Having recently moved from Chicago to Austin, I must say, I miss Trader Joe’s. I’m not complaining—not from the home of Whole Foods and Central Market. (And don’t get me wrong, I love me some Whole Foods and Central Market.)

But there are still days when I miss good old Trader Joe’s. I miss the Hawaiian shirts, the trusty sample stand, the vast selection of cheap wine. But beyond my happy-customer status, I’m also fascinated by their business approach. At South by Southwest this year, I heard Doc Searls speak about a lunch he had with their now retired president, Doug Rouch, in which Rouch explained the company’s philosophy.

Trader Joe’s is known as an incredibly secretive company, but according to Searls, they’re not actually guarded. They simply choose not to participate in the retail social space. Here’s how they roll:

  • No gimmicks
  • No advertising
  • No loyalty
  • No discounts
  • No retail trade shows

Their “marketing” consists of talking to customers. Rouch would go into stores and strike up conversations with shoppers, asking them what they liked and didn’t like, what they wanted. Everything that went on in their stores was influenced by those of us browsing for wine.

The endless channels we have to connect with customers these days—all the touch points, all the push-pull mechanisms we can put into play—can prove as distracting as they are fun and powerful.

In the midst of the noise, let’s not forget the huge advantage we small-business owners have: it’s easy for us to get old school with our customers. To walk up and down the aisles, look into their faces, and ask questions. And most of all, listen.

Written by Libby

Marketing content & strategy for small businesses

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