Don't shop at Trader Joe's until you read this

Chances are good that, if you live near a Trader Joe's, you're already an avid fan. What's not to love about a place with chatty, Hawaiian-shirt-clad employees and colorful chalkboards filled with cringe-worthy puns? OK, your love for TJ's probably has more to do with getting high-quality food at a reasonable price, but the ambiance certainly doesn't hurt. It's hard to imagine there are shopping hacks at a place that doesn't run sales or have a frequent shopper card, but pro-shoppers have a few tips and tricks to save you time and money. 

Instead of heading into your next trip on auto-pilot, take a moment to step back and think about how you're tackling America's favorite grocery store. Do you know how to avoid the worst feature of Trader Joe's, navigating those cramped and crowded aisles during rush hour? What about strategies so you'll never have to lament the empty space where the Mandarin Orange Chicken is supposed to be? We'll fill you in. This is everything you need to know before you shop at Trader Joe's. 

If you're unsure about buying something at Trader Joe's, ask to try it

One of the best unknown perks of Trader Joe's is their samples policy. You might have your standby products that you get every time you visit the store (we're all about their gourmet cheese selection and the Everything But The Bagel Seasoning). But Trader Joe's comes out with new products all the time. If you're dairy-free and wondering if the, Turmeric Ginger Coconut Beverage will suit your taste buds, or you're feeling on the fence about Bloody Mary Salsa, ask an employee for a sample. You can try it before you buy it.

Pop Sugar points out that there are some exceptions to this amazing policy. They're not going to let you get sick by sampling raw food, and you wouldn't be able to tell if a frozen food is worth it without heating it up. You won't get to try any of the alcoholic products, either (unless they're giving away free samples that day to all shoppers of legal age), so stick to asking for samples of ready-to-eat foods like boxed snacks, jars of jam, or cheese.

You can return almost anything to Trader Joe's (even if it's already open)

If you needed a reason to become a die-hard Trader Joe's shopper, this is it. Trader Joe's rivals Costco for the most lenient return policy around. Pop Sugar interviewed a former Trader Joe's employee who confirmed that you can return anything, even if it's already opened. That "includes and is not limited to an opened box of cereal or a half-eaten frozen entree." Seems like the type of thing that might get taken advantage of, right?

Redditers confirm that, yes, sometimes people take things too far. One employee wrote about a time that someone ate an entire loaf of bread and returned the last slice because it became moldy. But, overall, the policy works in everyone's favor. Employees don't waste time arguing with customers about what can and cannot be returned, and Trader Joe's gains valuable insight about products that customers don't care for. For us shoppers, it promotes risk-free buying; if you don't like it, you'll get your money back, so you may as well give it a try. It ends up being pretty win-win for everyone.

Choose when you shop at Trader Joe's wisely

Trader Joe's definitely has a cult following, and with mass appeal comes massive crowds. There's nothing that ruins the shopping vibe faster than overcrowded parking lots, long lines, and cramped aisles. Instead of wasting your time, take advantage of people who have done their research and are willing to share the best time to hit Trader Joe's.

The Daily Meal suggests avoiding Trader Joe's on any weekday during lunchtime. Unfortunately, that doesn't just mean the noon hour; the lines don't die down until around 3 p.m., so stay away until well after conventional lunches are over. You won't want to dilly dally too long, though, because things pick up again after 5 p.m. for the post-work rush. When it comes to weekends, both Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening are popular shopping times, too. 

According to a Redditor who claims to be a Trader Joe's manager, the best time to avoid the crowds is as soon as they open on a Tuesday or Wednesday. You'll have the store to yourself and access to all the products that sell out quickly each day.

Read the Fearless Flyer if you're stuck in a long line at Trader Joe's

If you do happen to find yourself on a long line, entertain your brain by picking up a copy of the Fearless Flyer. Trader Joe's describes the flyer by asking, "Is it a newsletter? A catalog? A comic-book? Yes, yes, and perhaps even yes!" Basically, it's an illustrated bi-monthly publication that's supposed to announce new products and deals. Informative, yes, but we mostly read it because it's hilarious.

The pages are filled with old-timey cartoons with witty captions, and the product descriptions have more cringe-worthy puns than you thought possible in a 16-page publication. Their corn salsa is an "a-maizing" condiment? Yeah, that's so bad it's good. Add in some weird comics and off-the-wall humor, and you'll find yourself craving a line just to take the time to read the thing cover to cover. You can also subscribe to get the newsletter sent to your email, but then you won't have any reading material to keep you company in line.

