I must confess that I have never really been enthralled by Trader Joe’s. I have never lived close by one so it was a convenient option for shopping nor have I ever been desperately loyal to their private label products. But there certainly are people who love Trader Joe’s and their stores can be quite busy. As consequence, the check out lines at some locations can be a special sort of experience. McSweeny’s offers a parody “Trader Joe’s Waiting in Line App” asking user to rate their overall shopping experience on the following scale:
- 4 stars: Took a while, but got what I needed.
- 3 stars: Eerily friendly cashier weirded me out; there was hardly any bagged lettuce left.
- 2 stars: Constant gridlock. Teeth gritted the whole time.
- 1 star: Anarchy. Like the ending of Lord of the Flies.
What does the ending of Lord of the Flies look like? Check out BuzzFeed’s “The Nightmare Of Shopping At Trader Joe’s In Manhattan.” It’s one thing to have to mark where the line starts; it’s another to need a sign marking the middle of the line so clueless (or super-aggressive) shoppers don’t cut the queue.
What then is a shopper to do? According to a recent Slate piece, the answer is to shop while in line (The Six Rules of Line-Shopping at Trader Joe’s, Aug 24).
Not long ago I was waiting in line at the smaller-than-average and perpetually mobbed Trader Joe’s near Union Square in Manhattan when I noticed the shopper in front of me had come up with a clever, possibly devious solution to the crowd problem. Upon entering the store, she claimed a shopping cart and staked out a spot in the checkout line (which snaked around almost the entire perimeter of the store). She proceeded to do all her shopping from her place in line: picking up produce as the line crept through the produce aisle, frozen goods as it passed by the freezer case, cereal when it neared the cereal section.
The article then goes on to propose a set of rules for those attempting to maximize their in-line productivity (sample dictate: You must familiarize yourself with the layout of your local Trader Joe’s before you attempt line-shopping.) However, the more interesting points to my mind focus on the roles of other customers and the store itself. Here’s what the article notes:
The thing about etiquette is that it’s usually pretty arbitrary. Sure, the goal of etiquette is to reduce social friction and discourage hurtful behavior, but the means to this end are subjective. Different cultures have different rules about, say, arranging utensils or spitting in public. An etiquette rule has power only if most everyone in that culture agrees that it’s useful and correct. No such consensus has formed around people who shop while in line at Trader Joe’s. And if Trader Joe’s itself has feelings on this issue, it’s not sharing them: “While we absolutely appreciate you reaching out, we don’t have a comment for this story,” a Trader Joe’s publicist emailed me.
Someone has to regulate behavior in the queue. It can be the service provider or customers. Often the customers will manage things quite effectively for themselves. That assumes that everyone buys into the same model of what constitutes “correct” behavior. I once saw a guy in a suit at the end of a line apoplectically yell at an elderly lady for butting to the front of the line at an airport gate. I (and I’m guessing everyone within 100 yards) thought Guy In Suit was a jerk, but we also knew he was right. Decorum calls for going to the back of the line and waiting your turn — at least that’s what’s called for in the US in general and Hartford’s Bradley International Airport in particular.
As the quote above notes, this is all culturally dependent. In the US, it’s kinda rude to yell at old ladies but in other cultures it may be an unforgivable offense. What does this mean for Trader Joe’s? Without general cultural norms to follow, each overcrowded store may develop its own was of dealing with those who shop from the check out line — whether that is a grudging acceptance or mischievously adding or removing items from the line-shopper’s basket when they are not looking.
Trader Joe’s could step in and try to regulate this some. Given that they have someone marking the end of the line, they could “easily” forbid anyone with an empty basket from joining the line. Similarly, they could “easily” remove unchaperoned carts or baskets from the line. I put “easily” in quotes because in theory this is straightforward to do. In practice, I don’t want to be the poor chump who has to enforce this. Yelling at old ladies may be seen a rude but berating those working in retail is pretty much a national birthright.
It is also not clear to me that Trader Joe’s necessarily wants to shut down this practice even it could. I am assuming that Trader Joe’s lacks the space to expand its check out lines at its most congested stores. Hence, it cannot magically make the lines go away. Anything then that lets customers be more productive in line is a good. If it makes them focus on where the tortilla chips are located as opposed to just how unbelievably long the line is, that is even better.