Trader Joe’s is a unique and wonderful store that we are blessed to have here in the United States (Sorry Canada!). I have been shopping there for over 20 years and have been blogging about it since 2009. I live in the Seattle area and we have many Trader Joe’s in this state. In many parts of this country, they have none or are far away and people need to make special trips. It amazes me there are still people who don’t “get” Trader Joe’s. Sure, I can understand if it’s not your vibe and you just want to shop at a large chain grocery store, but clearly Trader Joe’s is on to something because they are very popular and keep expanding.
I get asked a lot of times what should a person know before going to Trader Joe’s and here are some of my most common tips:
1. Trader Joe’s Parking is usually Challenging!
This is a well-known fact. Trader Joe’s is cheap. That’s why their products are so cheap. Being cheap means that Trader Joe’s loves to locate their stores close to highways, in an urban environment with cheap rent. Usually with little, difficult or no parking. Be prepared to have to hunt for parking. Take a deep breath.
2. Trader Joe’s stores are Crowded
Closely related to the parking situation above. Trader Joe’s stores are small. Trader Joe’s stores are usually about 12,000 square feet. That is 1/3 to 1/4 the size of a normal grocery store. Combine that with their popularity and you get some crowded stores. Shop off hours if you can. It gets really crowded on weekends and evenings. They do have small grocery carts to fit down those narrow isles. I usually use a handbasket to get in and out quickly. Lines can be long in some stores. I’ve been to stores where the lines wrap around the back on busy days.
3. Trader Joe’s has mostly Trader Joe’s Products
Trader Joe’s mainly sells their own brand. I would say about 95% of the products are branded with the Trader Joe’s name. Notable exceptions are the alcohol, but there is a lot of Trader Joe’s labeled beer, wine, and booze.
Many of their products are made by big large food manufacturers to Trader Joe’s specifications. Something like 90% or more of the products in a Trader Joe’s store are Trader Joe’s private labeled food. It wasn’t always that way but has been getting more and more Trader Joe’s labeled. Many times it’s the same exact product by a big named manufacturer that they put a Trader Joe’s label on a box or whatever. Sometimes, it’s a special product that is made just for Trader Joe’s specifications. If you are new to shopping at Trader Joe’s it can get confusing but once you have a handle on it, it’s actually easier because you don’t have to remember so many products.
4. Trader Joe’s Has a Limited Number of Products
Trader Joe’s has an average of 3000 items in a store compared to 30,000 for a typical grocery store. They don’t have many of the toiletries or cleaning products or 100 different frozen pizzas to choose from. There is only one, maybe two types of Ketchup. A limited supply of products keeps the price down. A limited amount of items makes for a quicker shopping experience. Less choice means it’s easier to shop.
5. There Are No Sales at Trader Joe’s
It’s true, you very rarely find things on sale at Trader Joe’s. Sometimes there are closeout items like after Christmas they want to get rid of the holiday items, but if you are used to shopping for food on sale you will be out of luck at Trader Joe’s. The prices rarely change at Trader Joe’s and when they put something in the store, the price pretty much stays the same for years.
6. You Can’t use coupons (Sometimes)
This is true and not true. If there is a brand name item they have in stock that you can find a coupon for, they will honor it. BUT, there are so few brand name items it’s not even worth it to look for coupons.
7. Most Vegetables are in a Package
The downside of this is that you can’t buy small amounts of green beans or lettuce, you have to buy the size they sell. Like a pound of green beans or a bag of lettuce. I do think selling things like broccoli or green beans in a fixed size is easier for them but sometimes leads to waste on the consumer end of things. Food like bananas and apples and potatoes can be bought separately, but you pay for the apple or banana. There are some that are by the weight but they are very few. Just plan ahead and use up all you buy!
8. Flowers and Plants
Trader Joe’s didn’t always do this, but it’s a mainstay now. All stores usually will have an area right at the front door that has a small selection of plants and seasonal things like pumpkins. They also have a decent selection of cut flowers. It’s great to pick up a plant or flowers for an occasion or date. Flowers always seem to be fresh and last a long time. They have some funky things they do with some plants like the grumpy Xmas tree or yoga air plants. They change constantly but they always have basil plants which is nice in the middle of the winter. I always pick up 2 or 3 for the garden in the spring.
9. Greeting cards
Another hidden gem. There is usually a small carousel in the store that has a bunch of greeting cards. Most of them are in the theme of Trader Joe’s wacky shtick. They are usually $.99 and a great deal. Where else can you buy greeting cards for $1? Nowhere…
10. Find the Toy
As far as I can remember when my kids were tiny, most Trader Joe’s stores have a find the toy hunt for little kids and they hand out a lollipop or something if you find it. The hunt varies from store to store, but usually, a stuffed animal of some type is hidden in a different place in the store for kids to search for. When they find it, they can go to the sample station and tell the person giving out samples that they found it and get a free prize. Usually a trader Joe’s lollipop or something. It was a great way to distract the kids when they were young. I still look for it sometimes. Old habits are hard to kill.
11. King of snacks
It’s true. Trader Joe’s has a pretty high snack food to regular food ratio. There are so many bags of chips, nuts and other assorted munchies it can be overwhelming. Not only that all the cookies and candy they sell. Many are one off things you’ll never find in another store and then they also do classics like classic potato chips. They rotate seasonal items in constantly like pumpkin spice flavored chips. This is why we all keep coming back!
12. Skip the toilet paper
Sad to say, the paper products at Trader Joe’s are usually not that great. Paper towels are OK, but TP is bad.
