The Dos and Don’ts of Trader Joe’s Checkout Etiquette, According to a Former Employee

published Mar 20, 2024
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trader joe's shopping cart
Credit: Lauren Masur

There’s something that often ties together all Trader Joe’s locations, no matter where you are. No, it’s not the floral printed shirts! It’s a delicious bit of chaos that comes with a grocery run. Between the too-tiny parking lots, all the free samples, and cheery employees (I was one of those very employees, actually!), navigating a cart full of groceries around a store full of people can be a delicate dance — especially when it comes to checking out.

We can all use a bit of brushing up on proper checkout etiquette, especially at a store with a shopping experience as unique as Trader Joe’s. So if you want to make sure you’re not only making your way through the end zone as efficiently as possible while also impressing your Trader Joe’s employee-friend (or even crush), here are all the top dos and don’ts to keep in mind for your next trip.

Credit: Kristi Blokhin / Shutterstock

1. Do just get a cart or basket (and don’t rely on your hands).

If I had a nickel for every time I heard a customer say, “I only just came in for one thing,” just before dropping a cascading waterfall of canned beans, a whole gallon of milk, and a precarious bottle of Pinot into my arms at checkout, I’d basically be Scrooge McDuck diving into my pool of nickels. There’s no award for Not Using a Cart or Basket, but I have given my own awards out for Most Likely to Drop a Bottle of Wine on Someone’s Foot. Don’t be that person!

2. Don’t leave trash in your cart.

I wish this was more common sense, but alas. Here we are. This bears no clarification, really. I just wouldn’t be surprised when said trash (used hand wipes, old banana peels, empty coffee cups) might very well end up in your grocery bag for you to dispose of later.

Credit: Sarah Crowley

3. Do have your reusable bags ready to go.

Look, we love that you brought your bags. Love it! Don’t get us wrong; we love stacking all your goodies in those suckers like Tetris and separating your frozen into that handy cooler bag, and oooh, where did you get that bag? Reusable bags pretty much always earn a gold star, except for one (extremely common) habit of shoppers: Burying their bags under a monster grocery shop or, worse, asking us to re-bag your groceries into reusable bags when we’ve already packed it into store bags. 

Another notable no-no? Using your bags as a never-ending Matryoshka-style nesting doll. I’d highly suggest only bringing in the bags you know you need, rather than the entire tangled collection; it makes it really hard to maneuver your bags when all the straps resemble a rat king.

4. Don’t hover over your cashier (it doesn’t make us work any faster).

I really have no idea why this is so common, especially during peak Covid-19, but customers love to hover a bit too closely at checkout time. Perhaps it’s the fact that Trader Joe’s both doesn’t have a conveyor belt and has ultra-friendly staff. It doesn’t matter: Please stand behind the counter! It not only provides a built-in bit of distance between a customer who might be sick (unknowingly or otherwise), but also some much-needed breathing room for everyone. 

5. Do keep all your grocery items in the cart. 

We got this! Holding up a line to hand your cashier each item one by one is a quick way to be the cause for a traffic jam. It’s actually very counterintuitive, no matter why you do it (say, helping to organize bag loading). In fact, this is the No. 1 way to make any crew member an enemy — full stop.

This behavior would not only happen with the “I just came in for one thing” folks with overloaded arms, but also with separate groups all shopping into one cart. Personally, my coworkers and I could often hear horror movie music when groups of shoppers approached us with one packed, mixed-up cart, with multiple shoppers using the same cart. If you think you’re ready to check out, pause for a moment: Is your cart really ready (and separated) so the cashier can simply scan through the goods? In that case, we’ll happily take it from here.

6. Don’t be a backseat bagger (We got this!).

Working at a grocery store revealed way more microaggressions than I experienced in any other retail environment. Some I wish (and hope!) I never did while I was a customer myself. The main one? Micromanaging the bag packing portion of the checkout process. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a Trader Joe’s employee who isn’t actively trying to corral all your cold and frozen items into one bag, all your dry into another, and also calculating that no bag is too heavy for anyone to safely carry. You don’t need to point out every little bagging decision you’d like us to make, really! Better yet, we definitely don’t mind it if you bag it yourself. 

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7. Do take any precious cargo out of your cart before checking out.

Yes, your kids are cute. Yes, they’re probably also an angel and a Certified Good Helper, but kids can absolutely help outside of the cart too. This is not just for their safety (I’ve seen way too many kids stand at the exact wrong time and tip the carts over), but it can also often put a crew member in an uncomfortable situation. 

We just want to scan your groceries as quickly as possible, which can be doubly hard with an infant, toddler, or even kindergarten-age child in the cart (who is likely sitting on your loaf of sourdough). Also, I’ve been coughed on by a child and 12/10 would love to save anyone else from that same fate!

9. Don’t be too surprised if your cashier flirts with you.

Okay, maybe not all the time! Boundaries are our friend, after all. But it is nice to wonder if your local Trader Joe’s crush is crushing on you too. It really puts a pep in your step as you scan the smoked salmon options and cross paths with your crush. In fact, I had two “Crushtomers” when I worked at Trader Joe’s, and it was always tricky trying to find a polite way to signal that I was checking them out when I was …well, checking them out. 

In one case, I was able to slip one of them my phone number written on a free candy bar. It even led to a pretty pleasant date! So be sure to check your bags if you happen to think you might be a “Crushtomer.” You never know!

Got any other checkout dos and don’ts for Trader Joe’s? Leave them in the comments.