How Trader Joe's Bell Ringing Tradition Was Started

As you wait in the checkout line at Trader Joe's, you'll probably have some time to admire the contents of your cart — like bags of zesty Mandarin Orange Chicken and fan favorite, the spinach artichoke dip – but not too much time. Your ears perk up to the ringing of a bell and suddenly the line begins moving. Before long, a friendly cashier (called a crew member, to fit with the maritime theme) is checking you out, and you're on your way.

Every Trader Joe's cashier station is equipped with a golden bell near the exit, but what exactly does clanging it signify? As it turns out, the bell originated as a way for crew members to signal to one another and make your shopping trip a bit smoother. Knowing the secret code behind these bell rings adds to the fun of your shopping experience and will make you feel like part of the insider crew the next time you hear them chime.

The bell origin story

Legend has it that the bell-ringing tradition dates back to 1975 when one Trader Joe's crew member playfully signaled to their coworker using a bell. While it's difficult to pin down how this practice evolved from a fun crew member moment into a company policy, it's easy to see why it stuck. This quirky practice embodies the chain's ethos — creating a welcoming, folksy neighborhood grocery store vibe with a bit of kitsch thrown in. From rejecting self-checkout stations and swearing off online orders in favor of ultra-friendly employee interactions, the Trader Joe's brand is all about questioning the status quo.

To top things off, the bell tradition adds to the store's nautical theme. Historically, ships carrying merchants and navies have used bells to send signals, such as warning other ships about dangerous conditions, keeping time, and announcing the arrival of an officer. In keeping with the theme, Trader Joe's refers to crew members and captains (aka managers) as "traders on the culinary seas," and ensures that they all are decked out in bold Hawaiian shirts or colorful t-shirts to liven up the place.

Trader Joe's notes that noisy PA systems didn't quite suit its stores, so the bell system was put in place as a more straightforward, playful, and team-oriented option. Instead of individual names being called over an intercom, crew members are encouraged to respond as a team and go where they are needed most.

Cracking the bell code

Trader Joe's notes its bell system is like the store's own special version of Morse code. A single ding from a cashier means that more cashiers are needed at checkout, which is common to hear during busy shopping times when lines are long. Two dings mean that a cashier needs assistance from another crew member, like when an item needs to be quickly grabbed for a customer. Three dings is a call for a captain's assistance, which can happen in trickier scenarios like when a credit card isn't processing properly.

Although the Trader Joe's website doesn't list it, an unofficial fourth ring has been reported by employees and is reserved for an all-hands-on-deck situation where every crew member is needed at the registers. It's a rudimentary system, but an effective one. So the next time you're shopping at Trader Joe's, listen closely for the bell code and smile, knowing that you're in on the secret.