Everything You Need to Know Before Shopping at Trader Joe’s for the First Time

updated Apr 30, 2019
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Design: The Kitchn)

Trader Joe’s is the Wonka’s Chocolate Factory of grocery stores — except, instead of Everlasting Gobstoppers and Wonka Bars, they’ve got Frozen Mandarin Orange Chicken and Cauliflower Gnocchi. The grocery chain is shrouded in mystery, and to make matters even more secretive, their corporate headquarters are pretty tight-lipped.

To get around this, I’ve decided to become an insider by keeping close tabs and shopping there on more than a once-a-week basis. This is everything you need to know before you go to a Trader Joe’s for the first — or even the 500th — time.

(Image credit: ablokhin/Getty Images)

1. Trader Joe’s doesn’t have sales or accept coupons.

According to the grocer, “Sale is a four-letter word to us. We have low prices every day. NO coupons. NO membership cards. NO glitzy promotions or couponing wars at our stores.” Enough said.

(Image credit: Dana McMahan)

2. A majority of their products are private label.

You won’t find Oreos here — they’re called Joe-Joe’s. Looking for Ritz Bits? You’ll find Organic Mini Cheese Sandwich Crackers instead. Their version of Swedish Fish? Scandinavian Swimmers. Don’t even think about asking for Doritos. They’re called Nacho Cheese Tortilla Chips. It’s part of TJ’s commitment to sourcing unconventional and interesting private-label products in addition to everyday basics.

(Image credit: Cassiohabib)

3. Their frozen aisle is unmatched.

There’s a psychological explanation for why people are drawn to TJ’s renowned freezer aisle, and it has to do with the way it’s designed! Because the freezers don’t have doors (fun fact: they’re called “coffin cases”), shoppers are more likely to pick up items and put them in their carts. (No physical barriers!) Not to mention, their Mandarin Orange Chicken lives in the frozen aisle — and it’s been voted fan-favorite all-around item for three years running.

(Image credit: Lauren Masur)

4. Every price tag is designed by hand.

Trader Joe’s hires local artists to design their signs and price tags, so if they look like they’re hand-written, it’s because they are! Another part of their brand philosophy is that each shelf sign includes three components: product name, price, and a fun fact.

5. Some stores have a fun raffle.

If you spend more than $25 on groceries at TJ’s and bring your own reusable bag(s), you’ll be entered to win a weekly lottery for a $25 TJ’s gift card. It’s not well-advertised and not all stores participate, though, so you’ll have to ask your local store for details. Regardless, bringing reusable bags is a good habit to get into anyway!

(Image credit: Lauren Masur)

6. They’re often ahead of food trends.

While most grocery stores were slowly catching on to the idea of bagged cauliflower rice, Trader Joe’s was already light-years ahead — working on BAGGED FROZEN CAULIFLOWER GNOCCHI. Part of the reason why TJ’s is so quick to the draw when it comes to trend spotting? They buy directly from growers and manufacturers, cutting out distribution middlemen who can often drag their feet.

7. They purposefully have limited stock.

Trader Joe’s wants you to think of grocery shopping as an adventure, which is why you seem to stumble upon something new every trip. But for every new thing in stock, there’s also probably something on your list that you won’t be able to track down. That’s on purpose. TJ’s says: “We buy products that we think are winners and that’ll find a following among our customers. Sometimes it’s a product we intend to stock as long as it sells well; and sometimes we buy a product which is in limited supply, sell through it, and you won’t find again.”

8. You can sample anything if you ask (nicely).

The best part of any Trader Joe’s is definitely the sample station, where you can try their latest and greatest in little portioned cups. (I love following @TraderJoesSampleKing on Instagram to see what I’m missing.) But did you know that if you ask a crew member to try something (anything!), they’ll open a package for you right then and there? No? Now you do!

9. The staff communicates with a bell system.

Instead of a traditional PA system, TJ’s crew members use a brass bell with a rope attached to it to communicate with each other in a kind of Morse code. According to TJ’s, one bell means open another register, two means that there is a question at checkout, three means they need a manager!

10. You can return anything, no questions asked.

If you’re dissatisfied with a private-label product, you can return it in the store for a full refund. (I’m speaking from personal experience.)

11. They donate excess food to local food banks.

Trader Joe’s is committed to giving back to their local communities through their Neighborhood Shares Program. “It’s been our long-running policy to donate 100 percent of products that go unsold but are safe for consumption.” This generosity helps to cut down on food waste while also helping people in need. Last year, they donated nearly $370 million dollars of their products according to hunger relief organization Feeding America.

(Image credit: Lisa Freedman)

12. You should probably skip the produce.

Okay, so not everything about Trader Joe’s is rainbows and butterflies. We at Kitchn humbly admit that the quality and packaging of their produce section leaves much to be desired.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

13. But their salad kits are tops.

As part of our mission to eat every salad kit in America, Kitchn editors have tried all the options at Trader Joe’s. And we’ve been impressed. As our Lifestyle Director, Lisa Freedman, says, “They go above and beyond the standard set that we see in most supermarkets (meaning TJ’s has options beyond Southwest- and Asian-inspired!).” We loved that they use inventive toppings like dried blueberries, riced cauliflower, and shredded broccoli.

(Image credit: Diane McMartin)

14. The cheap wine actually tastes expensive.

You may have heard about TJ’s infamous Two-Buck-Chuck (aka Charles Shaw Wine, which is technically now $3) and shuddered at the thought of such a cheap bottle of wine, but devotees swear that it’s actually good. But why is it so cheap? Business Insider reported that, like a lot of TJ’s products, Two-Buck-Chuck is produced in huge quantities by machines, to lower costs. The grapes are grown in the San Joaquin Valley where land costs are cheaper than vineyards in Sonoma or Napa. They also use lightweight bottles and “one of the cheapest forms of natural cork.” Drink up.

15. The lines move faster than you think.

You may be horrified the first time you see the line at a Trader Joe’s. But don’t let it scare you away! Think of it as an organized chaos. A crew member holds a signs indicating where the line ends to corral shoppers, and another crew member directs front-of-the-line shoppers to the next available register using a wooden paddle system. (There’s sometimes even a crew member at the middle of the line to let you know what to expect.) The line will most certainly look long, but TJ’s runs a well-oiled machine and it moves quickly. You’ll be unloading your groceries at home before you know it. (Plus, if you get to know the layout of your store really well, you can shop while you’re in line. It’s an art.)

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

16. Their crew members wear Hawaiian shirts.

TJ’s has a kind of maritime schtick going on. “We wear Hawaiian shirts because we’re traders on the culinary seas, searching the world over for cool items to bring home to our customers,” TJ’s admits on their FAQ page. Now when you see crew members buzzing around the store in Tommy Bahama shirts, you know why!

That should be everything you need to know. Did I leave anything out? Add it in the comments below!