Although Trader Joe's has a cult-like following, the budget grocery chain is notoriously private about their business. So what is there for a devoted TJ's customer to do when you're looking for answers to your most sought-after questions? You go to Reddit, of course. Thanks to the forum-based website, Trader Joe's employees have a place to anonymously share their thoughts on the supermarket's policies. Plus, they can provide their expert knowledge, tips, and secrets on a range of topics from their famous "hassle-free return policy" to how you can request exclusive private-label products. Read on to get the low-down on one of the most popular grocery stores in the country, straight from Trader Joe's employees themselves.
This is Why They're Different From Any Regular Store
In an "Ask Me Anything" (AMA), Reddit user and Trader Joe's Crew Member "traderjoesAMA" explained why TJ's is so different from normal grocery stores: "To be blunt, it's different because we legitimately care about our jobs," the user explained. "Generally, we will go above and beyond for customers, and we're treated really well by management. The food quality is also much better for it's [sic] price point, [in my opinon]."
What They Wish Was Different About the Store
When user keevesnchives asked if traderjoesAMA wished anything was different about the job, the employee revealed that the job requires a lot of heavy lifting: "I wish there were more safety protocol in place to help with stocking – we were never really taught how to lift besides pictures/videos, and I feel like that should be explained by the mates. I know many people with back/wrist/knee problems, including myself."
This 'Knock Off' Item is Better Than the Original
User keevesnchives also asked, "What are some Trader Joe's knock-off versions of brand name stuff that is just as good or better?" To which traderjoesAMA replied, "The peanut butter cups! Much better than Reese's."
You Can Probably Return Anything (& Without a Receipt)
One of the 18 Amazing Secrets of Shopping Trader Joes is that the private-label chain has an immensely generous return policy. Don't believe us? Just listen to the TJ's employees who discussed it on Reddit.
When user lolly_lag complained that they were disappointed with a bottle of wine, traderjoesAMA replied, "How long ago? You can get a refund, if you ask. You don't need the bottle, and you're probably fine without the receipt."
In another AMA, Reddit user MrEfrom818, a crew member who has been with Trader Joe's for the past 10 years, teamed up with his or her sibling (a TJ's employee of 8 years) and father (a TJ's employee of over 30 years) to answer the most common questions they get. In response to "Why does TJ's have such a generous return policy?" the user disclosed it's "Because we want our customers to try new things they wouldn't normally try out of fear of possibly not liking the product and wasting their money. In some cases I'll just write it off and give it to them to try, especially if they're a new customer."
Even a Trader Joe's mate (manager), user slothh55, is "a firm believer in the return policy." The manager explained that "I myself have returned things in my own store. It is just as stated, return anything for a full refund. Receipt not even completely required. We encourage people to try stuff and the staff recommends products to customers. If a customer doesn't like it, we want to fix that. I returned 2 moldy bananas for a lady a few days ago, didn't bother me, although I thought it was odd, as bananas are 19 cents each. The only thing I hate is that people steal shit off the shelves while 'shopping' and then pretend it's a refund, that is the express lane to hell and I hope you get run over and die. For example, our vitamins can run up to about $20 for a small bottle, a customer will grab it off the shelf and come to a register claiming a refund. The company knows this happens and enforces the policy, knowing well they are being frauded. It eats at my core though. The worst kind of person."
Yes, They Carry Brand-Name Items
While traderjoesAMA denies that the store employees change labels on products shipped in from other brands, the user did confirm that "a lot of our brands are actually other brands […] To my knowledge though, it's not cheap brands – it's normally more expensive brands that we carry for cheaper. I know we have some Amy's and Stonyfield stuff."
The California-based grocery chain isn't really trying to hide their outsourcing anymore. In a TJ's fearless flyer for their Organic Yogurt Smoothies, the brand described the product as being "made in New Hampshire (not hidden at all – an easy-to-find state!), by one of the most respected names in organic yogurt." Unsurprisingly, Stonyfield is located in New Hampshire. (And, if you ask us, the branding of both products looks eerily similar.)
You Might Be Paying Too Much for Meat
When user bluemooneyes asked, "What is the one item shoppers pay too much for, in your opinion?" traderjoesAMA replied, "I would say meat – it's all organic/cage-free/whatever, but that [stuff] is expensive." While this employee is entitled to his or her opinion, at Eat This, Not That!, we certainly believe that organic and antibiotic-free meat is one of the 20 Foods You Should Always Pay More For.
