The one Costco shopping tip you need during the pandemic

Costco is ordinarily a great place to visit, whether you're looking to score a deal on anything from prescription meds to store-brand booze to rotisserie chickens and pizza. Or maybe you just want to dine for free off the free samples, or almost free with that amazing $1.50 hot dog combo at the food court. Well, at least that's how things used to be in the good old days of pre-pandemic shopping. Free samples are no more and Costco's website says that the Food Court is offering just a limited menu. What's more, the shelves are as likely to be bare at Costco as at any other store where people are panic-buying up all of the staples in sight, despite the fact that Costco has instituted product rationing as well as a no-returns policy on certain items meant to discourage hoarding.

So how, then, should you shop in these troubled times? Several Costco employees spoke to Business Insider to offer their best tips. Some of these are very item-specific (buying a filter pitcher as opposed to bottled water), others are just plain common sense (make a list), and still others come with added expenses attached (ordering groceries online), while one involved a potentially frustrating wait on hold (calling to verify if your desired items are in stock, and then hoping this is still the case by the time you get there). The best tip, we found, involved timing your Costco visit just right.

Shop at Costco early (or late) in the day

If you arrive at Costco just as the store opens, you are more likely to find a wider selection of items that will have been re-stocked overnight. One Costco employee at a Texas location says being one of the first customers through the door is your best chance at getting your hands on any particularly high demand items such as toilet paper, although admits there might be a wait: "Right now that means be lined up about 30 to 60 minutes before opening," they said. You'll also need to be aware that on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, store opening times will be delayed by one hour for anyone under the age of 60. Older customers, being more at risk of COVID-19 infection, are permitted those weekday early morning hours to allow them to shop in a less-crowded environment.

If you can't make mornings, an Illinois Costco worker suggested that evening hours are still better than shopping midday. The employee revealed that their location does receive deliveries and restock shelves throughout the day, so showing up an hour or so before closing time means less crowded stores, not emptier shelves — or at least, not any emptier than they'd be at most other times.

Whenever you shop, though, do try to be polite to the people working there. Costco can be a tough place to work at the best of times, and these are most definitely not those times.