It’s hard to think of another grocery store with as loyal a cult following as Trader Joe’s. We get it: The chain has a ton of high-quality products that you won’t find in other stores, including ingredients and frozen meals from all over the world. The quirky, laidback aesthetic and the well-organized store shelves are a big plus too. But when you combine that with the fact that shopping at Trader Joe’s is less expensive than many other stores, it’s a no-brainer why it’s so popular across the country.

All of this may be true. But if you’re being honest with yourself, you know that shopping at Trader Joe’s can sometimes be a pain. The stores are small and often crowded. The produce and other staples can be expensive (or even absent entirely). And despite changes to the company’s plastic use, environmentally conscious shoppers are still less than enthused with the proliferation of plastic in Trader Joe’s stores. These drawbacks don’t mean you shouldn’t stop at Trader Joe’s, of course — you just need to learn how to shop smarter when you do go. Here are some pro-level Trader Joe’s hacks for the next time you need to stock up on all your favorites.

Please note that these tips may not apply while pandemic safety protocols are in place.

Bring your own shopping bags to Trader Joe’s

No matter where you’re doing your shopping, bringing your own shopping bags is a smart idea. Most importantly, it helps you cut down on how much plastic you use. But since Trader Joe’s ended its use of single-use carryout plastic bags in 2019, that shouldn’t be your reason for bringing reusables to this grocery chain. Instead, it should be to avoid those unwieldy and often hard-to-carry paper bags that the store provides to customers who don’t come with their own.

Trader Joe’s offers an extra benefit to those who remember to bring their own bags, though, and you might want to take advantage of the offer. If you have your own bags, you can enter a raffle to win a $25 gift card for the store. This raffle happens weekly, so if you shop there often, you might just have a good chance at winning. Who knew that bringing your own bags could actually save you money? It pays to be eco-friendly.

Entertain your kids while shopping by having them search for a hidden animal

One of the lesser-known Trader Joe’s hacks is perfect for people with kids… or just those who are young at heart. It’s no secret that most little ones don’t love going grocery shopping. Adults may enjoy marveling at all the new products and picking out the perfect artisan cheese, but kids won’t last long before their attention starts to wane and you realize it’s time to get out of there. That’s why Trader Joe’s has organized an activity that can keep kids busy and engaged in the store while their parents shop.

Trader Joe’s staff members hide a stuffed animal somewhere in the store, and little ones have to look for it. They’re sure to have fun on their treasure hunt anyway, but they also get a little prize like a lollipop if they manage to find the animal. While this Trader Joe’s hack may have just been a rumor for a while, the company revealed that it’s true. The next time you take your little one shopping with you, help them spot the toy as you’re winding through the aisles.

Don’t ignore Trader Joe’s generous return policy

There are a lot of things to love about Trader Joe’s, and its very generous return policy is one of those things. It’s always a bummer when you buy a product you think you’re going to love and you end up hating it instead. If you had purchased that item at most stores, you may try to choke it down, incorporate it into an existing recipe, or just throw it away entirely. But at Trader Joe’s, you can return anything that’s defective or you don’t like.

Did your salad greens go bad before the sell-by date? Take them back to Trader Joe’s for a refund. Did you decide to try their cauliflower crust pizza that looked delicious on the package but your kids wouldn’t touch? You’ll get a refund for that too. Staff will usually even take back products that are half-eaten, but just remember to be reasonable when taking advantage of this hack.

Plan with the Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer

Most of us would like to take fewer trips to the grocery store on a weekly basis. The less we’re in the store, the more time we have for doing other things we love, like spending time in the kitchen thinking of new ways to combine our favorite Trader Joe’s products. The best way to cut down on our grocery trips is to plan in advance: What are we going to eat for the week, what do we already have, and what do we need to get at the store? Trader Joe’s makes planning a bit easier with its Fearless Flyer. It’ll tell you about all the newest seasonal products in the store you should check out, and it occasionally advertises deals.

