As a frugal, grocery-shopping student in a small college town, my options are relatively limited in terms of location, shopping experience and overall breadth of products available for purchase. Bloomington has exactly one Target, one Walmart and a staggering three Krogers. These stores become thronged rather quickly, especially considering only one Kroger is worth patronizing and the rest resemble vacant ghost towns of the Midwest. Therefore, to assuage my anxiety, I typically choose the least crowded option Bloomington maintains with two affordable locations: Aldi.
My family and I frequented the discount supermarket chain for years, but when I brought it to the attention of my peers, I was left with nothing but a few raised eyebrows and confused expressions. Many either had no idea what I was talking about or could not understand my level of enthusiasm when I explained its shopping experience. They asked questions like, “Why would you want to shop somewhere that doesn’t always have everything you need?” and, “It’s all store-brand products, so doesn’t the quality suffer?” But instead of trying to coax my friends into shopping at Aldi — mostly to avoid drawing even larger crowds — I will make its case here, in hopes that other students at other college towns may discover its hidden gem properties.
A Brief History
In 1946, the Albrecht family opened the first Aldi in Germany as a discounted alternative to traditional grocery stores of its time. However, in 1961, the two Albrecht brothers — Karl and Theo — clashed over various business differences, causing a separation of the Aldi brand into two branches: Aldi Nord (North) and Aldi Süd (South). Regardless, Aldi in its entirety has expanded across Europe, Australia and the United States; today, more than 2,000 American locations accompany the store’s local headquarters in Batavia, Illinois.
Though the late brothers’ respective families plan to merge operations by 2022 to increase efficiency and reduce redundancies between stores, Aldi Süd is the primary owner and operator for the American subset.
Aldi perpetuates a “no-frills” grocery shopping experience with small and easily navigable stores that carry essentials with occasional “special buys” or “Aldi finds” from larger supermarket chains. Because more than 90% of groceries are offered under Aldi-exclusive brands, shoppers can enjoy carefully selected products at a reduced price compared to name or store-brand items. If used appropriately, Aldi can cut overall grocery bills up to 50% compared to shopping at big market retailers.
Aldi moonlights as an underground Trader Joe’s, engaging in similar business practices and blustering equivalent low prices. This comes as no surprise, as Trader Joe’s in the United States is owned by Aldi Nord but operated by Aldi Süd; the stores run entirely independent of one another with no joint ownership, but they still display striking similarities nonetheless.
What Keeps Prices So Low?
Aldi engages in various practices to ensure quality shopping and low prices for customers. Aside from avoiding brand names, they carry a small selection of products. This indicates the need for smaller stores and less warehouse space, thus decreasing the cost of overhead. They also leave products in their original packaging and palettes, use energy-efficient lighting, require customers to bring their own bags and employ a cart-rental system for patrons to return their shopping carts on their own.
At every turn, Aldi attempts to make its shopping experience about the customer rather than about increasing profits. For example, even though fewer employees work at the store at any given time (as the need to restock shelves is low), this allows Aldi to pay workers a more reasonable wage, starting at $13 an hour for cashiers in Indiana.
Aldi even skips out on big-budget advertising, which might be why you’ve rarely seen them on TV or in large publications. Rather, they send out weekly newsletters and emails with items local to their recipients, creating a more personal relationship with customers and the community. Most Aldi shoppers I know learned about the store by word of mouth or through personal experience, making Aldi somewhat of a hush-hush operation that only recently gained traction. Supermarkets even started to take notice, causing them to provide more competitive low pricing that in turn benefits the consumer.
So, You Want to Shop at Aldi. Now What?
Understandably, shopping at a new grocery store can feel daunting, as no two stores have the same layout — even if they belong to the same chain. And because Aldi greatly differs from any other supermarket, it can be hard to know what to expect upon first arrival. However, as a seasoned veteran, here are a few things I’ve learned to make the experience less intimidating.
First, I certainly recommend making a list of basic products only offered at stores with greater selections. For example, if you want oat milk, Aldi definitely carries it. But if you want vanilla-flavored or extra creamy oat milk, you might need to venture elsewhere. However, if you do shop for certain dietary restrictions or prefer organic products, the Earth Grown Vegan and Simply Nature brands are always a safe bet. Though they’re a little more expensive than the traditional Aldi staples such as Clancy’s or Friendly Farms, you’ll know it’s the best Aldi has to offer.
I also advise newcomers to come prepared. This doesn’t require much, but make sure you bring a quarter for the shopping cart and reusable bags for checkout. Most regulars can spot a rookie when they have trouble accessing the cart or buy lots of groceries with nowhere to put them.
But most importantly, take your time. Peruse the aisles at a slow pace and leave no stone unturned. Every time I shop there, I investigate each aisle at least once or twice to ensure I didn’t miss anything. This is easy to do given its limited floor space and product selection.
I’m clearly a huge proponent of Aldi. I love arriving at the checkout line with a full cart expecting it to be almost double the actual cost. I love knowing the layout will never change and that I can find exactly what I’m looking for. Though I’m tempted to gatekeep my affection for Aldi, I consider it my duty to help as many college students on a budget as possible. Maybe if we all start shopping at Aldi, we can curate a generation of conscious shoppers to combat the consumerism that plagues society today.