Welcome to Aldi, the Antithesis of American Supermarkets

Trader Joe’s big brother may convince you that name brands, selection and customer service aren’t all there cracked up to be. First, a tiny history lesson. Aldi was founded in Germany in the 1940’s by two brothers. They had decided in the 1960’s to go their separate ways due to a disagreement over cigarette sales. They split the company in two forming Aldi Nord and Aldi Sud. Both Aldi’s have expanded internationally with Aldi Nord operating the Trader Joe’s chain in the US and Aldi Sud running the Aldi stores. Ironically, there are already some 1500 Aldi locations in the US (concentrated in the eastern half) but the Store Brands Magazine “2014 retailer of the year” has much less name recognition than Trader Joe’s. That may be about to change with Aldi’s massive western expansion.

 

So…...what’s up with Aldi? I had occasion to visit the new Aldi store in my town that will have a grand opening in two weeks. I’ve never been to a supermarket in Europe but my first thought walking in the door was it has a European feel to it. Maybe I should say German feel since it seemed so organized, streamlined and hyper-efficient.  It definitely felt nothing like any typical US discount grocery store I’ve ever visited. It was nicely appointed with a slightly warmer, homier ambiance and very small by comparison. You don’t see any sort of plain wrap generic brands. You do see brands you’ve never heard of like Sea Queen, Clancy’s, Bake House, Appleton Farms, Tuscan Garden, Cattleman’s Ranch and others.  These attractively packaged and well-presented offerings are Aldi’s own premium brands which make up over 90% of their stock.

 

Aldi is attempting to import the German grocery shopping experience to main-stream America. Reports suggest almost 90% of all Germans shop at Aldi.

 

The major cost saving device at Trader Joe’s as well as some of their American competitors is private labeling. You also get helpful, upbeat employees that bag your purchases and retrieve your shopping carts from the parking lot or even help you load stuff into your car. Not so at Aldi. Private labeling and high quality may be present but expect to bag your own groceries, in your own bags (they’ll sell you some if need be) and return your own shopping cart or lose the 25 cent deposit for its use. You may bag your items at the checkout stand if you’re quick about it or you just load them back into your cart (with no help from the seated checker) and take them to the wide “bagging counter” near the exit.

 

You might be wondering why Germans think Aldi is so wunderbar. Here’s a glimpse of some major differences between Aldi and the typical American supermarket:

 

While most American supermarkets carry more than 30,000 items, Aldi carries only the most commonly purchased grocery items (some reports suggest as few as 1500 items) and only their private label brands.  Fewer items and brands mean smaller stores, lower rent, lower electric bills and less employees. Also less selection.

 

Stores are only open during the most popular shopping hours (9:00 am – 9:00pm). Again, lower utility and labor costs, less convenience.

 

No bags or help with bagging. Less labor cost, lower overhead, less customer service.

 

Refundable 25 cent deposit for shopping carts. Reduced runaway carts and less labor cost for retrieval, less convenience.

 

Cardboard boxes instead of shelves. Reduced expense for shelving and more efficient, less labor intensive re-stocking, no less convenient.

 

Although smaller stores are generally more convenient it’s pretty obvious to me that food shopping in Germany isn’t nearly as much about convenience, customer service or selection as it is about high quality and super low prices. How low is super low? We’re talking as much as 50% lower, a very noticeable difference. I can’t comment on quality since the store hasn’t opened yet in my town but from what I could see it looks to be on a par with our major recognized national brands. The meat and produce I saw looked every bit as fresh and enticing as any I’ve seen in a Ralph’s or Albertsons.

 

I’m intrigued to say the least and plan to give Aldi a try. In much of Southern California we already pay for bags or provide our own so no problem there. I’ve bagged my own groceries at Fresh & Easy and paid more or at discount food stores for not that much less. The bags, bagging and cart deposit aren’t issues for me and I dare say won’t be for most people if the savings are truly so dramatic.

 

Quality is undoubtedly the biggest issue. If Aldi’s private label brands stand up well to the name brands most of us yanks are used to, it’s a no brainer.  If not, I think most people would rather pay more for better looking, tasting and healthier products. Otherwise, we’d all do our grocery shopping at the 99 cent store!