This is How to Get TJ's in Your Town
Wondering how to get a TJ's in your town like user 2boredtocare? TJ's manager slothh55 witnesses first-hand how hard it is to live far away from a Joe's: "People drive 2 hours or so to come to my store to shop and spend upwards of $500," the user explained. As for how to campaign to get a location to open up near you? "If you go to the website and complain/beg/ask politely, you may [someday] get that store you want." The manager also explained why not every store opening request can be granted: "It's hard to set up the logistics of a grocery store. Deliveries/truck drivers etc. We are expanding at a rapid rate but unfortunately not everyone has the same opportunity to shop with us."
This is Why Some Items Are Discontinued
"They're extremely strict about contracts with suppliers," says user traderjoesAMA; "we won't buy a product if we have to raise the price too high. That's often why so many items are discontinued." Manager slothh55 expands on that, explaining that if one supplier jacks up the price of their product too high, sometimes Trader Joe's "will find a new vendor and bring it back."
Employee MrEfrom818 added that there are other reasons why a product is discontinued, including "slow sales. Another common one is the supplier going out of business. Sometimes it could be we're replacing a brand name product with our private label version of it."
The One Item You Shouldn't Buy
When someone asked if there was one product traderjoesAMA wouldn't buy, the TJ's employee responded, "Honestly, I trust 99% of our products." However, if they did have to pick, they'd say, "The 'iffy'-est is dry produce (namely tomatoes and stone fruit)- they tend to get moldy pretty quickly in the summer, but my store makes sure to check them constantly, and I still buy them (after a quick scan). It may be different at a store with lazier employees."
The Company Doesn't Like Employees Talking About the Brand Online
Trader Joe's shys away from the media spotlight, and it sounds like the company also likes their employees to keep their inner workings under wraps. For example, when user IOnlyEatMeat asked what city traderjoesAMA worked in, the user responded that he or she couldn't say, and added, "sorry – we've been warned by management not to do AMA-type things."
They Experience Packaging Problems
When user howaBoutNao complained that they often experience issues with frozen fish, traderjoesAMA responded that the issue might have less to do with the seafood itself and more to do with the packaging. "We often have problems with bags not sealing correctly, so that can be it," traderjoesAMA explained, but then continued to offer some helpful advice: "You can definitely bring that complaint to a mate, though! They honestly appreciate hearing these things."
There's a Hidden Stuffed Animal
"I've been told that there's a lobster hidden in the store," commented a now-deleted account, who subsequently disclosed that he or she had looked for it and never found it. "Is there a lobster hidden somewhere?" the user asked, to which TJ's manager slothh55 responded, "Each store has a stuffed animal of some sort hiding somewhere. It's really just for kids to run around and find the missing animal, and they get a treat. Kids seem to LOVE it and parents go along with it too. So, I'm guessing the store [you're] referring to has a lobster as their animal."
User MrEfrom818 revealed that the method of hiding varies per store, as well. For example, some stores "hide in the shelves for the kids to find, others put them in [a] high place and all the kid needs to do is say where they saw it to the cashier to get a lollipop." At MrEfrom818's store, the crew would "ask the kids who found it to rehide it for us and they would sometimes hide it so well we couldn't find it for weeks."
You Can Make Product Requests (Under Certain Conditions)
If you follow certain Instagram accounts or Trader Joe's-centric blogs, you might notice that new items pop up at certain locations that you won't be able to find at your nearest TJ's. Trader Joe's FAQ page explains that the store-by-store difference in product offerings is based on trying to "source goods as close to our stores as we can." So although it's unlikely that you'll be able to request your local TJ's carry a region-specific product, crew member MrEfrom818 disclosed that there is one circumstance where you can request a product: "our policy at my store is if we stopped ordering in an item we will honor any special requests made by customers and they are under no obligation to buy it in bulk. As long as the product wasn't discontinued company wide, it shouldn't be a problem." Great news if your favorite go-to product happened to recently go missing!
They'll Let You Taste Anything (Within Reason)
Have you heard of Trader Joe's amazing sampling policy? All the rumors are true! They really will open most products for a taste test, "within reason of course," responds MrEfrom818. What's "reasonable" is explained by slothh55, who defined it as, "We're not gonna grill up a steak for you, but something that you can open up and taste, yeah go for it. They'll be happy to open it and let you try. Chips/candy/snacks. Stuff you can just open and eat. Shouldn't be an issue."
