Why is Trader Joe’s hiding stuffed animals in its stores?

Photo: Twitter/@lena_berg7
Nov 11, 2019
Tom Ryan

Last week, People magazine profiled Trader Joe’s practice of hiding stuffed animals in most of its stores for kids to find and earn prizes.

The story came after an anonymous Trader Joe’s manager on an “Ask Me Anything” Reddit thread revealed that each store has a stuffed animal “hiding somewhere.” The manager elaborated, “It’s really just for kids to run around and find the missing animal, and they get a treat. Kids seem to LOVE it and parents go along with it, too.”

Social media threads show the practice has been going on for over a decade. The stuffed animals have included penguins, whales, monkeys and donkeys. Each is identified with a Trader Joe’s “crew member” name tag.

Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, which is part of Meijer, similarly hides a red tractor in its store that kids are encouraged to find for a treat.

News of the programs comes as several retailers have discontinued in-store childcare services and kids’ play areas in part because parents are looking for ways to use the shopping experience to teach their kids about nutrition, different foods or other lessons, such as colors.

Other ways stores are trying to keep children engaged during the shopping experience include: 

  • Miniature shopping carts:  A number of grocers offer kids-sized shopping carts, although Target pulled hundreds of them in 2006 after kids misbehaved. Ride-on toy cars attached to grocery carts can be found in some stores.
  • Kid’s membership programs: At Giant Eagle and Market District, a Little Shopper Treat Card membership program lets kids under 10-years-old choose a free cookie from the bakery, a fresh piece of fruit or cheese from the deli on each visit.
  • Freebies: Parenting sites tout the allure of free sampling stations offered by Costco and others to keep their kids attentive.
  • Kids’ cooking classes: Whole Foods and Wegmans offer cooking classes aimed at parents with kids.
  • Rides: Mechanical rides just outside the entrance are still often used as a tradeoff to encourage kids to behave while shopping. A famous one is Meijer’s pony mascot, Sandy, that still only costs a penny.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you think of Trader Joe’s covert stuffed animal, hide-and-seek game? What are some practical ways stores can help entertain or engage kids during their shopping trip?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Providing a unique experience in the store with 'analog' programs like this can be just as impactful as fully digital experiences."
"The only concern I have about hide and seek is losing my child in the store. Anyone who has turned around and lost their kid knows the panic that ensues."
"I believe Trader Joe’s understands the “theater” of shopping. If you engage the kids you secure the parents’ loyalty."

Join the Discussion!

22 Comments on "Why is Trader Joe’s hiding stuffed animals in its stores?"

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Rob Gallo

Trader Joe’s has been doing this for years. My kids always loved it and it made them more excited to go to TJ’s versus Kroger, Giant Eagle and other competitors. It fits with the brand and, therefore, comes across as genuine. “Unpromoted” engagement efforts like this help foster loyalty.

Steve Montgomery

This reminds me of the secret menus that some QSRs have. It may have an impact on those that know it exists but will have no impact on those that don’t. The real question is, does this impact the shopping experience? Again, for those in the know maybe but for the rest no.

Richard Hernandez

For those that know, it helps keep kids from being bored and disruptive. It is a great idea as long as someone is always on top of it. Definitely might help in extending the shopping time…

Kevin Graff

Love it … and it’s way less creepy than the Elf on a Shelf! This is just a great example of how simple it can be at times to create an amazing customer experience. Kids clubs, treats, activities … make it fun for the kids. Parents will stay longer in your store, and reward you along the way.

Joan Treistman

I agree that this game only works if you know it exists. But for those who do, it offers a purpose when the kids are in Trader Joe’s and potentially prevents unwanted boredom. And importantly it becomes a reason for kids to be agreeable rather than object when a parent says “we’re going to Trader Joe’s.”

David Weinand

As one of the least digitally mature grocers on the planet, programs like this prove that not everything has to be digital. Providing a unique experience in the store with “analog” programs like this can be just as impactful as fully digital experiences.

Georganne Bender

It’s the experience, stupid.

Seriously, Rich and I have a slogan for keeping kids happy while shopping, and keeping mom and dad coming back: “Love me, love my kids.”

We recommend everything from Mommy and Me classes to kid focused in-store events like Parking Lot Olympics, Kid’s Store Tours, Make an Ornament – we literally have run and collected hundreds. Our Kid’s Cookie Credit Card gets a child a pre-wrapped cookie or box of animal crackers when they flash their card. Where do you think a kid wants to shop? Trader Joe’s hiding stuffed animals is brilliant in its simplicity; it makes it easier for mom and dad to shop, and that’s the point.

Brian Cluster

It’s a genius practice of Trader Joe’s to have kids find the stuffed animals. My daughters of 6, 13 and 17 love this practice of Trader Joe’s and I love watching my older ones help my younger one. The hide and seek practice ties closely to their brand and goal of “dedication to the highest quality of customer satisfaction delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, fun, individual pride, and company spirit.”

There are plenty of things that stores can do to help kids stay engaged during the shopping trip. Here are a few:

  1. Seasonal coloring/crafts;
  2. Teachable cooking moments — making cookies, brownies, etc.;
  3. Healthy eating events for kids.
Jeff Weidauer

This is a clever idea, but would be more effective if Trader Joe’s made it known, or even used it more promotionally. Bringing kids along for the shopping trip has always been a challenge for shoppers. Stores created “no candy” checkout lanes, but few – if any – stores really make an effort to assist parents in keeping kids engaged during the shopping trip. Creating a more engaging, or even educational, environment feels like a massive opportunity to get more shoppers in, and keep them there longer. But you have to let people know.

