Elly Leavitt

Published on October 20, 2019

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Photography by Aaron Bengochea

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? It even has such a cult following that it launched a podcast. Sure, maybe the crowds can be annoying. And it has a tendency to discontinue beloved products. It would also be nice if it 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 the Trader Joe’s shopping tips that will help you tackle the store like a pro.

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.

The best time to shop is off-hours

Try to shop during off-peak hours, and avoid stopping in after work and lunchtime. Go in the early morning, right after it opens, or late in the evening. One Domino editor walks into the Upper West Side store 15 minutes before closing; the doors close while you’re shopping, so you know a limited number of people will be there.

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.

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,” says the manager. Sure, there is a tiny percentage of customers who might take advantage of this, but most people are simply happy that it’s an option.

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Photography by Aaron Bengochea

It has high standards

Consider this a bit of shopping stress relief: You can rest assured that the products really are the best in the biz. 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—so much so that the managers have eliminated products like orange roughy and red snapper because the fishing methods did not meet their standards.

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 aforementioned 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 best-seller.

Crew members live for the limited-edition items—so be sure to snap them up

These are the most coveted of products. Last year, there was a super-limited (one case per store) stock of Geisha coffee that sold out almost instantly, and right now, it has a coconut-soy wax grapefruit candle that you should snap up ASAP.

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”), the panel generally is in tune with what Trader Joe’s customers will like.

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. There are also guides on the website that list every product for those following a vegan, kosher, or gluten-free diet.

Trader Joe’s takes allergens seriously. In addition to adhering to all federal labeling guidelines, it includes a “Contains” statement on most labels 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. Moral of the story? Always check the label, and if you’re not sure, ask.

If you don’t like something, let crew members 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 its dish soap wasn’t sudsing up enough, so it reworked the product and just released version 2.0.

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Photography by Aaron Bengochea

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).

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.

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. Oh, and as for the regular bags? Try and bring your own. Some locations offer a bag raffle for customers who use their own totes—the prize is a TJ’s gift card.

All of the beauty products are name brands

Trader Joe’s orders its products from manufacturers of brands you know and love, but it is 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 apiece.

See more Trader Joe’s news:
The 5 Products Trader Joe’s Employees Always Buy for Themselves
Calling It: This Brand-New Trader Joe’s Product Is About to Become a Cult Fave
Trader Joe’s Just Released its Best-Seller List—This Product Is a Clear Winner

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