend# of reviewsHourly Wage
Trader Joe’s4.184%2.2k$14/hr
Wegmans4.181%1.8k$10/hr
Whole Foods3.565%6.1k$11.5/hr
Walmart3.255%35k$9/hr
Harris Teeter3.149%1.8k$9/hr
Kroger3.149%7.7k$8/hr

The only store that compares in terms of employee satisfaction (our best heuristic for how well employees are treated) is Wegmans, which has the same 4.1/5 star rating from employees as Trader Joe’s. TJ also offers ~40% better hourly wages than Wegmans ($14 vs $10). TJ has better benefits for employees as well, provides far more vacation days (from 10 up to 24 for a full-time TJ employee versus 5 for Wegmans) (see footnote 1), and offers near-full-coverage for mental health. Also, TJ provides benefits for anyone working equal to or more than 30 hours a week, covering a large portion of its part timers.

I like my job but I would have a hard time rating it above a 4. It can be boring, it’s not perfect, et cetera. To me, a 5 is a dream job, like travelling the world as a food critic or running a massively successful business that you started from the ground up built around your passion in life. Obviously this isn’t everyone’s criteria, but the fact that over a third of the people who work at Trader Joe’s rated their experience as 5 stars (and another >1/3 gave it 4 stars) speaks highly of the company and culture.

Note: it’s possible that TJ’s has as high a rating as it does because it only hires optimistic people who see the best in their work environment. However, even if that’s the case, I imagine this alone can generate a more positive and uplifting work environment.

Products

TJ’s store-brand is partially filled with re-branded but otherwise identical versions of other products (link) sold at a cheaper price. For example, TJ-brand pita chips are made by the same people who make Stacy’s pita chips, the ones you see in every supermarket. If this is the kind of thing that bothers you, you unfortunately don’t have many alternatives – this happens all the time, everywhere. The only places it doesn’t happen are local farmer’s markets (and even they sometimes rebrand other people’s produce/products). Trader Joe’s could absolutely do better in terms of transparency, but they’re still far better at it than their peers.

The conclusion writes itself – Trader Joe’s is one of the more ethical national grocery store chains that exists. With better prices than most competitors, a lack of temptation to buy namebrand items, and a work environment that employees seem to genuinely enjoy, you can feel safe in knowing that their cheaper prices aren’t a reflection of how the employees are treated or of the quality of the food, both of which earn high marks. If you aren’t shopping or can’t shop at a local grocer or farmer’s market, shopping at TJ’s will almost certainly be an improvement over your current grocery store, ethically speaking, while being far cheaper than stores with similar cultures/atmospheres/quality/ideals and equally as tasty.

Further Reading:
* http://ecosalon.com/behind-the-label-trader-joes-secretive-sourcing-practices/
* https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/04/business/at-trader-joes-good-cheer-may-hide-complaints.html
* https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/08/teach-us-trader-joe-demanding-socially-responsible-food/260786/
* https://www.thrillist.com/eat/nation/working-at-trader-joe-s-trader-joe-s-employees-dish-the-dirt-on-their-secretive-employer
* http://gottesman.pressible.org/roderick/is-it-a-myth-trader-joes-as-an-ethical-company
* https://www.glassdoor.com/Overview/Working-at-Trader-Joe-s-EI_IE5631.11,23.htm

Note 1: Employees seem torn on whether or not they like the Accrued Reserves system, where employees earn PTO as a percentage of each paycheck, and can cash in accrued AR at any time. Read more about this on glassdoor.

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