Trader Joe's workers are happier than Whole Foods workers. Here’s why…

09/01/2016 09:23 am ET

Trader Joe’s outscored Whole Foods on all seven measures of employee happiness in a recent survey. 

One shopper exits as another arrives at the Trader Joe's Chelsea store. Photograph: Will Jelbert

I live in Chelsea, home of art galleries, gays, a market and pier,  the most Chipotles in one neighborhood, and a Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.

I am a grocery store whore. As unfaithful to one store as it gets, although in my previous life I was extremely faithful to Whole Foods. That was until I moved to Chelsea.

I was sure that the good vibes I felt each time I shopped at Trader Joe’s couldn’t just be attributed to the free coffee and samples or the free love 60’s - 00’s music played at perfect mid-volume, although music is a shortcut to empathy and empathy is a shortcut to happiness.

But I couldn’t put my finger on why the TJ’s staff were so goddamn happy, while their counterparts four blocks away at WF seemed glum by comparison.  

I had to figure this out because I have spent the last five years studying happiness around the world. During that time, I have translated psychology and philosophy into practical exercises for happiness. What I have discovered is that happiness means connecting well with existence (and others) and that there are five ways, or muscles, that help you do it.

I hypothesized that any difference in happiness between the two neighboring stores would correlate with the health of the respective employees’ five muscles and  with their overall feeling of connection to their colleagues, boss and job.

So, on the hottest Saturday in July, I asked employees at each store to rate each muscle from 1-10 for  both themselves, and their colleagues and boss. I then averaged their respective scores to generate a combined rating for the store. There were seven competitions in the Grocery Store (Happiness) Olympics. Here are the results:

1) Honesty and Trust  - Winner: Trader Joe’s

(Trader Joe’s : 8.2; Whole Foods: 7.5 (WF rating of colleagues and boss: 6.7))

When I ran a poll of 700 people on the best definition of happiness, ‘trust and confidence’ received the most votes. Globally there was a view that trust and confidence are intrinsic to (if not the definition of) happiness. So why the difference in trust between the two Chelsea rivals?

I hazard a guess that mandatory bag searches for employees  when leaving the WF store erode an employee’s sense of feeling trusted. Not the case at TJ’s. And the impact? WF staff rated the honesty and trust of their colleagues and boss an average of only 6.7/10, whereas TJ’s scored 8.

2) Kindness (including empathy) - Winner: Trader Joe’s

(Trader Joe’s: 8.9;  Whole Foods: 7.7 (rating of colleagues and boss: 6))

Again, WF staff rated their colleagues and boss only 6,  much lower than how they rated themselves. The banter and laughter often overheard between colleagues at TJs is noticeably absent in the dim, non-produce aisles of WF. And while WF does occasionally sample a few chunks of hatch chili cheddar, TJ’s Chelsea provides savory and dessert samples in portioned out paper cups next to help-yourself coffee dispensers from opening until after closing. Several times, I’ve been told: ‘Take as much as you like’.

‘Product knowledge helps [with kindness]’ - TJ’s employee

Free organic carrot juice, no questions asked

I recently started drinking the organic, unpasteurized carrot juice when I heard carrot juice (containing vitamin A) is good for your skin and anti-aging. I went to TJ’s on Saturday and they had no carrot juice left.  The employee I asked about it went out the back to check if there was any there and returned quickly apologizing. He said ‘come back tomorrow’. I did, but by the time I got to the store the quart size bottles I wanted had sold out.

But TJ’s did have the smaller, slightly more expensive pint bottles. I grabbed two. As I checked out I mentioned to the assistant that they had sold out of the larger size again.

‘Oh is that what you wanted? We can give these two to you for the price of one of those. One second,’ he checks with the team captain . The team captain comes over and says to me: ‘How about you pay nothing for these.’

3) Curiosity (and tolerance)  - Winner : Trader Joe’s

(Trader Joe’s : 8.2;  Whole Foods: 7.9 (rating of colleagues and boss: 6.7))

TJ’s is quite possibly the best retail space in America to exercise the curiosity muscle. I’ve been put onto alkaline water by a few people including Artie Shephard, an old man (who I met ironically at Whole Foods), who told me he healed The Face from the A-Team (Dirk Benedict) from arthritis with it.

I wanted to check the pH of the gallon size bottles of New Zealand artesian water available for only $3 at TJs. I asked an employee whether it was alkaline. He said: ‘Interesting. No problem I’ll call our supplier and they’ll tell me in a minute’. I walked over with him to the phone, he called the supplier and confirmed it was a pH of 7.3 on the spot.

