The surprising secret meaning behind the Trader Joe's checkout bells

You know those large bells by the registers at Trader Joe's? They're not just decorations — they actually serve a very specific purpose: to help employees communicate vital information to one another. 

The bells offer a shorthand for those who know the code. They offer a way for employees to get across the information that they need to without making loud, distracting announcements over the PA system. Instead, just by the number of times they ring the bell, employees can let others know what they need. 

"The bells are a kind of Trader Joe's Morse code," explains the Trader Joe's FAQ. "One bell lets our Crew know when to open another register. Two bells mean there are additional questions that need to be answered at the checkout. Three bells call over a manager-type person. And Three short bells–two long bells–three short bells... now we're just playing."

Okay, but why bells?

The first TJ's had a nautical theme. "It was run by people who were described as 'traders on the high seas,'" the site tells us. According to the U.S. Navy's Naval History and Heritage Command, bells on ships have been used for centuries — since at least 1485 — to tell time, to signal, to sound alarms, and for ceremonial purposes. Mariners would signal the passage of time by ringing the bell once for each half hour that had passed during their four hour watch shift — so they'd ring it once after the first half hour, twice after the first hour, and so on. Ships' bells could also warn other boats of harsh weather conditions, explains NHHC, alert crew members if there was a fire, and let everyone know if someone important was coming or going. 

It may seem like a surprising way for employees to communicate with one another, but at least they're not holding up maritime signal flags!