Those Trader Joe's private-label products may be cheap, but they're probably made by big brands

Trader Joe's does sell some big-name brands, but why would you pick up a $5 box of cereal when you can get a Joe's brand for $2 less? Opting for private-label products is one of the easiest ways to save money at the grocery store, and you don't have to sacrifice quality when you shop at TJ's: Big brand suppliers may make some of these private-label products.

In 2010, Fortune suggested that Trader Joe's pita chips were made by Stacy's, and that Stonyfield Farm supplied much of the yogurt on the east coast. Eater took things one step further and used the Freedom of Information Act to request recall information that mentioned Trader Joe's by name. That allowed them to identify a few potential suppliers, like Wonderful Pistachios, Naked Smoothies, and Snack Factory's Pretzel Crisps.

Of course, big brands wouldn't want you to know that you can pick up their food for less at Trader Joe's, so it's unlikely any of these comparisons will ever be confirmed. Even the former VP of marketing, Mark Gardiner, told Eater that he was in the dark about who made the brand's most popular products. It's a secret agreement, and no one is allowed to talk about the product's suppliers.

Trader Joe's isn't all organic, but many of their products are gourmet

Trader Joe's doesn't market themselves as a Whole Foods or a gourmet market, but it kind of is. The low-key grocery store has been selling wine since the 1960's, and their successful low-cost formula has allowed them to offer affordable versions of gourmet cheeses, specialty nuts, and exotic frozen meals. Many of these products would have been considered gourmet at the time they arrived, and Trader Joe's continues to stay a step ahead of food trends by offering innovative new products each year.

According to the FAQs on their website, their private label brands contain high-quality ingredients, too. They don't use artificial flavors or preservatives, MSG, GMO ingredients, or partially hydrogenated oils. Their labels may not say "GMO-free" on the product because U.S. governmental agencies don't have "clear guidelines... covering food and beverage labeling." But, Trader Joe's assures customers that their brands don't contain any GMO ingredients. They also claim to sell "approximately four times more organic products than a typical grocery store," and their organic options can be less expensive than conventional options. For example, their $1.99 organic ketchup is a great buy; it's less expensive than Simply Heinz (which isn't even organic) and tastes just as good, if not better.

You can't do all your shopping at Trader Joe's

If you're just looking to stock up the freezer, pantry, and liquor cabinet, Trader Joe's can be a one-stop-shop. Unfortunately, it doesn't have everything you'll find in a normal grocery store. A typical Trader Joe's has an average of 4,000 products, or SKUs, compared to the 38,900 SKUs you'll find at most grocery stores. That means if you're looking for necessities — like toothpicks, diapers, corn starch, or aluminum foil — you'll have to make a stop at another store while you're out.

You also won't find all the choices of brand variety that you may be accustomed to. That can be a good thing. After all, who really wants to compare the ingredients and price on 12 different brands of ketchup? Trader Joe's only has one option: Trader Joe's Organic Ketchup. They do this on purpose so you can rest assured that they tried it, they liked it, and they trust that you don't need any other options. In some ways, that level of confidence is comforting, but if you're expecting to have product variety, you might want to realign your expectations before you walk in the door. 

Don't forget to check out Trader Joe's cheap beer and wine selection

No trip to Trader Joe's is complete without a stop by the alcohol aisle. When founder Joe Coulombe opened the first Trader Joe's in 1967, his vision was to create a neighborhood grocery store with a great wine selection. Today, that selection has expanded to beer and spirits, too, depending on the state's liquor laws. If you're lucky enough to live in a state where you can shop all three, you'll find an excellent selection of (usually inexpensive) options.

They're most famous for their Two Buck Chuck, a super-value priced Charles Shaw wine available in a variety of red and white varietals. Their prices on non-private-labeled alcohol is similarly inexpensive; Money found a very drinkable bottle of bourbon for only $10 at a Los Angeles store. When it comes to beer, the Chicago Tribune reports that Trader Joe's beers are often brewed by award-winning breweries. It's no longer in production, but for a long time they had a very affordable Mission St. Pale Ale, which brewed by Firestone Walker. The beer actually won a few medals at Great American Beer Festival. 

Make sure to ask questions before you put these items in the cart, though, because sometimes the alcohol isn't covered in their return policy.

