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A Tale of Two Cashiers


There are few jobs as standardized as a grocery store cashier. I imagine a cashier from a grocery chain in Alabama could move to a different chain in Alberta and be up-to-speed in minutes. Yet, when I was in New York, going from a Chelsea grocery store on 9th Avenue to another store three blocks over on 6th the jobs seemed remarkably different. That difference says a lot about the power of workforce management.

The cashiers in the grocery store on 9th were just your usual low-wage workers. They did their job, were polite, and there was nothing you would complain about. Over on 6th, the cashiers did the same job but there was a certain buzz about them. They were fun. They looked you in the eye. You wished they were your friend. Maybe it’s best summed up by saying, they had a lot of personality. Now, where did that personality come from?

Many Americans will have guessed correctly that the store on 6th was a Trader Joe’s (don’t worry we’ll give you a point if you guessed Whole Foods). MIT professor Zeynep Ton wrote about Trader Joe’s in The Good Jobs Strategy. She describes a coherent set of operational and HR policies that aimed for efficient operations and well-treated staff. It’s an approach any CFO would love because of its impact on financial success. However, what the customers and employees love is the human impact that comes from valuing one’s employees.

Professor Ton’s model includes operational details such as limiting the number of different items carried. Those sorts of details are important to the overall approach, however, for the human element of those cashiers, I think we can zoom in on one factor. The management at Trader Joe's must believe the cashiers are important. This belief in their importance no doubt affects how carefully they are hired, how they are treated day-to-day, and maybe most importantly, how they see themselves.

Could another store find cashiers with personality? Of course, it’s hard to avoid. The issue is whether that personality is nurtured or smothered by management. Managers should recognize that a management system can have a massive impact on even the most routine job. When you go to Trader Joe's, don’t study the merchandise, study the cashiers and ponder how they got to be the way they are.

If you have thoughts about Trader Joe’s, especially if you’ve worked there, then I’d love to hear your comments.

A note of thanks to Mark Wales who gave input on this column.


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