We’ve watched as places like Walmart, Papa John’s, Target, Applebee’s and other businesses continue to pay sub-par wages while claiming their only option for profit, given the economy and their being “forced” to provide employees with insurance, is to either cut employees’ hours and/or their wages. This miserly strategy is justified and implemented despite the fact that research shows that raising wages would actually “benefit workers, the industry and the overall economy.”
Yet in the midst of Scroogian thinking, a handful of smarter businesses have stepped to the forefront to reject this “austerity” model for a different philosophy right in line with research: pay a good living wage, offer benefits and maximize one of your most important “assets”: your valued workforce. Top on that list of smart retailers is Costco; Tulsa-based convenience chain, QuikTrip, and consumer favorite, Trader Joe’s.
Trader Joe’s is particularly notable as a store that inspires an almost cult-like appreciation from its customers. Founded by its namesake, Joe Coulombe, the precursor of Trader Joe’s was a convenience store launched in Los Angeles in 1958 with the rather unimaginative name, Pronto Market. Deciding it wouldn’t be in his best interest to attempt to compete with the ubiquitous marketplace leader, 7-Eleven, Coulombe ultimately decided to specialize; rumor has it he got the idea of a “South Seas motif” while on a trip to the Caribbean, where he noticed American travelers enjoying and bringing back to the States unique items with an island flair. He opened his first official “Trader Joe’s” in Pasadena in 1967 (the original store is still there!) and it was an immediate hit; a 2008 Business Week article made the point that Trader Joe’s “sells twice as much per square foot than other supermarkets.”
Given its profitability, one might assume that, like Walmart and Target, it was operating under the strategy of categorizing employees as a “business cost” that needs to be minimized and kept under tight control. One would be wrong. From The Atlantic:
Many employers believe that one of the best ways to raise their profit margin is to cut labor costs. But companies like QuikTrip, the grocery-store chain Trader Joe’s, and Costco Wholesale are proving that the decision to offer low wages is a choice, not an economic necessity. All three are low-cost retailers, a sector that is traditionally known for relying on part-time, low-paid employees. Yet these companies have all found that the act of valuing workers can pay off in the form of increased sales and productivity. [Emphasis added.]
QuikTrip, Trader Joe’s, and Costco operate on a different model, Ton says. “They start with the mentality of seeing employees as assets to be maximized,” she says. As a result, their stores boast better operational efficiency and customer service, and those result in better sales. [… ]
The approach seems like common sense. Keeping shelves stocked and helping customers find merchandise are key to maximizing sales, and it takes human judgment and people skills to execute those tasks effectively. To see what happens when workers are devalued, look no further than Borders or Circuit City. Both big-box retailers saw sales plummet after staff cutbacks, and both ultimately went bankrupt.
There is also the issue of consumer perception. Places like Walmart and Papa John’s, one a retailer, the other a food service provider, both suffered and continue to take negative PR hits for paying low wages, “nickel-and-diming” employees on the issue of insurance benefits, and appearing to place the burden of economic change and demand on the backs of their workforce, all the more galling when company CEO’s are making multimillion dollar profits. Consumer good-will and the general perception of a business tend to take a beating when those at the helm come off as greedy, unethical, and denigrating of their workforce.
Trader Joe’s, Costco and Quik Trip, on the other hard, have engendered loyalty and expanded their public good will with positive, worker-protective strategies that exhibit the importance they place on their most valued asset: the people working for and with them, whose skills and hard work are essential to a healthy bottom-line. And that is, after all, the goal of any smart company.