Why Trader Joe's Doesn't Have A Loyalty Program (And Probably Never Will)

Trader Joe's keeps prices low for customers in other ways.

Perhaps more than any other grocery store, Trader Joe's has an utterly loyal following (can we interest anyone in some Mandarin Orange Chicken?). Because of the TJ's fandom that proliferates online, the chain's lack of any sort of loyalty program has always been sort of a head-scratcher. I mean, those programs are designed to keep customers coming back regularly and reward frequent purchasers, right? Well, Trader Joe's sees things a little differently in this regard, and in a recent episode of the Inside Trader Joe's podcast, the brand explains just why it isn't doling out rewards points like other grocery stores.

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Why Trader Joe’s doesn’t do rewards points

Trader Joe's official podcast is a must listen for superfans or anyone else interested in the company's inner workings. In a short episode from earlier this year titled "Why Doesn't Trader Joe's Have a Loyalty Program" (nice and straightforward), Tara Miller and Matt Sloan from TJ's marketing department dive into the answer to that question.

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Miller explains that grocery store loyalty programs are more complicated than you might think, and that the mechanics behind them involve more than just granting frequent shoppers exclusive discounts. In fact, when an item is on sale for rewards members, the manufacturer of that item is actually paying retail stores (such as Kroger) to make up the difference in price. The goal is to increase the sales volume on whatever item is being sold at a discount, not only spurring more purchases of that product but eventually leading you to buy more of that manufacturer's products.

Trader Joe's is not interested in operating this way for a few reasons.

"It costs money and takes lots of time and resources to track all your purchases, to give you a coupon targeted to your interest, to provide a deal that was paid for through a collection of the manufacturers, and maybe even that customer's own money," Sloan says on the podcast. "We're interested in removing costs."

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In short, Trader Joe's doesn't want to focus its efforts and money on fostering the complicated relationships that other grocery stores' loyalty programs require. By eliminating extra noise and operating expenses, the theory goes, TJ's can remain focused on selling its products at reasonable prices in the first place.

How loyalty programs work

If you're part of any grocery store's loyalty program, you probably know that in order to qualify for rewards, you've got to key in some sort of identifier at checkout, whether it's your phone number, a card swipe, or a key fob barcode scan. That's almost purely for data mining purposes. 

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Once a store's system knows your shopping preferences, it'll offer you coupons for specific items it thinks you might be interested in to get you to spend more money. So, without a loyalty program tracking your every move, how does Trader Joe's determine what to sell you?

"We don't collect any data on our customers," Miller says. "People see that as counterintuitive." Translation: it's all about the overall sales numbers.

"We're not tracking individual customer purchases, but we are tracking whether or not a particular product sells well," she says. "And if it doesn't, that's our customers voting with their collective dollars telling us, yeah, that's not something we love. So we go and we develop something else."

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Of course, I understand that the Trader Joe's podcast is primarily a marketing tool; most of its content revolves around showing listeners different aspects of the store's operating model and hyping new products. So it's not like Trader Joe's is necessarily a beacon of transparency and corporate altruism. Still, it's useful to hear from the company itself about why it just doesn't think rewards programs are worth implementing, whether it's for TJ's sake or shoppers'.

Besides, plenty of loyalty programs have my information already, and having one less store tracking my every move isn't a bad thing.

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