The prices in Trader Joe's produce section aren't always stellar

When you're looking at things you should and shouldn't buy at Trader Joe's, the produce section is pretty polarizing. On the one hand, their organic produce is usually less expensive or comparable with other grocery stores, according to The Kitchn. Unfortunately, it's not always packaged in a way that makes sense. As Kiplinger points out, a lot of Trader Joe's produce is prepackaged, making it impossible for you to choose how much you want to buy. That's great if you want to buy a whole package of carrots, but what if you just wanted one apple? Sorry, you have to buy the entire bag.

That said, there are some great deals to be had in the produce aisle — especially their beloved salad kits like the Southwest Salad — but steer clear of the prepared produce. Things like riced cauliflower and spiralized carrots cost way more than doing it yourself at home. The one item that does always shine is the super-cheap bananas; they're always priced at 19 cents (the same price they were in the 70s). 

But Trader Joe's frozen section is out of this world

Trader Joe's frozen section is absolutely legendary. There is more variety in this section than anywhere else in the store, and it's not just ingredient variety. You can stock up on filling mains dishes for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or pick up a few items to have on-hand for an appetizer or snack. They also have dozens of dessert options. Because most of the items in this section are private label products, the prices are super reasonable

The writers at Delish claim you can eat out of the frozen section for weeks without repeating a meal, and they actually took on the arduous task of trying everything in Trader Joe's frozen section. Which items should you stock up on? They thought the Chicken Tikka Masala was as good as (or better than) take-out, and you can't go wrong with Trader Joe's top-selling Mandarin Orange Chicken. A few of the flatbreads and the chicken burrito bowl landed in the top 10 list, too. 

Stock up on Trader Joe's products you love while you can

Items at Trader Joe's can disappear pretty quickly, and sometimes forever. A Redditor who claims to work at the largest Trader Joe's in America explained that's because they often don't order a lot of product. If they have too little and run out, that's better than ordering too much and running into food waste, which could drive the prices up. This can happen with any product, especially the best-selling items that generate a lot of buzz. The Redditor went on to explain that this tends to happen more quickly with seasonal products. Some new products don't do well, which means the store won't reorder it when it's out. That makes more space for the products that everyone loves.

Whether it's a regular product or a season item, NBC News suggests loading up your cart if you find something you love. Things like frozen items won't go bad quickly, and you can check the shelf-stable products for the "sell-by date" to see how long you have to use them. You never know if the item will be out of stock for a day or a few weeks — or forever — but better not to find out.

You can mix and match Trader Joe's products for quick and easy meals

You don't have to buy pre-made freezer meals to make quick, healthy dinners from Trader Joe's. We love combining items from the freezer aisle, product section, and pantry shelves to mix-and-match dinners that can be ready in as few as 15 minutes. Combine a pork tenderloin with barbecue sauce in the Instant Pot, and plop the shredded pork on Trader Joe's brioche buns for easy pulled pork sandwiches. Or, if you don't feel like cooking at all, opt for their refrigerated pulled pork; it's ready in the microwave after only three minutes.

It's easy to combine pre-cooked meats with buns and tortillas to make sandwiches and tacos, but you can also combine items from the freezer aisle to make a well-rounded, healthy meal. Add sausage or chicken to frozen vegetarian meals, like Penne Arrabiata. Or, cook potstickers and stir-fry vegetables together — straight from the freezer. Add one of Trader Joe's signature sauces, like Gyoza Dipping Sauce or Thai Green Curry Simmer Sauce, and these pre-made, packaged items will taste like a home-cooked meal.

Be sure to enroll in a Trader Joe's contest

There always seems to be a contest going on at Trader Joe's. At the time of this publication, they had a recipe contest in the works. Submit an ice cream recipe that uses five or fewer Trader Joe's products, and you could win a gift card and an ice cream scoop. In 2018, you could win $222 just for sharing a photo on Instagram of two Trader Joe's products that taste surprisingly well together. Many contests are for gift cards, but some result in a grocery bag full of goodies or bragging rights for liking the top-voted products in their annual Customer Choice Awards.

The easiest contest to win also happens to be pretty good for the environment, too. Most Trader Joe's locations will give you a five-cent discount for bringing a reusable bag. The Kitchn disclosed that some locations also have a weekly raffle: Win a $25 gift card if you spend $25 or more and bring your own bag. It's not well advertised, though, so ask the cashier at your local store for more details.