The employees seem to love when customers ask to try products since "you get to eat as much as you want and the remainder will be given to crew members," says slothh55. User ehltahr adds that he or she likes to do it because then, "I can learn about it too."
The consensus among TJ's employees is that you shouldn't abuse the policy: "I've only experienced two or three occasions where a customer tried to take advantage of this and wanted us to open literally 10+ products. Management had to step in and kindly inform them that one or two products is fine but we have to draw the line somewhere," explained MrEfrom818, continuing that if you'd like to sample a lot of products, you can also purchase them and return under their "no hassle return policy where you don't even need to bring a receipt."
This is Why Employees Are So Happy All the Time
When asked why Trader Joe's employees are so happy, slothh55 replied with, "Honestly, before I worked there and was just a shopper I was thinking the same thing.. 'why are all these people so […] happy, must be faking it or something' But now that I work there I can tell you it is 100% genuine. We are just happy to be at work. It's a great job with great people and we get treated humanely. Need a break? Go stretch your legs. Hungry? Grab a snack. Also very flexible with leaving early/coming in late. Low pressure, low stress job that pays well = happy employees."
They Frown on 'Pirate Joe's'
What is a "Pirate Joe," you ask? "Basically, it's someone who comes [into] a Trader Joe's and buys a ton of non-perishable items at our [low-cost] prices, then proceeds to either go on eBay or drive to Canada or [somewhere] else they don't sell our products and sell them for profit," explains slothh55. And—unsurprisingly—the employees don't appreciate them. "I am fairly certain we have one at my store," begins slothh55, who expressed his or her skepticism of the woman's excuse of being a shopper for people's vacation homes. "It bugs me, but at the same time she comes to my store and spends well over a thousand dollars each visit. So we are still making money off of her, and the company as a whole sells a ridiculous amount of groceries. I know Trader Joe's is in or was in a lawsuit with one of these people, either way, we still make money. Not much I myself can do. Jerks."
The Reason Why Expiration Dates Are So Soon
When asked why TJ's bread often has "nearly immediate expiration dates," slothh55 answered, "The best answer for this is that NONE of our products, breads included, have any sort of preservatives in them." Sounds like a good reason to us! The manager also noted that the short expiration may also have to do with stocking issues: "if the section leader (person who orders that section, in your case – bread) does a poor job and orders too heavy then they are always having backstock which depletes slower so the new stuff becomes old stuff quick." The solution? "Reach in the back to try and find a later date. The bread shelves should pop out if you push them in, go diggin'!"
The Best Day to Shop is…
"Tuesday, Wednesday are the best days," begins slothh55, "Early morning is best time […] Right when we open is honestly the best time to go. We get fresh produce in every morning so you can get the best products, and some stuff actually will sell out for the day around 2-4pm, including perishable and non perishable items." The manager also noted that Sundays are likely the worst day to visit the store due to crowds.
While you may want to take this user's advice, Kendra Friend-Daniel, public relations director for Trader Joe's, told Eat This, Not That! via email that the best day to shop at TJ's is entirely dependent on location and a shopper's needs. "Some Crew Members might tell you which days are busiest at their stores but that varies, store to store, city/state to city/state." She adds that "there are certain days consumers typically do their shopping for the week or for their needs in general."
Where the Produce Comes From
If you like buying local produce and don't live in California, Trader Joe's might not be your go-to supermarket—but they're working on it! According to slothh55, Trader Joe's focus for the 2015-2016 fiscal year was to source more local produce. "In my area, we have a handful of locally sourced food, but not a lot. I do agree with you, we lack in the locally grown produce. It may be improved, but it's hard to mass produce produce (lol) at an affordable rate." Here's to hoping for more local produce in the future!
Some Checkout Conversations Are Off-Limits
Trader Joe's employees are well-known for their positive vibes and genuine happiness; however, they'd like it if you did your part to keep up their good mood. Reddit users tomsawyer520 was just one TJ's employee who expressed annoyance when customers take their light checkout conversation to dark lengths. In a thread asking Trader Joe's employees about their biggest customer pet peeves, tomsawyer520 lamented, "when we're [chit-chatting] while i ring you up, PLEASE don't tell me about your 3 year old who's going through chemo or some other horrible business, that's over the line of social standards for 'light conversation' and we all know it."