Trader Joe's Kills Fun

"Kate The Hat Lady" from the Trader Joe's on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago gets told that her decade long tradition of wearing wacky, fun and often bust out laughing hats has to stop.

Does the traffic in the store seem to instantly dip? Or is that just me?

From long ago, I remember the proper leather chairs around the polished teak table in a London conference room tucked quietly inside and away from the crowds of the flagship store of one of Britain's oldest retailers. Armed with power point slides, charts and complex data, trends, models and words like "synergy," I was the junior member of the name consulting team ready to explain to the client executive team just why sales were in a free fall and how we could help them, with our data and "action planning" and training packages, turn the bad trends into good trends.

I powered up the slides, the room went dark, the senior consultant cleared his throat, paused for a moment and then did one of the most impressive things I'd ever seen in a business meeting. He stood up and said, "I've got reams of data on the problem here. Perhaps more than you even want to know. And we can of course go through it all in detail. But I can sum it all up for you in one line. And here it is:

Your stores just aren't fun anymore.

The line came back today as I stood in the normally fastest moving checkout line in the store, now slowed because everyone was asking Kate, "What happened?"

Always the professional, Kate gave no details, only saying, "I was told to stop wearing the hats." So of course what happened in the small crowd that gathered was what always happens when there was no information. People fill in the blanks themselves. "So I guess the hippy dippy pirate outfits are gonna go next, huh?" a customer muttered. "Can we write someone a complaint letter?" someone asked. I watched the faces of crew members walking by and they showed their disappointment without words. Kate "The Hat Lady" had stop a decade long tradition and stop wearing the hats.

Retail demands consistency. Uniforms are a necessary part of the industry. But as we consultants told the British executive team in that presentation all those years ago, the retail stars are the ones that manage to blend consistency with individuality. With a personal experience. Even if it just lasts a second. Make it personal. Like Kate does,

Which is a whole lot harder than it sounds. Especially when the job is to do it every day. Day in and day out.

If you can be actually funny when you do it? Then you are golden. And Trader Joe's, to give one example, actually has a product called "This Apple Walks Into A Bar." I laugh to myself every time I buy it. And I buy it every time I shop. So they do know funny. Somewhere.

Retail is a business of razor thin margins. So the Trader Joe's buyers have to be extremely good at what they do. That can be frustrating as a wonderful new product comes into the store and then, without warning, disappears. But the reason for that disappointment is clear and understandable. I once fell in love with a certain kind of olives that one day disappeared. Reason being? Trader Joe's had bought the entire crop and had to wait a growing season for the next crop.

So I waited. I understood.

Kate's hat ban? That I don't understand. That's not a business decision. Someone made a personal decision. I am all but certain she pays for the hats herself. Put any price you want on customer and crew goodwill--as every good retailer does--and you find that quieting the Hat Lady costs the store. Takes a bite out of that tiny margin.

Kate's hat ban was a personal decision. Made by someone who wasn't in that long ago boardroom when we told the executive team that their stores just weren't fun.

Is it a big deal? Telling the Hat Lady that consistency and individuality could no longer be mixed? You decide.

But as you make your decision, remember that every time you kill off even the tiniest piece of fun in a retail operation, you also kill off the potential for sales.

And if you have any connection at all with the retailer--customer, manager, crew, executive--is killing sales something you ever want to do?

Or is the good business decision the one where you say. "Go ahead Kate the Hat Lady! Put your hat back on!"