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A Journey through Trader Joe’s religion in NYC

The store has a holy place, “definitely, the check-out,” says Sammy. “Where clients (read: congregants) confess their feelings, then receive a farewell (read: benediction).”

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Religion, according to the great Wikipedia, is “a cultural system of behaviors and practices, world views, sacred texts, holy places, ethics, and societal organization that relate humanity to what one scholar has called ‘an order of existence’”. More casually, religion is supposed to make us a better people. I find that Trader Joe’s in New York City is doing more to make Gothamites a better people than any church, synagogue or mosque- high praise given NYC’s mix of great religious institutions.

Full disclosure: I own no stock in the corporation- but have you been to Trader Joe’s? Do you shop there with any regularity?  Do you feel the warmth and cheer like I do? Calm, steady, matter-of-fact warmth and cheer, especially at 72nd Street in my nabe, but other sites as well: Chelsea, Brooklyn and Forest Hills. Not church cheer, nor the seasonal warmth you feel from a residential deskman. I mean like a lit candle: a steady, flickering light, yes, but a similar measure of pleasant aroma and a hint- perhaps psychological- of physical warmth. It’s on whether I’m there or not, but it seems to get brighter due to my presence, my nearness. That’s true religion to me; Trader Joe’s- startlingly- has it, almost as if it’s a NYC religion.

Trader Joe’s ‘cultural system of behaviors & practices’--intangibles-- don’t seem to be programmed nor would you want them to be. The security guy doesn’t necessarily greet me when I enter the store, or bid me adieu, but he may, and when he does there’s a short authenticity to it--like the nod of recognition or respect from a fleeting lobby- or elevator-mate.  Short, but sweet.  Short, but clear as a belfry chime.  Busy shelf-stockers help if I ask, and sometimes even when I don’t- seldom with a smile, but nearly always with a preternatural kind contentment. Holy cow, is this how it’ll be in the New Jerusalem? God- I hope so; man, it feels like a rehearsal. Practicing, yet unpracticed.

Their worldviews are mixed but decidedly positive if not upbeat; eclectic is the word. Constructively eclectic, mildly hopeful. Hopeful yes, but only mildly so, as if with an air of poignancy.  You see it at check-out in the eyes and voice of Trader Joe’s cashiers. Something may be on their mind, but the the customer’s felt needs are directly in sight; not peripheral. If all politics is local then Trader Joe’s religion is local, yet distant, with intentionality.

Trader Joe’s has a sacred text- a lectionary, if you will- that changes on a monthly basis.  It’s called the Fearless Flyer, and it’s available to the public if not often observed. Sean (not real name), a mate (or manager) at one of the Manhattan stores -- which are the busiest in the world- shared with me a more private document called the Crewmember Passport, a sacred of sacred texts, if you will.  In it are the sorts of mundanities you’d expect in an employee handbook - rules, policies, Q&A - and a few that echo church: “We don’t point customers to requested items (read: pews); we escort them.”

Sammy, a veteran Trader Joe’s employee (though priest or deacon might be a truer label) confirms that the stores have a holy place.  “Definitely the check-out,” says Sammy (not real name), “It’s the grand finale where clients (read: congregants) meet us head-on, are greeted, confess their feelings regarding the store or the day, then receive a farewell (read: benediction).” Sammy’s description of the register check out setting as a “holy place” wasn’t surprising to me because I’ve experienced it that way, but his mention of after-hours register-centric debriefings was an eye-opener. “Every nite at 11pm employees huddle, religiously, maybe 15 to 30 employees, for a briefing (read: cell or small group meeting) where the presiding manager (read: priest or elder) gives product updates and half a dozen shoutouts regarding that day’s employee trials and triumphs.”  Sammy went on to say that there is a ‘second service’ at midnight for late shifters.  Imagine that--a nightly, contextualized small group gathering to share and praise-- a nocturnal nurture time, if you will.  No wonder Trader Joe’s is aglow-- feels like sacred ground-- the next day.

Trader Joe’s ethics vibe is a feeling statement: WOW.  In other words whatever it takes to wow the customer- i.e. to make the customer’s day- is what Trader Joe’s aims at.  And though you would be world wise to assume Trader Joe’s is just trying to make a buck-- like the pastor taking the offering on a Sunday morning-- the private Crewmember Passport doesn’t connect those obvious dots, nor do I get that impression while I’m there. Their rules feel positively golden, especially regarding their “ you would have them do unto you” product ‘return’ policy.  I sweat the idea of a returned item, but they don’t. It didn’t faze me to read (in the Passport) of a hassle-free return policy which- in real time- makes me want to exclaim: “You make me want to be a better man!!”  Which is all to say, they are MAKING me a better man, MAKING their shoppers better customers, civilians and New Yorkers

In short, I may not have convinced you, savvy reader, that Trader Joe’s is a great NYC religion, but I’m a believer, a fan. So are the long line of folks who congregate at their front door every day. Hell, so are the laborers themselves, who speak of the sublime reality of a societal organization that has long placed customers first, laborers second, and managers third. Rhetoric, right? No, a miracle on 72nd street, a secular miracle in the city-- the aforementioned higher order of existence.  All I know is that as for me and my family we will shop at Trader Joe’s -- and be better neighbors and citizens as a result.



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  • Nice

  • Thanks for this joyous romp through NYC from the perspective of Trader Joe's "cultural and religious" impact. A great pick me up on a Monday before Christmas in a cold South Texas! (Comment from first run of article on Dec 19th at 9:40am)

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