A blog experiment by Brad Mills.


Aldi, the little store that could

Aldi logo I've recently discovered Aldi, and I've got to say I've become a little obsessed.

Some background is in order. I grew up in a Kroger house. Dad worked there for many years, and when he and Mom were first married, Kroger was their only source of income until Mom started her long career as an educator. It put food on the table, in all meanings of the phrase, for a large portion of my life. I also did my time working at Kroger through high school and college, as did my brother.

This isn't a snobbery thing at all, it's just what I've been used to over the years. I've ventured into other stores, yes — Food Lion, Foodland, Save-A-Lot, Food 4 Less, Harris Teeter, even Walmart and Sam's Club. But for the most part, all these stores are fundamentally the same as Kroger. Shopping carts strewn all over, thousands upon thousands of items to choose from, multiple brands, coupons to juggle, and in what seems to be a popular trend (probably inspired by Walmart), huge aisles and departments and spaces. It almost feels like a visit to a theme park anymore.

I've written here about Kroger before — more specifically, about the niftiness of the Plus Card coupon app. That still works, by the way, and they've added a feature where you can "download" a free item every Friday. It really is free. With the self-checkout, I can pop in, grab my free stuff, scan my card, not pay a cent, and roll on out of there like a smooth criminal.

Aldi is a different kind of grocery store. The stores are small. The one closest to me is in fact tucked away on the fringes of a residential neighborhood in Dunbar, about ten miles away (another one is opening on Corridor G soon). When I say "small" I'm talking about only four aisles in the entire store. That's it. The lot, also small, remains cleared of shopping carts. This is done through an ingenious system — a 25 cent deposit is required to use a cart. Do you want to get your quarter back when you're done shopping? Return your cart, stow it and lock it up properly, and your deposit is returned to you. The company doesn't have to pay anyone to clear the lot, and it doesn't lose any carts because the customer is incentivized to return them.

This is just one example of how the store operates as a whole. The entire operation is incredibly efficient from the minute you walk in the door until you leave. The first aisle of the store begins immediately inside the front door. It makes perfect sense — customers are there to buy groceries, so why waste the space on an expensive lobby which, relatively speaking, is an unprofitable wasteland? And why stay open at all hours when you might make only a few meager sales in the middle of the night? Aldi's hours reflect the shopping hours of regular people — not vampires — so there's another cost savings. As far as bagging groceries goes, you'll be doing that yourself. You can buy the bags Aldi sells at the register or you can bring your own (mine all say Kroger on them, haha) — or, just take an empty display box from the big wire bins in the store, which helps Aldi get rid of the boxes and gives you a free way to carry your stuff through the store and out to your car.

Let's get to the good stuff: prices. On a recent trip a couple of weeks ago, here are some of the deals I found without even trying:

  • "Toasted Oats" (Aldi brand Cheerios): 14 ounce box, $1.19
  • Baby carrots: Two pounds, $1.98
  • Tomato soup: One can, 49¢
  • Sour cream: 16 ounces, 99¢ (all natural ingredients)
  • "Toaster Tarts" (Aldi brand Pop-tarts): Box of 12, $1.99
  • Fresh strawberries: One pound, $1.29
  • Organic avocados: Four for $2.99
  • 2% milk: One gallon, $1.59
  • Potatoes: Ten pounds, $2.49

A trip with just these items (I actually got a lot more) would cost exactly $15. I haven't priced these products elsewhere, but I can say the prices on six of these nine items are the lowest I've seen in years. Milk for $1.59 per gallon? Yes, please. And just so you know, I didn't cherry-pick these items because their prices were lower. Just about everything I saw was inexpensive.

You'll see there are a couple of off-brand things listed. Almost everything Aldi sells is a brand they own. This lets them control the entire supply chain, and they can squeeze out savings all the way down to the point where the product cases are opened and the products are displayed in the store. The cases, in fact, become the displays and are engineered so they can be. And, the product packages themselves have barcodes on multiple sides and at multiple angles so when the cashiers scan them, they can do so in one swipe without having to search all over the box for them. As a former cashier (and a very fast one back in the day), I will say this is a brilliant idea which somebody should have implemented when barcodes were first introduced.

As for quality — it's pretty good. There are a few food things I'm very picky about (Cheez-it crackers and Grape Nuts cereal are two of these, a few others are here), so finding substitutes for those will be a futile effort, of course. Strawberries are... well, they're strawberries. I will note that some of the strawberries were spoiling on the day I went, so it's probably wise to check any produce item for obvious problems — but really, that's not a bad idea at any store that sells fresh produce. Yes, even Kroger. But for the prices, I was rather impressed with everything. It's almost like the food industry is profit-based, and Aldi is approaching it from the angle of spending less in other areas and passing those savings on to the consumer.

Pretty novel idea, I know. With my regular Kroger store being incapacitated due to flood damage, it's a good chance to try some different stores. Aldi is turning into a new favorite.

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