I count it as one of the great blessings in my life that I live right down the street from a Trader Joe’s. I love the quirky store’s combination of healthy and organic foods at reasonable prices, its unique global fare, and the plethora of convenience foods that help with the daily grind of figuring out what to feed my family for dinner. Over the past seven years that I’ve lived in my neighborhood, I have also become familiar with a good number of the “crewmembers” who work there, and I have never encountered anyone who seems less than thrilled to be working there.

And now I understand why, after reading The Atlantic’s recent piece titled, “The Trader Joe’s Lesson: How to Pay a Living Wage and Still Make Money in Retail.” Trader Joe’s doesn’t just know retail; it also knows how to take care of its own.

You would think more companies would be able to grasp the wisdom of this strategy, that paying your employees well and treating them as a valuble source of competitive advantage can actually help rather than hinder the bottom line. But for many companies, especially those that see themselves as low-cost providers, the flawed thinking goes that to save money in order to offer those discount prices, you have to offer low wages and benefits and expect high turnover. (Case in point: Wal-Mart.)

But this is not just an issue for companies such as Wal-Mart. Christian companies often fall into a similar mindset as they try to balance ministry goals, economic challenges, and an aversion to wastefulness or excess in their spending. What they may not realize is that by treating their human resources as an expenditure and not an asset in which to invest, they are missing a huge opportunity.

According to Fortune, Trader Joe’s takes the following approach with its employees:

Store managers… can make in the low six figures, and full-time crew members can start in the $40,000 to $60,000 range. But on top of the pay, Trader Joe’s annually contributes 15.4% of employees’ gross income to tax-deferred retirement accounts.

In contrast, I have seen many friends over the years leave their positions in Christian companies or organizations because they just cannot make ends meet with their salaries. These companies are likely thinking that they can save money by paying employees less, but the cost to replace and retrain a new employee can be much more than the cost of giving the existing employee a fair, even generous wage.

Instead of thinking about employee wages from the perspective of “what can we afford?”, Carrie Cavanaugh of the Best Christian Workplaces Institute encourages organizations to view these issues through the lens of justice. What does the employee deserve? What are his or her comparable secular counterparts making? Cavanaugh writes:

[T]he way you pay is a reflection on your valuing of the person you employ. As Christians, we know that everyone is made in the image of God. Shouldn’t Christian organizations, more than any others, pay fairly?! Shouldn’t they set the example as places where employees are treated well?!

As much as I love my local Trader Joe’s, and as much as I appreciate that they clearly value their crew members, a part of me wishes I could see Christian organizations making the news for their extraordinary people practices and for being the trendsetters in this area. As Cavanaugh asks, shouldn’t Christian companies set the example as places where employees are treated well? I believe so, absolutely.

Trader Joe’s has demonstrated a basic understanding of business that seems counter-intuitive but that echoes what researchers Jim Collins and Jerry Porras discovered about visionary companies in their business bestseller Built to Last: “Profitability is a necessary condition for existence and a means to more important ends, but it is not the end in itself for many of the visionary companies.” In other words, money is important, but people are even more so. If this is not a value deeply embedded into the DNA of a Christian company, then perhaps it needs to further examine why they are in business to begin with.

Image via Anthony92931.


  1. Very good article.

    Sadly, the Christian companies that are most talked about publicly are more known for their political views, overt Christian beliefs, or allegiance to uncompromised capitalism than for any noble, against-the-grain business practices like fair wages and treatment of employees.

    I can only imagine how remarkable their Christian witness would be if they significantly changed their tune.

    I’m sure there are some that the news doesn’t cover, but I’d imagine they’d still be honored in their local community, one way or the other.

  2. Excellent piece, thank you. I keep it simple for myself: “the bottom line” thinking is worldliness and that is to be at enmity with God. Even in our thoughts….

  3. What would really make an impact is if Christians loved their neighbor enough to purchase from businesses that pay their workers fair wages and sell items that also are provided by a chain of workers who are paid fairly. While the cost may be higher, we owe it to our neighbors to love them as we love ourselves. That is, we are not to gain at their expense. If everyone who claims to be Christian had such a mindset, Walmart and lots of other businesses that answer to their customers would find it in their best interest to operate thus. I’m grateful that there is growing recognition of this long-overlooked aspect of the Christian faith. Together, we can change the world.

  4. As a crew member at Trader Joe’s, and a Christian, I would like to add a few more observations. When you apply for a job, there is only one available position: crew. We all do everything. Even the store captain is down on the floor stocking the bottom shelves, helping to bag groceries and emptying the wastebaskets. There never is a sense of “That’s not my job.” You’ll never hear “Maintenance to aisle 3” in a Trader Joe’s anywhere. As far as I know, there is no office space in any of the stores. There is little hierarchy other than what you choose to add to your list of skills and responsibilities over time.

    And the first thing you see and smell when you walk into any of our stores is what? Color! Flowers!

    And we are encouraged to watch for opportunities for not-so-random acts of kindness. When a mom walks into the store struggling to put groceries in the cart with one hand while trying to corral three free-range boys with the other, it is very common our entire store to come to her side. Our resident Irish native with a strong leprechaun accent offers to entertain the children. Our helmsperson-for-that-hour offers to be her personal shopper. And the checkout person runs over to gift her some flowers on the way out to her car — and to keep her youngest from bolting into the wine room while she runs to keep her other ones from running into the parking lot without looking both ways first.

    Isn’t that some of what being like Christ is all about? Crazy, sacrificial love for those in a world in dire need of it?

    I wish y’all could stay for the party after closing when we crank up the music and dance around the store restocking the shelves for an hour so it all looks neat and clean for everyone in the morning … because then you’d know the secret to why we are all smiling.

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