15 Mistakes To Avoid When Shopping at Trader Joe's

Trader Joe's


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Trader Joe's (Lent 10)
Trader Joe's (Lent 10) by Cathy Stanley-Erickson (CC BY-ND)

Don't Make These Stupid Mistakes

We all love Trader Joe's. There are murals, there's weird but oddly trendy food, and there's usually a fully-stocked liquor department (depending on where you live). If you have to pick up some groceries and some dark chocolate-covered espresso beans, there are worse options. But if you don't make the most of your experience, or worse, do some regrettably stupid stuff, you may not love your experience. And while there are bigger tragedies in this world, it's just a crying shame to not make the most of your Joe's. So don't do these things, and don't say we didn't warn you, either.

fearless flyer

Not Reading the Fearless Flyer

While you can wander the aisles, hoping you'll just stumble upon a new item or a good price, you can save yourself some time by just flipping through the Fearless Flyer. Yes, there's lots of purple prose. Yes, the artwork is like an old '70s Monty Python skit. You may love it, you may not. But the fact remains that it can give you the heads-up on what's new, different, and potentially limited, and it's only once a month. Go ahead, pick one up, or better, check it out on the website. 

Furikake Trader Joe's

Assuming a Specialty Item Will Be There Next Week

Sure, TJ's restocks, but if you see something you want, you're probably better off grabbing it. If something is really hot (I'm looking at you, little skeletons-doing-yoga planters that popped up way before Halloween), what you're looking at might be the restock, to be honest. This is especially true for any seasonal item (like pumpkin spice whatever) but I am still regretting not stocking up on minced ginger when they had it years ago. Items you may love can get pulled at any time to make space in the store for other stuff. So go ahead. Buy, buy, buy. 

Little sisters doing shopping

Not Distracting Your Kids with the In-Store Scavenger Hunt

If you would like to distract your child from endless commentary on their personal suffering due to being in a grocery store, even one as magical as Trader Joe's, this in-store scavenger hunt is your way to stop the whining (hopefully). While the stuffed animal changes from store to store (we have hunted for a pig, an alligator, a frog, and a coyote), there's some little fuzzy thing somewhere in the store, and if your kid finds it, they get a lollipop at checkout (if you're adamantly anti-sugar, your kid will get stickers). You get a moment of peace (if you are willing to let your kid wander around the store not looking where they're going) and your kid gets a reward. Win-win. 

Gluten-Free Joe-Joe's from Trader Joe's
Trader Joe's

Forgetting That You Can Try (Most Things) Before You Buy

Yeah, you can get a sample (though my Trader Joe's hasn't revived its sample table post pandemic), but if you want to try something that isn't being offered, you don't just have to take your chances and buy it. If it's not a frozen item that needs cooking (yeah, they aren't game to give your frozen raw chicken, go figure), just ask to try it. Employees have the go-ahead. I had one worker beg me to try the Thanksgiving dinner-flavored potato chips before I bought them to make sure I liked them (she said) though I suspect she was eager to have an open package in the back of the store. Just don't get carried away with asking to try lots of products in one visit.

Related: The Best Snacks at Trader Joe's

Trader Joe's Snickerdoodles

Overlooking Trader Joe's House Brand

Almost everything at Trader Joe's is branded with some permutation of the name Trader Joe's as the brand, but don't think private label means lower quality. The truth is that often these are made by the same manufacturer that makes the brand-name product, so it's indistinguishable from the more expensive item. 

Related: The Brands Behind Trader Joe's Most Popular Products

Trader Joe's Chocolate and Peanut Butter Joe-Joe's

Not Asking Employees for Recommendations

If you work at Trader Joe's, chances are you shop at Trader Joe's (yes, employees do get a discount). While I've had employees see a new item in my cart and get excited over a product they haven't had before, I'm betting they grabbed it before they left for the day. They aren't trying to sell you on anything (you're already there, after all) but will be happy to give their honest opinion. And you might as well talk to the person ringing up your items, right?

Related: The Best Frozen and Ready-to-Eat Meals from Trader Joe's

Trader Joe's Lamb Vindaloo
Wilder Shaw / Cheapism

Not Searching High and Low for Products

I don't know about your Trader Joe's, but mine likes to move things around to keep me guessing. Honey was here ... last time I bought it, I swear. But now it's somewhere else. And after I flag down one of the friendly employees, I find the new hiding place for the stuff — and I'm pretty sure I would never have found it on my own. Trader Joe's is smaller than your local grocery store but that also means there isn't a dedicated aisle for, say, cereal or pasta. What you need could be anywhere, so be sure to look on every shelf, both high and low.