You can get the Fearless Flyer online in your inbox, but it’s available in stores as well. Even if you don’t end up buying anything featured, it’s still worth picking up. This flyer isn’t your average coupon book: It’s a clever, witty read heavy on the puns and old-timey illustrations. Perhaps this is a push to appeal to the chain’s famously "overeducated and underpaid" demographic.

Visit Trader Joe’s when it’s not busy

One reason some experts cite for Trader Joe’s success is its smaller number of offerings than most other major grocery chains. When you don’t have as many options available to you, it’s easier to make a quick decision about what you actually want to buy. Instead of quantity, Trader Joe’s prizes quality, making sure the products it does sell are unique and delicious. But largely due to that smaller number of options, Trader Joe’s stores are smaller than other stores.

This can lead to some seriously crowded aisles, especially if you’re visiting a Trader Joe’s in a big city. If you’re trying to avoid those crowds, there are some times of day when you’re less likely to find a lot of people there. Generally, it’s best to go in the middle of the week around Wednesday or Thursday if you’re trying to beat the hordes of freezer meal-starved shoppers. If it’s possible for your schedule, try to do your shopping in the morning. The one time you’ll definitely want to avoid? Right after work on a weekday. Everyone will be there picking up a last-minute dinner and just as desperate to get out of there as you are.

Master line shopping if you live in a big city

We can’t always manage to avoid shopping when it’s busy at our local Trader Joe’s. When that happens, you just need to learn how to brave the massive throngs of shoppers. If you live in a big city, though, you know that Trader Joe’s gets seriously crowded at some points in the day, and if you’re going to get out of there in a reasonable amount of time, you need to employ a strategy.

Don’t worry, other people have already thought of the best shopping method in these conditions. It’s called "line shopping," and it might just be the smartest way to grab your Trader Joe’s haul without fighting the crowds along the way. Basically, you grab a shopping cart when you walk in the door, and you immediately make your way to the check-out line, which has probably snaked its way around the whole store. Then, you do your shopping from the line. Whenever you pass something you need, you pick it up. Isn’t that better than trying to squeeze your cart past other annoyed shoppers when all you want to do is get home at the end of a long day?

Know what to skip at Trader Joe’s and buy elsewhere

Just because we love Trader Joe’s doesn’t mean we have to ignore all its faults. And while the popular grocery store chain is famous for its specialty products (like the pork and ginger soup dumplings, handmade tortillas, the organic watermelon fruit spread… we could go on), it may not be the best place to shop for every single item on your list.

Some things you can generally skip at Trader Joe’s, including the meat and seafood, which tend to be more expensive than what you can find at other stores — as well as rice, which can also be pricey. At the same time, it’s good to keep in mind that, overall, Trader Joe’s offers some of the best prices in the business. So, if you don’t feel like making a separate run to another store for your fresh meat and produce, that’s completely understandable. Luckily, it’s probably not going to blow your budget.

Take advantage of the Trader Joe’s samples

If you’re a smart shopper (and you love snacking as much as we do), you take advantage of free samples wherever you go. Oftentimes, you’ll find staff members actually handing out samples to people as they pass, and this is a great way to try out new products. While there have been some changes to the samples protocol during the coronavirus pandemic, stores are still handing out various treats. However, many people don’t realize that they can actually sample any individually packaged item in the store at any time.

This may not be a feature that shoppers take advantage of on the regular, but if you want to know if you like something before you buy it, this is the way to go. Plus, you get a free snack out of it regardless of whether you decide to buy it or not. Just ask a staff member the next time you want to test something out in the store.

Use the printable Trader Joe’s shopping list

You already know that the Fearless Flyer is an indispensable tool you should always take advantage of when you’re making a Trader Joe’s run. But if you’re the type of person to look at the flyer but never make a shopping list, thinking you’ll remember everything you need when you’re at the store, you may find that this method just doesn’t work. Nothing’s worse than getting home after a shopping trip just to realize you forgot to pick up important ingredients for dinner and having to run to the store again.

