This Is How Trader Joe's Gets You to Spend More Money, According to a Psychologist
Trader Joe’s earns devotion from its customers like no other grocery store. But it’s not just because the frozen turkey meatballs are astoundingly good (though they are), because the cheese section is startlingly cheap (though it is), or because they legitimately don’t mind if you take three free samples (though they don’t). There are more subtle things at play.
Business Insider spoke to a psychologist about exactly what Trader Joe’s does that sets it apart, and it’s not always what you’d expect.
Ever notice that the frozen section—which is large compared to most grocery stores, as Trader Joe’s emphasizes premade food—is open, rather than the more standard section? Barry Schwartz, a psychologist who studies decision-making, told Business Insider that the open freezer is no accident. The doors in a typical frozen section inhibit browsing; it can be hard to see what’s actually in the freezer, and by choosing to open the door, you’re effectively committing to a decision. People in other grocery stores don’t tend to browse much in the frozen section, instead just grabbing what they already know. The Trader Joe’s open design makes it easier to browse—and be enticed.
Trader Joe’s also doesn’t have much of a selection, compared to supermarkets. Trader Joe’s stores are substantially smaller than most supermarkets, and the selection is smaller in turn. The average supermarket has, as of 2016, about 38,900 individual items. Trader Joe’s? About 4,000.
Instead of dozens of olive oils, there might be five. Instead of over a hundred different boxes of cereal, there might be eight in a Trader Joe’s. But the limited selection doesn’t hurt; instead, without a paralyzing variety of choice, it’s easier for customers to simply grab what looks good.
Ever notice that Trader Joe’s parking lots seem small? They often are, and that can be annoying, but it might actually help the company. Parking lots are expensive to build, but they also take up a lot of room. By minimizing parking lots, Trader Joe’s not only saves money, but is able to exist in places where supermarkets might assume they can’t—like tight urban or suburban spaces. That means that Trader Joe’s gets plum locations that are ignored by supermarkets, and also allows the company to keep its prices low—and low prices are a major reason people love the store in the first place.
The next time you take your time through the frozen section, or grumble about parking, just think—it’s all part of the process. The process of getting your money. But that’s fine with us.