Product knowledge is paramount at TJ’s and if they don’t know, they want to know. By contrast WF staff rated the curiosity and  of their colleagues and boss even lower than their own, averaging only 6.7. Yes, slightly acidic. When I handed a WF’s staffer the last remaining frozen whole grain, organic pizza dough ball and asked if they had any plain flour balls out the back, he said ‘we only have what’s in the freezer, or it could be on the pallet out the back’ but didn’t offer to go and find out. Meh.

4) Awareness - Winner: Trader Joe’s

(Trader Joe’s : 9.4;  Whole Foods: 7.4)

This is TJ’s signature strength, and the happiness muscle rated the highest for both self, and colleagues and boss.  One of the several employees who scored himself and boss and colleagues as 10/10 for awareness explained:

‘Zen feeling is one of the key points here’

This isn’t just about the seventies floral print TJ’s shirts, although it does add to the hippie vibes further enhanced by the ‘dude’ tone of some of the conversations, and I’m almost surprised the Coen brothers didn’t shoot a scene for The Big Lebowski in here. But it is all about keeping it real and responding in real time to customers questions about tangible products, something grounding that’s often missing in an office environment. Perhaps this is why both TJ’s and WF scored higher on awareness than a major multinational corporation where I recently ran a happiness workshop.

5) Courage - Winner: Trader Joe’s

(Trader Joe’s : 8.1;  Whole Foods: 7.2)

Granted there may not be much call for courage in a grocery store ― it’s not exactly Tiananmen Square ― but while explaining why he scored himself so low in a quiet corner at the back of the store, one of the WF’s employees shared with me that voicing an opinion ‘might feel like a threat’. From what I’m hearing , WF is operates with a more rigid, top down, tow-the-line style of management, less curious and tolerant than TJs’ of its employees ideas. If the stores held Democrat rallies, TJ’s is where you’d go to feel the Bern.

Whole Foods promotes a healthy lifestyle on the front of its Chelsea store. Photograph: Will Jelbert

6) Overall connection (to job, colleagues, boss) - Winner: Trader Joe’s  

 (Trader Joe’s: 9; Whole Foods: 6.3)

‘I can afford to shop here’

Here is where the happiness gap between the two stores became a chasm. TJ’s feeling of connection to their colleagues, job and employer is second only to their feeling of awareness. At WF by contrast the sense of connection is the store’s second weakest score.

The bottom line is still the bottom line and as I checked out my bag of organic arugula and New Zealand water  at TJ’s I asked the checkout assistant ― who happened to have been a former employee of WF ― why she thought TJ’s was a happier place.

‘I can afford to shop here,’ was the response.   Being able to  buy what your store sells increases a sense that you belong in the store. It also helps you take care of the bottom (physiological) level of  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  Not so easy for WF employees who service a more upper middle class clientele in one of New York’s most expensive neighborhoods: While TJ’s guarantees its staff a minimum $13.29 an hour, the minimum at WF is only $11. Yet when Market Watch compared the prices of 14 items , WF was significantly more expensive on most items and 40% more expensive on 6 items.

7) Overall how happy am I? - Winner: Trader Joe’s

(Trader Joe’s : 8.8;  Whole Foods: 6)

No surprises here, given TJ’s outscored WF on all five happiness muscles and their overall sense of connection. But overall happiness may be more closely correlated to one specific muscle than others: Awareness.  The least happy TJ’s employee was also the only employee not to rate their awareness (and that of their colleagues and boss) at 10, but that same employee rated themself and their boss and colleagues a 10 for kindness.

Awareness would appear to be a more critical foundation than kindness for reaching high levels of happiness.  Perhaps the Dalai Lama is less likely to be unhappy than Mother Teresa would have been.  In fact recent publications have suggested  the soon-to-be Saint  ‘ lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain’  Could religion combined with a crisis of faith have been an obstacle to her awareness and happiness?  Perhaps, but if mother Teresa had been unkind, she probably would have been suicidal.  

‘Out of all jobs I’ve had this job is the one that makes me happiest’ - Trader Joe’s employee.

The TJ’s/WF comparison is only half the story. As part of a recent happiness at work workshop that I ran at a major multinational corporation, I invited attendees to participate in the same survey. Although WF is behind TJ’s on every happiness muscle and measure, WF still scored themselves at least one point higher against every criteria (with the exception of how well connected they feel at work) than the multinational corporation. 

While WF is far from an unhappy place of employment, if we’re going to adopt a model for wellbeing at work, I’d recommend we take a closer look at TJ’s.

Will Jelbert is a happiness consultant and the bestselling author of The Happiness Animal , available on Amazon now. Contact Will w@happinessanimal.com if you’re interested in checking the happiness scores at your workplace. 

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