Corporate Coyness at Trader Joe’s

A number of years ago, a book called The Rules came out. Written for women on how to date men in order to elicit a marriage proposal, the book lays out a set of rules for playing hard-to-get: rarely return calls; answer questions coyly, without too much information. Don’t accept a Saturday date any later than the prior Wednesday. Let him pursue you, don’t give him too much, and eventually he’ll profess a lifetime of loyalty.

Oh, and of course no trashy clothing.

Courting husbands and customers may have some overlap, but marketing “rules” usually follow the opposite logic of The Rules:  Make yourself available, solicit the customer, show them the benefits of coming around, and pepper them with gentle “touches”—at least seven—to get them to put out. Expose everything, if necessary.

trader-joes-fearless-flyer-may-2009I was surprised to find myself ruminating over this while working on an article about Trader Joe’s catalogue copy.  If you’ve ever seen one of Trader Joe’s catalogues, you’ll know what I mean – full of long, detailed descriptions and narratives about the features of their products.  I wanted to explore how they’ve defied standard marketing language — stressing their features over their benefits —  and used it to great success.  I thought I might call it something like, “Using ‘too much information’ to draw customers.” I wanted to hear from TJ’s corporate offices what was behind their strategy. Instead, my attempt to contact Trader Joe’s has wound up being an interesting side journey unto itself, ultimately contradicting the theme I set out to illuminate.  Sometimes the path is indeed the destination.

My first order of business for the path I had in mind was to subscribe to TJ’s Fearless Flyer (the name of the catalogue) so I could see what their current copy looked like. I signed up on the website and received…nothing. Not a welcome email, not a first issue of the flyer, nothing. That was several days ago since this writing, and still…nothing.


My next task was to contact corporate headquarters to find someone to speak to about Trader Joe’s marketing strategies, particularly their feature-laden copy. I went onto the Trader Joe’s website, and found only a standard contact page. So I filled out the form, saying I was writing an article and wanted to talk to someone, sent it off, and again…nothing.

A few days later, I made a more concerted effort to track down the phone number of corporate headquarters—surely a successful company would want to make itself available to the media, if not the public. I did a Google search for “Trader Joe’s corporate headquarters,” and found the telephone number only on a site called Tracking Trader Joe’s, which claims “not affiliated with Trader Joe’s.” I also learned that the company usually refuses to talk to the press, including a San Francisco Chronicle reporter contacting them for a story.

Hang on—companies spend millions on PR, and here was a successful business eschewing publicity opportunities? But wait, it gets better.

I called and told a receptionist I was writing an article on Trader Joe’s. Without asking me any questions, acknowledging my statement, or telling me where she was connecting me, she put me through to customer relations. I explained to the customer relations representative that I was actually wanting to speak with someone for an article—she put me through to publicity, where I left a message with “Allison,” saying I needed to hear back today, since I was up against deadline, not having gotten a response to the email request I sent through the one channel provided on the website.

I was puzzled. Maybe I had used incorrect search terms and missed something obvious. So I entered the main number into Google, thinking I’d find the elusive corporate headquarters contact page I had surely missed due to my own human error. That search returned a page of non-Trader Joe’s-related sites, mostly blogs and business directories.  A similar array of sites appeared on the second page, which was enough for me to hang it up there.

Okay. for some reason, TJ’s doesn’t want to make it easy for the general public—or at least people who search the way I do—to reach them. At least now I have another question to ask the publicity person. Allison still hasn’t called back, which has given me time to think about this:

Trader Joe’s has a lively presence on the web. The first page of Google hits, after the TJ’s website turned up a Facebook page,  a YouTube commercial with over half a million hits (which made me lol a few times), a recipes blog, a fan site, and a bunch of mentions in blog entries from other sites…all from independent sources. That’s right—not one of these publicity vehicles came from Trader Joe’s.

Trader Joe’s has done such a great job of meeting their customer’s needs, of reflecting and catering to that elusive mix of reliability to get a certain thing at a certain place, and the need for variety and home-grown  feel. Such a great job, apparently, that its consumers are taking care of their publicity for them.

Harnessing consumer enthusiasm is nothing new. Users helping other users is a big part of most major web businesses from PayPal to Yahoo and on down the line. Neither is harnessing social media, or populating the blog space with consumer-relevant content—great customer service is all about giving people what they want, and the best companies know this.

But companies usually pay to create this content. Whole Foods, for example, has its own company-sponsored blog, twitter account, recipes section and Facebook page. And a plethora of phone numbers for any office you might want to contact. Trader Joe’s has hidden their corporate contact information, skipped the obligatory social media marketing that’s all the rage elsewhere, refused attention from the press, taken their sweet time to reach out to an opt-in customer who’s requested their flyer, and somehow just sits back and reaps the benefits of their fans stepping forward to fill the gap.

Maybe there’s something to buttoning up another inch or two of the corporate blouse. By breaking the rules of their competitors, and following those of the marriage-minded maiden, Trader Joe’s has captured their quarry—and earned not just their dollars, but their love.

I still haven’t heard back from Allison. I think I should send her flowers, then try again—early in the week.