13. Products turnover quickly
Trader Joe’s has tiny stores and if you notice when you are shopping, there is always someone stocking shelves. They thrive in a Just In Time stocking system. Minimal inventory keeps costs down, but this also makes sure we have the freshest products possible. Trader Joe’s gets low marks on produce and meat because, by the time it gets to the store, it’s gotten quite beat up.
14. You can return anything no questions asked
It’s one of the reasons so many people like to shop at Trader Joe’s. If you have the product you bought or the receipt, they will gladly refund your money no questions asked. End of story.
15. Samples in the back of the store
(Recently made a return after Covid, but in a smaller format and no free coffee) Every Trader Joe’s has a sample station, usually located somewhere in the back of the store. They will sample a wide variety of things and sometimes different things during the day. There is always a coffee sample place too. Usually, a caffeinated and decaf type of coffee to sample in little cups.During busy times it can get a bit crowded around that station. Sometimes they run out and have to fix more things in a little oven or something like that. You might always get one. This is also where you go if you are doing the scavenger hunt. Just tell them where the hidden stuffed animal is and they will give you a reward.
16. Lots of seasonal items
This is one of the main reasons a lot of us shop at Trader Joe’s. It’s the constant parade of seasonal food items. This gets really ramped up after the beginning of September with the Pumpkinpalooza that happens every year. Fall related items flood the shelves. Then the Thanksgiving related stuff starts flooding the shelves in November, then the Christmas and New Years’ stuff. After that, there are minor pushes around Valentine’s and the 4th of July, and Summer but Trader Joe’s shines in from early September through December every year.
17. Lots of beer, wine and booze (in some states)
If you are in one of the lucky states that allows beer, wine and booze sales, you’ll notice that it takes up a sizable chunk of the store. There are even places like New York where you can’t sell beer and wine in a grocery store and Trader Joe’s sometimes puts in a dedicated beer and wine shop right next door. Trader Joe’s has their own beer, wine, and booze (made for them) under their own labels. The beer and wine is not kept in a fridge, also to keep prices down. In Washington state where I live, Trader Joseph’s beer is $6.49 a six pack for high quality craft beer and Shaw and other TJ’s wines go from $2.99 and up but not much over $10 for a bottle. Some bottles go over $10 for special releases. Then there is all the 3rd party beers and wines that are more regional. Beer may come from local breweries and wine too if you have a wine industry nearby.
18. Not always the best price
It’s well known that for similar items like vegetables, meat, milk, eggs, and other staples, Trader Joe’s doesn’t always have the lowest price. If prices is your highest concern, then you should be shopping at Costco or Walmart. That’s not Trader Joe’s thing. Although they have low prices, they are OK with being close enough. Their demographics are highly educated and urban families. Many just want convenience and that’s debatable if that is really the case since so many of them are crowded and have little to no parking.
19. Not the best for meat and some vegetables
Since all the meat is pre-packaged, it’s hard to get something in the exact size or cut you want. Hard to find cuts of beef and pork are, well hard to find. Also, I don’t always find that the meat is the highest quality. Chicken is you best bet. Turkeys in the winter are a great deal.
20. Exclusive Diet Items (Gluten Free, Vegan, Keto etc)
Trader Joe’s has a plethora of Vegetarian, Vegan, Gluten Free and Kosher items. Whatever is in right now (Cookie Butter! Everything but the Bagel!) Trader Joe’s will capitalize on it by putting it in as many products as possible. Trader Joe’s was always Kosher friendly and as more vegetarian and vegan trends popped up, they jumped on that too. Now Gluten Free is all the rage and based on the amount of cauliflower items, you can bet they are going crazy trying to fill that niche.
21. You can sample ANYTHING before buying
Well, almost anything. You can’t sample raw meat or alcohol, but just ask anyone in the store and they will open a bag or whatever to let you sample.
22. Sign up for Fearless Flyer
Trader Joe’s has several ways to get information directly from them. The most interesting way is the Fearless Flyer which is the newsletter that hasn’t changed much in the 20 years I’ve been getting it. It’s a kitschy throwback with cheap low-cost graphics and over-the-top descriptions of their products. They also provide plenty of them at the stores. Just pick one up! They also have an email signup if you don’t want the paper Fearless Flyer.
23. Trader Joe’s bags
A long time ago, maybe when they started, Trader Joe’s came out with a cloth, reusable bag. It had a small logo on the side of it and people who didn’t want to throw away or recycle paper bags (They don’t use plastic ones), could buy one. Then came the plastic bags. First, it was a red one with a logo on it, then they started to do seasonal bags. Then bags for each major market like Arizona, NYC, L.A. etc. Now it’s a collectible thing.
24. Like Costco, it is all about the Treasure Hunt
If you ever have shopped at Costco, you’ve probably heard the term “Treasure Hunt”. All this means is that you never know what you will find on the shelves that day and if it’s not a staple like milk and eggs, it could be gone tomorrow. The same thing happens at Trader Joe’s but with higher frequency and with far more items. Trader Joe’s is mostly food with some toiletries and plants thrown in for fun. Items that have been on the shelf for 10 years (Pretzel Nuggets, I miss you dearly)
Finally, I’d like to say to all you naysayers. Trader Joe’s is an acquired taste. It does take some time to get a feel for getting around the store and buying products that are only at Trader Joe’s. Sure there are some things to avoid, but for the most part, you can buy staples like meat, milk, eggs, and snacks at less or the same as all the big-name grocery stores. I like the fact that the store is small. The lines at my few Trader Joe’s are short (I know this isn’t the case for everyone, sorry). The only thing I really can’t stand is the parking situation.