One easy way around this is to use the Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer Shopping List. This list can save you a ton of time at the store. First of all, you don’t have to make it yourself — just cross items off the list when you find them. But what makes this list especially helpful is the fact that it organizes items by section. That way, you can take the most logical path through the store without wandering through the aisles unsure of where your next item is located.

Use manufacturer coupons

You might be familiar with the fact that Trader Joe’s isn’t big on the deals or coupons. Instead of offering a slew of special prices every month, the chain seems to try to keep its prices low in general. That’s why you’re never going to find a coupon for a Trader Joe’s product. For those who hate cutting coupons, it’s just one more reason to adore Trader Joe’s. On the other hand, if you love using coupons and feeling like you got a great deal, you may feel like you’re missing out at Trader Joe’s. Don’t worry, there’s some middle ground here.

It all comes down to what you buy, though. Trader Joe’s does offer a selection of name-brand products, products it doesn’t sell under its own label. If you can find manufacturer coupons for these products, Trader Joe’s will happily take them. The store may not have its own weekly circular, but you can still save big with coupons for the right products.

Call and ask Trader Joe’s to put a product on hold for you

Some Trader Joe’s products are liable to sell out quickly, especially if we’re talking about the once-a-year seasonal products. Mini dark chocolate mint stars, we’re looking at you. It’s not like you can always make it to the store right when your favorite products drop, though. What many customers don’t know is that there’s a way to make sure you get those items you want without having to drop everything to take a trip to the store.

Call ahead to your local Trader Joe’s, and tell them what you’re looking for. They’ll be able to tell you if it’s still in stock, so you don’t have to waste your time if it’s not actually there. And if it’s available but might sell out soon, you can also request that they put it on hold for you. Pick it up whenever you get some time, and you’ll never miss out on your favorite popular Trader Joe’s items just because you can’t get to the store right away again.

Enter into Trader Joe’s money-saving contests

Trader Joe’s isn’t like a regular grocery store. It’s a cool grocery store. And that’s why you should always be checking local store events. There are activities going on throughout the year, from special offerings to events for kids to more. But if you’re looking for a way to save some money the next time you go shopping, be sure to enter into the store’s money-saving contests. These contests involve doing everything from drawing cartoons for the Fearless Flyer to creating your own signature ice cream-based recipe to share with the world.

These contests are mainly about having fun, but if you can have fun and win a free gift card or get other store perks, why wouldn’t you do it? If you’re a parent, you can even get your kids to participate (just keep the competition in the family to a minimum). You never know when you’re going to win, so it’s worth a try if you’ve got some extra time on your hands.

Get some help with your load of groceries

If you forget to bring your own grocery bags with nice, long handles that you can easily sling over your shoulder when you’ve finished your Trader Joe’s haul, you may think you’re out of luck. Those paper bags with the tiny handles aren’t exactly easy to carry to your car, especially if you have a lot of them. And if you have bottles of water, wine, or other liquids you’re trying to tote with you as well, getting to your car easily can seem like a tall order.

But don’t worry: Help is always available. You can ask a Trader Joe’s employee to assist you in taking your bags to your car, and they will be happy to oblige. There’s a good chance that nobody will ask you if you need help, a la Publix, but that doesn’t mean you can’t politely ask them. It’s just one more way Trader Joe’s tries to make life easier for its customers.

Compost the produce bags

Trader Joe’s caters to a specific demographic, and that demographic has been very clear: They don’t like how much plastic is in Trader Joe’s stores. Is it really necessary to cover oranges or bananas in plastic? Don’t they have natural peels for a reason? While the grocery chain may not have reduced their plastic use as much as some would like, they have cut down substantially. One part of that effort you may not have recognized, though, is the produce bags.

While the bags might look like they’re made of plastic, they are actually completely compostable. They will break down right along with your fruits and veggies. This can feel like a relief to those who don’t want to contribute to plastic waste but still value the convenience of using produce bags while they’re shopping. It can be a hassle to take your own produce bags with you every time you do your grocery shopping, so Trader Joe’s is definitely taking a step in the right (read: eco-friendly) direction.