Food & Drink

How To Shop At Aldi, The Confusing Budget Grocery Store

From the quarter required to release a shopping cart to the complete lack of name brands, here's a primer on what to know about Aldi.

We all have opinions ― strong ones ― about the places we buy our food. We might snicker at well-heeled foodies shelling out their trust funds for asparagus water at Whole Foods. We may roll our eyes at Costco’s prepper-leaning loyalists as they fill up their minivans with a year’s supply of toilet paper. Both Publix and Wegmans have their share of loyalists too. And then there’s the great divide regarding Aldi, which pretty much comes down to this: You’re either an Aldi lover or an Aldi hater.

What Aldi Lovers Say

For lovers of the no-frills German discount grocery chain (and that’s more than 40 million shoppers each month across 1,900 stores in 36 U.S. states), the romance begins from the moment they push their quarter into the slot to release a shopping cart (a short-term deposit that’s returned when the cart is replaced). They drift into the cozily sized store on a serene cloud of contentment, choosing from products stacked in quick-restock shipping boxes. They buy products labeled liveGfree (gluten-free), Simply Nature (organic), Never Any! (meat without antibiotics, added hormones or steroids) and Earth Grown (vegetarian and vegan).

They choose even unfamiliar house brands with confidence, knowing that the store’s “Twice as Nice” guarantee will replace any product with which they aren’t satisfied and refund their money. After they’ve crossed all the items off their shopping lists, they head over to what some shoppers call the “Aisle of Dreams,” the treasure hunter’s delight of seasonal and clearance items that are here today and probably gone tomorrow. Really, they ask their skeptical friends, what’s not to like?

What Aldi Haters Say

For haters, the answer to “what’s not to like?” is “plenty.” They cannot honestly believe they’re required to fork over a quarter just to ensure they’ll return that dumb cart when their shopping trip is (finally) over. The store is small. The selection is limited. There’s no Muzak, so it’s as quiet as the inside of a freezer case in there, with the silence punctuated only by distant beeps of cashiers at the checkout stations.

See that red coin slot on the right-hand side of the cart? That's where you put your quarter to get your shopping cart.
See that red coin slot on the right-hand side of the cart? That's where you put your quarter to get your shopping cart.

Haters are creeped out that none of the brands are the ones their mom used to buy. They want Hellmann’s mayonnaise, not a look-alike wannabe called “Burman’s,” for crying out loud. And they can never remember to bring their own bags, so they’re standing at the bagging area trying to juggle a leaky chicken and a box of frozen waffles. They hate this place and cannot get out of it fast enough, no matter how cheap the groceries are.

An Expert Explains What’s What

We found a referee in Christopher Durham, an expert on retailer private brands and president of My Private Brand. He offered this diplomatic thought: “Aldi is a concept you either like or you don’t.”

“If you want a butcher who’ll offer you cooking advice or you need 100 different kinds of peppers to choose from, it’s not the kind of store you’re going to want to visit,” he told HuffPost.

Durham sees a connection between Aldi and the kind of shopping people do at Costco. “You don’t get 50 different kinds of everything at Costco, just a very few, so you have to trust their product curation,” he said. Unlike a Costco warehouse, though, there are only four or five aisles in an Aldi and, on average, about 12,000 square feet of retail space. “A typical Wegmans might have 120,000 square feet,” Durham said.

The small footprint means that you might not find everything on your shopping list during a trip to Aldi. Shoppers might search in vain for anchovies, miso or pine nuts, but they might also be surprised to find chia seeds, chopped dates, vegan cheese and almond flour.

“It’s really the little grocery store that could,” Durham said. “They are very focused on giving you a great price, and they aren’t messing around. Their honesty is refreshing. They do what they do, and they aren’t trying to be anyone else.” And while the stores are adding new innovations like Instacart delivery, Durham doesn’t believe online shopping will become a major revenue source. “Delivery is cool, but people like going there because they have unique finds and special buys that you have to go in person to find. There’s a sense of discovery at Aldi that you don’t find in a traditional grocery store.”

Janelle Myers fills her arms with groceries during the grand opening of Aldi food market on March 24, 2016 in Moreno Valley, California.
Janelle Myers fills her arms with groceries during the grand opening of Aldi food market on March 24, 2016 in Moreno Valley, California.

With a focus on speed, he noted, you’ll get out of checkout super-fast, and they’ve worked out clever ways to keep things moving, including moving your empty cart next to the cashier to start loading groceries for the next person, a switcheroo that often gets you to the shopper bagging station before you quite realize what’s happening.

