Since my daughter Jennie moved to Austin, TX she’s loved everything about her new hometown except that there’s no Trader Joe’s. When I go to visit, I tuck several of her favorites in my suitcase, but they’re a poor substitute for having our favorite grocer available on a regular basis. For years, TJ’s (as its known to its loyal customers) was something I only experienced when I visited my family in California. I never could adequately explain what made this place so special since calling it a grocery store never seemed quite right. 

When I was moving to Las Vegas, proximity to TJ’s was a big priority. Now a visit to TJ’s is a regular experience for me several mornings a week and I’ve been thinking about all the things that set them apart from other grocery sellers. Some things are obvious. Their product line, for instance, is just theirs. You won’t find brand names mixed in with their offerings. You will, however, find things you never knew you wanted to try. How does that happen?

Besides having all sorts of things you many never have seen before, they also have daily samplings. Never had panettone? Try it and see what you think. Not sure you’d like gingerbread coffee? Have a cup and you might discover a new pleasure.

The product line’s not the only thing that’s different there: the shopping experience itself is unique. If I go to a normal supermarket, I usually zoom through picking up items that I need. TJ’s demands a more leisurely pace since you never know what new treasures might have landed on their shelves overnight. They also move entire sections around in the store from time to time so you really have to pay attention. 

The supermarket I shop at less frequently, has done a fine job of training their employees to recite the same questions to each and every shopper. Not so at TJ’s. It’s actually possible to have a personal interaction with the folks who are working there. After I’d won the weekly store drawing (for which anyone who brings their own bag is eligible), I was paying for my purchases with the gift card they’d given me. I mentioned that I’d won and the checker exclaimed, “YOU’RE Barbara W?” It’s not unusual for a store to post a winner’s name, but it’s pleasantly surprising to know the employees actually noticed.

One hot morning last summer, I walked out of TJ’s, jumped in my car and it refused to start. I went back inside the store and up to the customer service counter to ask if I could use their phone book. One of the fellows working there said, “Let me try starting it. I’ve got jumper cables in my truck.” I breathed a sigh of relief and thought I’d be on my way in a few minutes. It turned out to be more complicated than that, but throughout the ordeal, several employees got involved and offered suggestions until the tow truck arrived. As if I didn’t already love them enough, they won my heart forever that day.

Then there are the shoppers. I can’t recall ever interacting with people in other grocery stores the way I do at TJ’s. It’s not unusual for strangers to query one another about items. “Have you ever tried this?” a stranger might ask. One day, I was about to grind coffee and noticed a woman quietly watching me. I flashed a smile and she shyly admitted she didn’t know how the coffee grinder worked. I invited her to come closer and walked her through the entire process. “Oh,” she said, obviously relieved to see how easy it was,”I’ve been wanting to try their coffee, but didn’t know how to grind it.” 

I still smile when I recall standing in front of a jar of something I’d never seen before and saying out loud (I’m not sure why), “Do I like pumpkin butter?” A passing customer nodded and said, “I believe you do.” Turns out she was right.

The way Trader Joe’s communicates with their customers is also different  from the mega-markets. You won’t find a TJ ad in your Sunday paper, but you might find their quarterly Fearless Flyer in your mailbox or at the store. This little advertising piece–a masterful example of storytelling–is such fun to read that regulars eagerly look forward to its arrival knowing some new taste treat will be brought to their attention. 

If you’re a Trader Joe’s fan already, the next time you visit, notice what you enjoy most about the experience. And if you aren’t fortunate enough to live near this creative enterprise, plan your next vacation to include a pilgrimage and see for yourself how imagination can turn mundane grocery shopping into a mini-adventure in pleasure.