Schools Should be More Like Trader Joe's

I think everyone should have had the opportunity to meet this guy who used to work at the Trader Joe’s in Pittsburgh. He was usually stationed strategically at their little sample station in the back of the store dishing out some kind of mango ginger chutney while he lightly browned some kind of smoked pineapple chorizo on an electric skillet.

One time I pretended I was shopping for some kind of yogurt or butter in the back of the store cooler just so I could listen to his inspiring routine that hyped his samples and encouraged all who listened to check out his recommendation of pairing the mango chutney with the stone wheat crackers and some goat cheese. He could barely manage his own excitement about the whole combination, as if he had minced the mangoes himself and tossed them in a jar. His smile just seemed to grow the more people gave him any attention. It wasn’t inauthentic, but it did make me wonder how much Trader Joe’s was paying their chutney guy.

Whatever they were giving him, I thought, it wasn’t enough.

And he didn’t stop at Chutney and chorizo. He helped a lady find some sesame oil, he asked a colleague to bring him some flatbread or lavash he was describing, and he talked to an elderly woman about perogies (which, unfortunately, Trader Joe’s doesn’t sell).

I thought about how my neighborhood grocery store doesn’t have a chutney guy. We didn’t even have samples. Maybe if you crossed town and went to one of the big box grocery stores in a nicer neighborhood you could find a lady dishing out some kind of fruit spread, but she would probably seem annoyed and inconvenienced and would most likely pronounce chutney wrong. Then, you would question whether you had the right pronunciation of chutney and then you would think about how you are a middle-aged white guy and there is almost no chance that you pronounce any Indian foods correctly but how you just assume that you have it right because of whatever privilege we give to college-educated middle-aged white guys.

Then, you would realize how terribly unhappy you are every time you are in that grocery store. You would probably think about how people are mean there and how it makes you feel kind of annoyed and mean and you just want to buy your chutney and go home but that all these annoying people are in your way. And you would probably think about how much you wish you were at Trader Joe’s where everyone is happy and how the chutney guy would have never pushed you into this whole introspective tailspin.

I was just listening to a Freakonomics last week and realized that this whole feeling I get at Trader Joe’s isn’t an accident. They work hard to make it a happy grocery store. They try to find employees just like the guy at the sample stand, they wear Hawaiian shirts and talk about lavash and olive oil, and as my kids know, they even hide a little stuffed animal in the store and give anyone who finds it a piece of candy. One time, my dad was with me in line and he picked up some kind of salted caramel and told me they looked good. Immediately, the guy ringing us up told us that he wanted us to try them.

“Go ahead, this one is on the house.”

I can’t imagine the stoned high school kid at my neighborhood grocery store doing that.

Trader Joe’s understands that things are a lot better when people are happy. They train their employees to be kind, talk about customer service as a primary purpose, and treat their employees better than most any other grocery store.

As a result, they make more money per square foot than anyone else in the business.

I think schools could learn something here. Before all the teachers angrily throw their Christmas break Moscato across the room, please understand that I’m not suggesting some corporate reform of education or that we start to treat students more like reasonably priced gourmet cheese. Comparing students to customers or clients rightfully makes some educators nervous, but I’m just suggesting it might be worth asking Trader Joe’s to do our next PD.

Here’s what I’m thinking they would say.

1) Be happy and get excited.

I learned in that Freakonomics episode that the first week of employee training at a new Trader Joe’s store is spent on customer service. They don’t talk about making money, or educate employees on all the different products, or even teach everybody how to bag groceries or work a register. Instead, they spend time trying to teach all of their employees how to act more like the chutney guy. They want to see smiles everywhere. They want all the employees to sample all their products so that they can be glowing with excitement every time they talk about olive tapenade.

It pays off for them. When I walk through a normal grocery store, I usually get kind of miserable and annoyed at everybody around me. Trader Joe’s feels different. People are laughing and enjoying themselves, everybody is trying to help me, and get greeted by some tattooed kid in a Hawaiian shirt at every turn.

I’m afraid most schools feel a little too much like a normal grocery store. Teachers could do a lot better at lighting up each time we see a student walking in the hallway. We could try to get excited and treat our content a little more like that guy was treating the chutney/goat cheese combination. We could spend some more time laughing and trying to get face time with our students instead of locking ourselves in our rooms at every free moment. Many students talk about school like I talk about a regular grocery store. I think we might be able to change that.

If Trader Joe’s can expect their hourly employees to smile a lot and be nice, it seems reasonable that we should expect the same from people in schools.

2) Forget normal economics

If an old guy in a grocery store is looking for a $2 bottle of ginger ale that he likes to drink with dinner and the spot on the shelf is empty, it makes sense to tell him that the item is sold out. It even makes sense if there is a new shipment in the back that probably has the ginger ale in one of the boxes. It’s doesn’t make sense for an employee to spend 20 minutes looking for something so small. Conventional logic would tell us that looking for that item would not be worth the time or money. But at Trader Joe’s, they tell their employees to go get the ginger ale. If the customer is happy and feels valued, then there is no waste of time or money. It’s probably why the guy at the counter that one time gave my dad and I a salted caramel on him. He knew that the grocery experience lasts a lifetime. It was all worth it if we came back and we were happy. Buying groceries is a long game. Normal cost/benefit analysis don’t apply at Trader Joe’s, and they don’t work in education either.

Unfortunately, there are forces at work that tempt us to look for quick returns. There is the culture around testing, the pressure of evaluation, poor leadership in some schools, and a host of deadlines and expectations that make most of us anxious. We would be better if we are willing to do the educational equivalent of looking for a cheap bottle of ginger ale. That means we think a little less about the short-term goals all the time, and treat learning as more of a long game. It means we spend more time listening to students talk, helping them with the small issues that seem to creep up in any school, and make sure that they know they are valued. While some of our decisions should seek immediate gains, most of our day should probably be spent helping someone find ginger ale.

3) Think about the little things

When a new Trader Joe’s opens, they paint the walls and design the store to look appealing. In Pittsburgh, it means that each aisle looks like a bridge and there are paintings of Steelers logos on the walls. In contrast, my school is painted two shades of yellow-brown. All the employees at Trader Joe’s look like they are on some cheesy Hawaiian vacation. The teacher uniform is usually some oversized, stained, khakis and a bad looking polo shirt. There are no loudspeakers because no one has ever said that they loved an intercom system. In my school, I’m interrupted by a 40-year-old intercom system every 30 minutes with some kind of announcement and robotic bells release students from class.

I’m not sure why we made school this way, but it certainly wasn’t designed by some hip PR firm with kids in mind. If it were, we would probably dress differently and paint our walls with bright colors. We might have different lighting and feel a little more like Google and a little less like an old Methodist church. We might hide little stuffed animals at different places every day and give out prizes to the students who find them because we know that kids love that kind of thing.

None of this seems like the big education reform that makes the research blogs, but it all feels rather attainable and sensible. School might be a bit more enjoyable if we actually thought a lot more about the student experience and designed our actions to make students a bit happier.

And I think the guys and gals in the cheesy Hawaiian shirts could teach us a few things.