There are other speed-inducing tricks, too, Durham said. “Take a look at some of the packaged goods, and you’ll probably notice bar codes on multiple sides of the package. That’s so the cashier doesn’t have to waste time trying to find it,” he added.

Durham even found a deeper hidden meaning in that quarter that’s required to get a shopping cart: “Having customers return carts helps them keep staffing lower, which can keep prices lower,” he said. “They are so lean in their staffing that there might only be two or three people working an entire store on any given shift.”

6 Tips From Aldi Super Shoppers

We rounded up some Aldi lovers for the straight scoop on how to shop there like a pro. Here’s what they said:

1. Calm down about the carts: Devoted Aldi-heads always keep an extra quarter in their car or pocket. And they understand the unique etiquette of the cart in-and-out. “Don’t be alarmed if someone approaches you in the parking lot,” Jen Roesler told HuffPost. “They are likely just offering you a quarter in exchange for your cart.” It saves you both a trip to the cart corral, but it can be unsettling, she said. “The first time I brought my stepmother to Aldi, a guy walked up to us in the parking lot with his hand outstretched, and it freaked her out.”

You can even use the cart “rental” system to pay it forward just a little bit. “Sometimes when I’m feeling generous, I give people my cart and don’t ask for a quarter,” Jean Kindem told HuffPost.

This brownie mix may look like Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker, but it's actually the store brand at Aldi.
This brownie mix may look like Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker, but it's actually the store brand at Aldi.

2. Try the store brand: “I’ve found the Clancy’s corn chips (their version of Fritos) and Petit Ecolier cookies (their version of Little School Boy) to be almost identical in taste for a fraction of the price,” Duffy Pearce told HuffPost. “On the other hand, the Summit GT diet cola (Diet Coke) and the Clancy’s cheese puffs (Cheetos) were epic disappointments to me. But if it looks like something I might like, I’ve usually found it’s worth buying a package and giving it a whirl.”

Roesler said: “My dad swears the Savoritz Cheez-It-style crackers are better than the original.” Kindem noted: “Their store-brand Clancy’s tortilla chips taste like Doritos to me.”

3. Wow Wednesdays: Aldi doesn’t accept coupons, but there is a way to double up on the savings. “The specials advertised in the Aldi Insider of the previous week and the current week are both good on Wednesdays, the day the Insider is published,” Jane Rodriguez told HuffPost. (In some areas, the Insider is published on Sundays, but the same rule applies.) Also, if you love panning for shopping gold, the Aldi Finds section (“Aisle of Dreams”) often gets a refresh on Wednesdays.

4. Think fancy: “I go there for imported cheeses, private label mineral water and a good selection of low-priced gluten-free items like pizza, crackers and pretzels,” Julie Brown Price told HuffPost. “At holiday time, I often find unique European Christmas foods.” Speaking of the holidays, last year’s wine Advent calendar was a hit with shoppers and a media sensation.

For many people, Aldi is a store that sells chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate ― and maybe whatever else got added to the grocery list while they were thinking about chocolate. “If you love European-style milk chocolate that’s super creamy, cocoa-buttery and Cadbury Dairy Milk-style, then you’re in luck at Aldi,” Sarah Jackson told HuffPost. “They also have dark chocolate coconut-covered almonds that pretty much everyone needs in their life.”

5. It can replace your Home Depot: After you’ve stocked up on food, you also might find some nonedible can’t-live-withouts. “I got $8 solar spotlights that have lasted two years,” Brown Price said.

“I’ve purchased tools, furniture, yard games, sporting goods, storage systems, shoe hangers, kitchen tools and bento-style lunch boxes there,” Jackson said. “It’s like Costco for folks who can’t afford a membership. My two favorite housewares purchases from Aldi were barstools with industrial metal bases and reclaimed-esque wooden seats for $30 each and a set of two miniature soccer nets for $15.”

6. Checkout two-step: “The checkout lines can look long, which can be off-putting, but the cashiers move fast,” Roesler said. “Get your ducks in a row before it’s your turn to check out. You need to unload your cart quickly, be ready to pay and then to move right over to the bagging area. It helps keep everything moving, but it can feel like there isn’t much of a grace period for newbies.” All is not lost if you forgot bags. “You can find boxes in the bagging area or you can purchase bags there if you forget your own,” Kindem said.

It’s An Aldi World

Aldi has said that by 2022, it will have 2,500 locations, making it the third-largest U.S. grocer by store count. That level of expansion means that, love it or hate it, you’ll probably be walking or driving past an Aldi sometime soon. If you happen to find a quarter in your pocket ― well, the next step is up to you.

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