Succeed by defying conventions

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On November 28, Freakonomics Radio released its 359th episode, “Should America Be Run by…Trader Joe’s?” Hosted by astute journalist and author Stephen Dubner, the 47-minute radio show (and podcast) explores the unanticipated success of perhaps the most non-traditional grocer in the current marketplace: the quirky, island-themed Trader Joe’s.

Even if you do not have a location near you — or if you do, but are not a frequent customer — great insight can be gleaned from this podcast. Why? The episode dives into the reasons why defying conventions can yield unexpected success, especially at a time when it seems that the default narratives for advancement have been so carefully refined that challenging their veracity seems not only foolish, but heretical.

However, by veering from the status quo, Trader Joe’s has become America’s most successful grocery chain as measured by sales-per-square-foot. Its revenue in this regard is far greater than industry titans like Kroger, Albertsons, and Publix. Trader Joe’s generates even more revenue — again, based on sales-per-square-foot — than Whole Foods, whose stores tend to be found in the nation’s most wealthy communities.

Trader Joe's Opens Its First Store In New York City

If you have never been to a Trader Joe’s, you may be wondering exactly how it defies the traditional narrative of business success. Well, here is a glimpse at its peculiarities, which Stephen Dubner — and guests like the remarkable Columbia Business School economist Sheena Iyengar* — explore in this episode:

  • TJ’s does not use social media.
  • TJ’s does not employ traditional advertising like billboards or weekly circulars.
  • TJ’s does not accept coupons.
  • TJ’s does not distribute loyalty cards that track customers’ purchases.
  • TJ’s does not have sales.
  • TJ’s does not feature self-check aisles.
  • TJ’s does not offer home delivery.
  • TJ’s does not contain 20,000+ products like most grocery stores.
  • TJ’s does not rely on name brands. In fact, it carries very few.

How can a company like Trader Joe’s succeed when it does not utilize the cutting-edge, data-driven strategies that most business experts would say are necessary? You’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out! Just click: “Should America Be Run…by Trader Joe’s?”

But here is the short answer: Trader Joe’s proudly does things its own way, without apology. It privileges people over profits, simplicity over complexity, and language and narrative over data and demographics. Consequently, its loyal shoppers love the experience that they have in its stores, and savor the unique products — from healthy to indulgent — that they find there. Thus they keep coming back.

Full disclosure: I visit Trader Joe’s semi-regularly, but I am not a purist. The narrow aisles of my local store are often crowded, and the checkout lanes seem oddly-designed and not (in my opinion) customer-friendly. Yet I still love this podcast episode because I admire companies like Trader Joe’s that defy conventions, follow their own guiding principles, and — as a result — achieve unexpected success. We need more risk-takers who are willing to challenge norms, whether those established practices dominate behavior in the business world, in our schools, or in our neighborhoods.

Shameless endorsement of all things Freakonomics: I am a committed follower of Freakonomics, both the podcast and the series of books penned by Dubner and his collaborator, University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt. For several years I have listened to their weekly audio productions, which help me — a former high-school English teacher — better understand topics ranging from entrepreneurs and marketing, to decision-making and leadership, to sports and public policy. But perhaps most importantly, Freakonomics’ media has taught me why asking questions is an essential yet often underrated practice, both in business and in a broader whole-life context.

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– Widely recognized as one of the nation’s foremost experts on decision making, Sheena Iyengar is amazing. She is a professor at the Columbia Business School, and her research has yielded incredible insights into how humans make choices. Moreover, her voice is captivating and articulate; and her outlooks on business and life are shrewd, witty, and wise. Oh — and Ms. Iyengar has spent her life defying conventions. How? She is blind. See for yourself, in her popular 2010 TED talk, “The Art of Choosing.”

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Note – The images featured above were obtained from WNYC Studios (which produces a host of award-winning programs including Freakonomics Radio), TED.com, and the Freakonomics website.

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