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Unexpected Cheddar Cheese
Trader Joe's

Not Exploring the Trader Joe's Brand Cheeses

If you don't love cheese, you can skip this aisle, but what is wrong with you? Besides lactose intolerance, that's real and I'm sorry. Anyway, if you do eat cheese, Trader Joe's has a ton of it, and the prices are actually better than you might expect. Cheeses that have the Trader Joe's label (which is a lot of them) are not only tasty but might be better than that awful grocery store processed stuff. And if you're on the fence, ask for a sample. 

Joe's O's Trader Joe's

Not Reading the Employee Notes for Product Endorsements

At the TJ's I've been to, there's usually some opinion scribbled on some of the price cards: "Sweet and great for cookouts!," that sort of thing. That's not marketing or branding copy, silly (okay, sometimes it is). Someone who works at the store added those comments, and we're betting they or someone else at the store contributed them. They're rarely long, but they can be helpful, especially when it comes to weird product you don't know how to use (Buddha Hand, as I recall, "makes great jelly," which it did.) or even nutrition content. 

Trader Joe's "Two Buck Chuck"
Trader Joe's "Two Buck Chuck" by Mack Male (CC BY-SA)

Bypassing the Liquor Department

Okay, the Two Buck Chuck is a little more than $2 these days, but that doesn't mean you should give up on the whole section (assuming you live in a state where grocery stores can sell alcohol). In addition to a more than decent wine selection, you can find brand-name booze in every category, and probably for less than you might elsewhere. 

Woman Crossing Items of Shopping List

Forgetting to Bring a List

Look, you should know this one anyway, but having a list of what you need for the week is important at any grocery store, but it's especially important at Trader Joe's. Why? I mean, seriously, look around — it's Ground Zero for impulse buys. Pickle popcorn? Every kind of cheese known to man? Chocolates from around the world? If you're not careful, you'll not only spend more than you expect, but just have a cart full of snacks and sweets. C'mon, we don't want you to develop scurvy. Take a list. 

Related: How to Save Big at the Grocery Store

Strawberry Gray Mold disease

Always Trusting the Produce

Okay, let's be honest here. The produce section of Trader Joe's is not all that. There are lots of pre-bagged items that you might want less of, and if you've had produce from TJs that went bad before you had time to use it (like, in a day or two, not if you just ate pizza all week and couldn't be bothered to make better choices), you're not alone. When Reddit held an Ask Me Anything session with a TJ's employee, they admitted that tomatoes and stone fruit mold pretty quickly in the summer, and that while their store checks for ick frequently, other stores may not be so vigilant. 

Related: Things No One Should Buy at Trader Joe's

Trader Joe's Daily Facial Sunscreen and Supergoop Sunscreen
Cheapism / Maxwell Shukuya

Trusting All of the Non-Food Items

There are some dry goods worth grabbing at TJ's (big shout out for the facial sunscreen) but proceed with caution. Though the tissue boxes are cute, they may not be the best price or quality. For some essentials, you may want to just head to Target. 

Blurred image of cashier with long line of people at check-out counter of supermarket. Customers paying with credit card or cash to store clerks, full cart of groceries. Cashier register concept

Shopping When It's Busy

This should be a no brainer, but sometimes you really need Philadelphia Cheesesteak Bao on a Saturday at noon. We get it. But if you can plan ahead, try to do your main grocery shopping on Tuesday or Wednesday (early in the day if possible) and avoid the weekend. You may even prefer a different grocery store (gasp) because when TJ's is crowded, so is the parking. And the parking is usually a bear no matter when you go.

Bag of Groceries

Forgetting Your Reusable Bags

Many a time I've left my reusable bags in the trunk of my car — and just as many a time I've gone running back to get them. Besides the fact that it's ecologically conscious (and I don't need paper bags lining my kitchen, thanks), depending on where you live many stores have gotten back to charging 10 cents a bag (there was a pandemic moratorium). You don't come here for low prices (and stroopwaffle assortments) just to drop money you really don't need to spend, do you? Didn't think so.