Lisa Goller

Trader Joe’s proves it understands the needs of young families. At a minimum, grocery shopping is a weekly necessity. Adding stuffed animals makes in-store shopping more fun, reducing the risk of tantrums among kids (or their parents).

Ken Morris

I believe Trader Joe’s understands the “theater” of shopping. If you engage the kids you secure the parents’ loyalty. I love their idea of hide and seek and also love Whole Foods cooking classes that teach children healthy choice dining and snack habits.

Lowe’s offers woodworking classes for children with free kits for things like birdhouses. It doesn’t just stop with young children as Meijer, the Michigan based superstore retailer, understands with their Back to College Meijer Mania event where they offer students bus transportation from campuses to their local Meijer store for a night of back-to-school shopping and celebrations, including a DJ, photo booth and interactive games and contests.

These retailers understand the lifetime value of engaging their customers at an early age so they will win a customer for life. These are all creative ways to entice people to shop in-store instead of online.

Ed Rosenbaum

I can’t imagine kids enjoying having to go to a grocery store with a parent just because they are too young to stay alone at home. But now they can go and actually enjoy the experience at Trader Joe’s. Good for TJ’s for thinking outside the box and making the shopping experience good for the children. And by the way, this allows the parent to shop without the pressure of the child nagging them to go home. Which lets the parent spend time looking and WOW, spend more money. What an ah-ha moment.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

A terrific way to get the children involved in the grocery shopping experience. Plus, it adds a dimension of fun to an otherwise boring shopping outing. The key is to engage today’s children who will become tomorrow’s Trader Joe’s shoppers. Great example of a low cost, high return (present and future) tactic.

Ricardo Belmar

Trader Joe’s shows us that not all successful, engaging in-store experiences need to be digital! Bravo! Engaging any shopper at a grocery store can be challenging enough to make it a great experience, certainly more so for kids. Cooking classes for kids and parents can certainly create a fun activity for the family while also endearing the brand and generating loyalty, but those are planned and won’t impact the actual shopping experience. Hiding kid-friendly elements around the store, offering tastings, providing free fruit – these are all great ideas that can make grocery shopping with kids more enjoyable and memorable. As a parent myself, all of these are much appreciated at the stores we frequent.

Liz Crawford

Kids’ games engage children and their parents. Stew Leonard’s does a superb job with their animated singing characters and live petting zoo.
The only concern I have about hide and seek is losing my child in the store. Anyone who has turned around and lost their kid knows the panic that ensues.

Jeff Sward

How about that — experiential retail at the simplest possible level. AI not necessary. VR not necessary. New app not necessary. New digital/tech anything not necessary. Clever and thoughtful wins the day. Treasure hunt wins the day.

Phil Rubin
2 months 12 days ago

People need reasons to visit stores and as Georganne aptly says below, “it’s the experience…”! Trader Joe’s is what it is and they trade – pun intended – at least in part on the nuances of the experience as well as the signature goods they sell. As people wear out on all things Amazon, Trader Joe’s is incredibly well positioned to pick up those willing to defect, especially as Amazon degrades the shopping experience at Whole Foods (which I think it is doing).

Ralph Jacobson

Differentiation. This is just one more example of why TJ’s is one of the very best grocers. Period.

Kathleen Fischer

What a great and simple way to offer kids an activity while they are shopping in the store with their parents. Parents know the challenges of trying to check off items on a shopping list with small kids in tow! Kids don’t generally want to go grocery shopping. But the challenge of finding a stuffed animal (or getting free samples at Costco, or getting a free treat at Giant Eagle) offers kids a reason to want to go. This is a great example of providing “experiences” within the store environment to encourage shopping.

Shep Hyken

When mom or dad takes the kids with them on a day of errands – that includes grocery shopping – don’t think the kids are just along for the ride. They have influence. That influence is based on their past experiences. They can be swayed by hidden stuffed-animals, free cookies, miniature shopping carts and more. Engage the economic buyers as well as the influential buyers (the kids).

Patricia Vekich Waldron

I think this is another example of how TJs makes the shopping experience enjoyable. Only caveat for engaging kids is to keep in mind the experience of other (non-kid) shoppers!

Casey Golden
2 months 11 days ago

I think it’s a bit ridiculous, but if it’s working, a great reminder that grocery is not my expertise. I remember running into the grocery store as a child and headed straight to the bakery to watch the cake decorator while my parents shopped, and to snag my free cookie. It kept me entertained the entire shopping trip and my parents knew where to find me. I like the idea of cooking classes and would not be opposed to a reading area. I think every business needs to not just think of pure entertainment, but long-term strategy and higher-impact value. Hide-and-seek gets old. Consistency can create loyalty and experience expectations.

Cooking classes, reading areas, cake decorating, and more activities to bring families together and kids from making grocery trips a chore.

"Providing a unique experience in the store with 'analog' programs like this can be just as impactful as fully digital experiences."
"The only concern I have about hide and seek is losing my child in the store. Anyone who has turned around and lost their kid knows the panic that ensues."
"I believe Trader Joe’s understands the “theater” of shopping. If you engage the kids you secure the parents’ loyalty."

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