Trader Joe’s is arguably the most universally beloved grocery store. With friendly employees, low prices, and fun and unique products (looking at you, Everything But the Bagel seasoning), what’s not to like? Heck, it has such a cult following that they launched a podcast. Sure, maybe the crowds can be annoying. And sometimes the new snacks are not that great. It’d also be nice if they had a deli counter to cut up big items.
Turns out, there are solutions to all of those grievances. We chatted with a store manager in the northeast to find out how to make your weekly (okay, daily) TJ’s experience faster, more convenient, and even better. Here are 16 Trader Joe’s shopping list tips that will help you tackle the store like a pro.
1. Go during the middle of the week
This may sound like common sense, but you should avoid weekends at all costs if you’d prefer your shopping experience to be less crowded.
2. The best time to shop is off hours
Try to shop during “off-peak” hours, and avoid after work and lunchtime. Go in the early morning, right after they open, or late in the evening. One Domino editor walks into the Upper West Side store 15 minutes before closing; they close the doors while you’re shopping, so you know a limited number of people will be there.
3. There is no giant stockroom
What you see is what they have. All Trader Joe’s stores get multiple delivery trucks per day, so the stock should be consistent no matter what day you shop. Plus, this means everything is always super fresh—all produce arrives the day before it hits shelves or the day of. “We call it ‘truck to shelf,'” says the manager. “You know that bag of spinach hasn’t been sitting in a box in the back for five days.”
4. You can try anything you want
“Short of grilling up a raw steak, we’ll let you try anything,” says the manager. “We’d rather have you open it in the store than take it home and be disappointed.” So if you’re deciding between the 3 Seed Sweet Potato Crackers and the 3 Seed Beet Crackers, just ask for a taste test and a crew member will open the packages for you.
5. You can return anything, too
And you’ll get your money back. “We’ve had customers return a bag of popcorn with one kernel in it or a bar of chocolate that clearly sat in the sun for six hours.” Sure, the manager admits that there is a tiny percentage of customers who might take advantage of this, but most people are simply happy that it’s an option.
6. They have high standards
Anything that has the TJ’s private label (close to 85 percent of the store) must be free of high fructose corn syrup, GMO ingredients, hydrogenated oils, MSG, and artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. Plus, Trader Joe’s is committed to only offering seafood from sustainable sources, and over the years, they have eliminated products like orange roughy and red snapper because the fishing methods did not meet their standards.
That said, you won’t find a call-out on product packaging: “We don’t pay third-party entities to provide us with a sticker that we can put on our labels to certify our sustainability intent,” TJ’s website notes. “Rather, we hold our vendors and ourselves accountable for the responsible management of farms and wild fisheries, every day.”
7. Don’t sleep on the prepared frozen foods
While most frozen foods have a long list of hard-to-pronounce ingredients and preservatives, you won’t find that at TJ’s because of the private label standards. According to our source, the macaroni and cheese is far and away the best frozen mac and cheese available, while the mandarin chicken is a national bestseller.
During a podcast episode (yes, Trader Joe’s has a podcast), it was revealed that the mandarin chicken was met with unanimous approval by the Tasting Panel when it was created in 2002 by a chef in Southern California, and it’s been the overall favorite in every Customer Choice Awards survey for nearly a decade.
Another can’t-miss freezer section? The frozen desserts. We taste-tested 13 different varieties of frozen cakes, cookies, ice cream, and more to determine the best buys. Deciding on one clear winner was impossible, but check out our top five favorites here (along with what you should skip).
8. Crew members live for the limited edition items
These are the most coveted of products. Last year, they had a super-limited (one case per store) stock of Geisha coffee that sold out almost instantly, and right now, they have a coconut-soy wax grapefruit candle that you should snatch up ASAP.
9. Employees try everything
Crew members want to be able to make recommendations and tell you what something tastes like, so they make a point to taste everything. They also get a confidential bulletin each week from the corporate office that tells them what’s coming so they can prep in advance.
Before any new product makes it to stores, it goes through a rigorous review process courtesy of a formal Tasting Panel that determines what does and doesn’t go on shelves—and while there are some misses (such as a cream of venison soup and a peanut butter replacement called “cottonseed butter”), they generally are really in tune with what the Trader Joe’s customer will like.
10. Dietary restrictions are easy to accommodate
If you’re vegan or gluten-free and unfamiliar with the products, a crew member will walk you around the store and show you every item that you can eat. They also have guides on their website that list every product for those following a vegan, kosher, or gluten-free diet.
Trader Joe’s takes allergens seriously and in addition to adhering to all federal labeling guidelines, they include a “Contains” statement on most labels that provides shoppers with an at-a-glance indicator that shows if any of the top eight allergens—milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy—are present in a product’s ingredients.
11. If you don’t like something, let them know
Trader Joe’s really values customer feedback. “We always say customers vote with their dollars,” says the manager, but you can also give feedback to any crew member in-store and through the website. If a new product doesn’t sell, or an old favorite stops selling, it will be discontinued, so instead of just ditching those cheese puffs because they aren’t cheesy enough, tell your local store how your go-to snack could be improved.
Case in point: TJ’s received feedback that their dish soap wasn’t sudsing up enough, so they reworked the product and just released version 2.0.
12. Crew members want to make you happy
Honestly, they’ll pretty much do anything for you. TJ’s stores do not have produce counters, but they will slice up that butternut squash for you nonetheless (the sample station makes a great makeshift chopping space).
Even something as seemingly insignificant as being able to purchase a single banana for $0.19 comes from Dan Bane, chairman, and CEO of Trader Joe’s, wanting to please an employee: “I was in the [the Sun City location], which was near a retirement complex. A customer comes up and looks at all the packages but didn’t put one in her cart,” Bane explained on the podcast. “I said, ‘Ma’am, if you don’t mind me asking, I saw you looking at the bananas but you didn’t put anything in your cart.’ And she says to me, ‘Sonny, I may not live to that fourth banana.'”
13. You can have your groceries carried to your car
“No one takes advantage of this enough,” says the manager. It’s a service available to anyone, not just the elderly, pregnant, or disabled.
14. All of the produce bags are compostable
They may look like plastic, but they are actually an eco-friendly alternative that can be thrown right into the compost bin.
15. All of the beauty products are name brands
Trader Joe’s orders their products from manufacturers of brands you know and love, but they are notoriously secretive about who the suppliers are (last year, Eater uncovered some of the names behind a handful of snacks). Our nine favorite products range from a Honey Mango Shaving Cream and a Refresh Citrus Body Wash to Pure Jojoba Oil, and they all cost less than $8 a piece.
16. Trader Joe’s doesn’t advertise
Aside from the daily flyer email, and possibly a couple radio spots, you won’t see much marketing for the stores, which lets the company keep prices low.
Get more Trader Joe’s in your life:
The Best Trader Joe’s Products You’ve Never Heard Of
Trader Joe’s Just Released its Best-Seller List—This Product Is a Clear Winner
Trader Joe’s Has a Podcast—Here’s What We Learned
This story was originally published in August 2018, and has since been updated with new information.