The Six Rules of Line-Shopping at Trader Joe’s

A philosophical and practical guide to reducing your time at the grocery store without infuriating everyone around you.

Shoppers lineup as they wait for the grand opening of a Trader J,Shoppers lineup as they wait for the grand opening of a Trader Joe's

Let the games begin: Shoppers line up for the grand opening of a Trader Joe’s on Oct. 18, 2013, in Pinecrest, Florida.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

If you live in a big city, and there’s a Trader Joe’s nearby, you probably know that rush hour there is a madhouse. Since so many urbanites like shopping for cheap, healthy (or at least healthy-looking) food in a nautical-themed atmosphere, peak hours such as weekday evenings and Sunday afternoons find the produce section packed, the aisles clogged, the refrigerated sections swarmed. Making the congestion even worse, the checkout line sometimes winds all the way around the store, with Trader Joe’s “crew members” deployed to hold flags reading “End of Line” seemingly miles away from the registers.

Not long ago I was waiting in line at the smaller-than-average and perpetually mobbed Trader Joe’s near Union Square in Manhattan when I noticed the shopper in front of me had come up with a clever, possibly devious solution to the crowd problem. Upon entering the store, she claimed a shopping cart and staked out a spot in the checkout line (which snaked around almost the entire perimeter of the store). She proceeded to do all her shopping from her place in line: picking up produce as the line crept through the produce aisle, frozen goods as it passed by the freezer case, cereal when it neared the cereal section.

I was annoyed. Why couldn’t this lady do her shopping first and then stand in line, like the rest of us? But then I wondered if I was really annoyed with myself for being a chump. If someone finds a way to cut her grocery shopping time in half, why should it bother me? I pondered this question for however long I stood in line, which was approximately three and a half days. I’ve been pondering it ever since.

The thing about etiquette is that it’s usually pretty arbitrary. Sure, the goal of etiquette is to reduce social friction and discourage hurtful behavior, but the means to this end are subjective. Different cultures have different rules about, say, arranging utensils or spitting in public. An etiquette rule has power only if most everyone in that culture agrees that it’s useful and correct. No such consensus has formed around people who shop while in line at Trader Joe’s. And if Trader Joe’s itself has feelings on this issue, it’s not sharing them: “While we absolutely appreciate you reaching out, we don’t have a comment for this story,” a Trader Joe’s publicist emailed me.

So with only the Internet and my modest intellect at my disposal, I sought to create some recommendations of my own for the greater good.

Upon reflection, I cannot prohibit line-shopping wholesale. If you shop while standing in line in front of me, but you don’t hold up the line or inconvenience me in any way, I have no standing to judge your approach to life. However, the burden of inconvenience must always rest with the line-shopper, and not with the traditional shoppers all around her—this must be a guiding principle of line-shopping. This ideal—that the strangers around you will have no reason to notice that you are line-shopping—is the principle that undergirds the following six guidelines for would-be line-shoppers:

1. You must be confident of your ability to retrieve your groceries swiftly, before the line moves and the person behind you starts tapping his foot at your unmanned shopping cart. Please make an honest assessment of your cardiovascular fitness, strength, and agility before you attempt line-shopping. You will have to move quickly, and sometimes balance several items at once, without bumping into your fellow shoppers. It is not an activity for the faint of heart, or the clumsy of body.

2. You must familiarize yourself with the layout of your local Trader Joe’s before you attempt line-shopping. If you make a list before you go to the grocery store, mentally map out where every single item on that list is before you initiate line-shopping. If you don’t know where an item is, sit out this round, and focus on memorizing the position of peanut butter relative to milk.

3a. If you’re very particular about which type of olive oil you buy, or if you think you might need some time to read the ingredients on a few boxes of gluten-free cake mix before making a selection, line-shopping is probably not for you.

3b. You can make line-shopping easier by not caring about specifics. If you’re indifferent to what you happen to buy, you can line-shop with impunity. You’ll undoubtedly accrue a nice haul simply by picking up items stocked at the end of aisles.

4. If you have a shopping partner, you get a little more latitude than a lone shopper. If a duo wants to split up, with one person holding a place in line and the other flitting from aisle to aisle to pick up far-flung groceries, this scenario strikes me as ideal in its ease and efficiency. Some singletons might grumble that this is one more unfair benefit accrued to couples, like getting to split the cost of a one-bedroom apartment or getting tax breaks as a wedding gift, but what can you do? Life isn’t fair.

5. It is always OK to select items from stands situated near the register. (In my experience, these items are usually seaweed snacks.) Those items are there for the very purpose of being shopped for while standing in line.

6. If you realize while you are standing in line that you forgot to grab something important that happens to be farther than a few feet away, you can very nicely ask the person standing behind you if she’ll hold your place for a few seconds. However, that person has the right to say no, and you are absolutely not permitted to ask more than once in a single shopping experience.

If you disobey the above rules, it’s possible that your punishment will be limited to the seething, eye-rolling, and shade-throwing of your fellow shoppers. But it’s also possible that your fellow shoppers will turn on you, because, as this discussion at the Data Lounge makes clear, Trader Joe’s shoppers really do not like feeling like they’re being taken advantage of, and Trader Joe’s shoppers sometimes play mind games. Speaking of rude line-shoppers, one anonymous commenter writes, “Sometimes we take their shopping cart and quickly move it somewhere to the other side of the store and run back into line. When she comes back, we all deny ever having seen her before.” So take heed, line-shoppers: Unless you want to be gaslighted by vindictive strangers, follow the rules.