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Friday, November 26, 2010

Freelance Lessons from Trader Joe's

In honor of Black Friday, which I will spend avoiding every store around, I'd like to share some retail lessons that apply to freelancing as well.

One of my biggest struggles as a freelancer used to be the isolation the nature of the work requires. (Now that I have two young children, that's changed. Today, I relish the chance to work alone!)

But it was my lack of social contact that led me to take a part-time job at Trader Joe's before I became a mom. TJs is a sort of hippie grocery store that sells everything from cheap wine (a/k/a "Two-Buck Chuck") to fresh sushi to soy chips to gluten-free bread. After explaining my love for both human interaction and TJs' meatless meatballs--and passing a math test--I started working 10-15 hours a week, sporting a Hawaiian shirt and a box cutter dangling from my belt. Ten hours/week was just enough to give me some meaningful human encounters without jeopardizing freelancing.

The result? I got the contact I craved, built up my biceps (those wine boxes are heavy!), and also found that many of my on-the-job lessons translated to my freelance career as well:

Just do it. At Trader Joe’s, I arrived, punched in, and got to work. I might be "pulling codes" (sorting outdated products), stocking canned soup, or breaking down pallets. I might be working the register or working in the frozen foods section. But I never questioned whether I’d be working. I tackled the task given to me, finished it, and moved on to the next one. (Freelancing lesson: don’t bitch and moan. Just do your work.)

Be nice. Trader Joe’s is all about the unique products it sells—and the people who work there. As employees, we were expected to be friendly and approachable. Within a few weeks, I found I could start a conversation with any customer, any time—and people almost always responded positively. (Freelancing lesson: clients like it when you’re nice.)

Anticipate your customers’ needs. At Trader Joe’s, if you’re wandering around open-mouthed, scanning the shelves, an employee will ask if he or she can help you find something. (We're supposed to--it's in the employee manual.) In other words, you shouldn't have to track one of us down—we should be watching for you. (Freelancing lesson: figure out what your client wants even before he or she does.)

Entice your customers. Trader Joe’s has fulltime sign makers on staff to create eye-catching displays and decide which products should be displayed together. Put blue corn chips and black bean and corn salsa on the same shelf, and you sell more of both. (Freelancing lesson: offer your client packages--say, a story and a sidebar, or an idea for a regular newsletter--and you’ll get more work.)

Know your stuff. One of my favorite parts of working at Trader Joe's was recommending specific products to customers. I "hand-sold" everything from peanut butter dog biscuits to yogurt-honey-peanut Balance Bars to low-fat soy chips. Being familiar with our products made me better equipped to sell them. (Freelancing lesson: make sure you can explain the benefits to your clients of hiring you.)

I may have only been making peanuts (and 10% off my groceries), but I loved working at Trader Joe’s. It wasn't until my manager kept overscheduling me (first 20 hours/week, then 25, then 30--that I had to pull the plug.)

My Trader Joe's stint taught me a lot about freelancing. It also reminded me of how fortunate I am to have a career that I’m in charge of (not my bitchy manager), working the hours I want, in my pajamas--and with no need for a box cutter. That may have been the best freelancing lesson of all.


  1. Fun post, Kelly, with a lot of great lessons!

    P.S. I'm avoiding the stores today, too, and I'm STILL in my pajamas. Don't tell...

  2. A cute, clever and well written blog post, Kelly. I really enjoy reading your blog and find it helpful!

    Nancy Strunk Kirby

  3. You must have been a part time crew member at TJ's about 6 or more years ago, if they gave you a "Hawaiian" shirt to wear. Since some time in 2004 only full time supervisors get the Hawaiian shirts - part timers, like you, and me, have had to wear cheap TJ's t-shirts since then.

    Working there is good training for customer service, though TJ's does let customers treat us like doormats.

  4. Kelly, What an encouragement to get out from behind our laptops and into the real world where the stories are. When I grow weary of canning the umpteenth round of tomatoes or nursing another sick goat I remind myself that if I didn't live this life I wouldn't have the material for my stories.