Working at Trader Joe’s for two years (in the middle of a pandemic, mind you) has, without a doubt, permanently altered my brain chemistry. And that’s not to say it was all bad! Working in a grocery store, especially one as unique as Trader Joe’s, basically guarantees that no two days are ever the same. I watched regulars’ kids grow up; I was on the news during the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020; and one time I was even serenaded by a customer on my birthday.
I’ve also seen my fair share of downright questionable customer behavior. Everyone’s gotta eat, but not everyone knows how to behave while they’re shopping. Sometimes it’s bizarre, sometimes it’s so sweet it nearly hurts your teeth, and then there are the things people do that should be avoided at all costs, full stop. And trust me, you definitely want to make a few Trader Joe’s employees your BFFs (if not only to try new seasonal ice creams that haven’t been put out yet). So how do you navigate America’s quirkiest grocery store while causing little-to-no-mayhem and also maximizing your fun? Well, I have a few ideas:
1. Complaining About the Store Being Busy
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Let’s be real: Are you really that surprised that your Trader Joe’s is packed on a Saturday, Sunday, or right before a major holiday? I think it’s the textbook definition of cognitive dissonance when customers complain about how busy a store is, because those same customers are also contributing to the crowding. While it might seem improbable, quiet times do exist at Trader Joe’s. Ask a crew member when the least busy times to shop are, and you’ll really feel like a grocery shopping VIP.
2. Not Asking For A Sample
Real talk, if you’re not sampling at Trader Joe’s, what’s up? And I’m not just talking about the items being served in the main sample area. Trader Joe’s crew are more than happy to pop open a bag of Cookies N’ Cream Pretzels, a new kombucha flavor, or bring you a sample cup of yuzu ice cream. If you don’t like something, you don’t have to shlep back to return it. Plus the crew gets to eat the leftovers. Everyone wins!
3. Doing an Employee’s Job
Grocery workers have a specialized skillset that often goes unnoticed and under-appreciated. We memorize hundreds of produce codes, keep track of a long list of rotating products, and are often experts in wine and cooking (many came to Trader Joe’s after working as chefs). That being said, assumptions about grocery workers need to stay outside the automatic doors. So if a worker is inspecting your produce, it’s not because they don’t know it’s a guava they’re holding; they’re just looking for a produce code. No need to tell us what we’re holding is, in fact, a guava. We also know to bag your frozen/cold items together and not to put things on top of eggs. We got it.
4. Using Instagram Or TikTok As Your Shopping Guide
Let it be known that I’ve still never made the viral TikTok baked feta pasta. I simply refuse to. When that the recipe went viral, the entire cheese section was cleared out of feta (all six varieties) for months. This meant I had to field complaints from angry customers for no less than two hours a day. I mostly solved this problem by posting a sign of a cartoon-y block of feta with a sad face in the section. The point is, employees are doing their best to get a product back, and there are things beyond their control. If you’re asking for “something viral you saw on TikTok,” don’t be surprised that the shelf is clear. Instead, ask your trusty Trader Joe’s crew member for an alternative; we’re all pretty food-obsessed and likely have more than a few genius ideas for you to try.
5. Hoarding Items
Similarly, please don’t hoard items! It’s a bummer for everyone and really messes up how products get re-ordered. While most Trader Joe’s stores can’t (and won’t) deter people from buying large amounts of products for resale, there’s a much more considerate way of doing it. You can actually special order items by the case (or half case) if you want. This goes for anything from Mandarin Orange Chicken to flowers and hand sanitizer. That being said, most holiday items and seasonal items are not available for special order, but a simple phone call ahead of time to put items aside will save you (and other customers) many a headache.
6. Taking It Personally When An Item Is Discontinued
Look, I’ve got my own running list of items I wish were still sold at Trader Joe’s. I miss the strawberry coconut milk ice cream so bad. But one thing to know is that Trader Joe’s items are discontinued for many reasons besides being unpopular. Often vendors want Trader Joe’s to sell an item for more than we’re willing to charge customers, factories burn down (this happens…a lot), or labor violations happen (as was the case with the Thai monkeys tasked with harvesting coconuts). We’re always down to reminisce about all the Great Trader Joe’s Items In The Sky with you, though.
7. Not Knowing Bag Etiquette: 101
Seeing a customer with reusable bags can elicit a range of emotions: Joy that you don’t have to remake your stash of paper bags, but also dread. This is because the bags are either 1. a biohazard in terms of cleanliness, 2. buried underneath $300 worth of groceries, or 3. after you’ve bagged the groceries in paper, the customer asks you to re-pack them in the reusable bags they just remembered they have. Just…don’t be that guy.
8. …Or Cart Etiquette: 101
Most Trader Joe’s employees would put questionable cart behavior on the no-no list. The usual suspects? When multiple people share shopping carts but don’t separate them and hand each item to the cashier individually at check-out. Having your kid sit in the cart, likely sitting on some brioche, and hand the cashier items. (Actually, please don’t hand cashiers items in general. I don’t need to tell you how many times someone has sneezed into their hands and then passed me a box of pizza.) An honorable mention goes to putting all of your groceries on top of your reusable bags and placing glass items in the baby seat without using the cover.
9. Treating Employees Like Store Fixtures
I cannot count how many times a customer’s hand has reached in front of my face, between my legs, or under my armpits. The limit simply does not exist. And just for a can of beans! We’ve all tried to grocery shop in stealth-mode, but grocery employees really love it when customers make their movements known, especially because Trader Joe’s workers are often perched on step-stools, holding a large box and a box cutter. A simple “excuse me” before (not after or during) is the bare minimum when trying to grab an item at the store.
10. Assuming Your Cashier Is Flirting With You
I’m sorry. I had to say it. I like to think that all Trader Joe’s employees have the sort of face that immediately makes you feel comfortable talking to them. So why not extend all that golden-retriever energy to the customer when we’re at work most of the day? While we’re definitely not technically trained to flirt, we are highly encouraged to be good party hosts. It’s always best to assume that we’re simply trying to keep the good vibes going, that’s all. We still love you, though.
Contributing Assistant Digital Food Producer
Mackenzie Filson is a food writer and contributing digital food producer at Delish. Her favorite ice cream flavor is chocolate-pine and if wine was an astrological sign she’d be a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. She’s never met a bag of Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos she didn’t eat in one sitting.