It’s Aldi good

Aldi offers bargain groceries in a clean, efficient environment.
Aldi offers bargain groceries in a clean, efficient environment.

Aldi, the German-owned discount supermarket chain, began popping up around town a couple of years ago. They now have over 1,000 stores in 29 states, from Kansas to points east. It’s only during these new penny-pinching times that I’ve finally ventured inside. After all, Aldi promises shoppers will save 50-90% off regular supermarkets. I was out running errands this morning, needing a couple of items anyway, and decided to pop into a new Aldi outlet to see what it’s all about.

Since I just needed a few things, I bypassed the line of shopping carts, for which you must deposit 25 cents to use (it’s refunded at checkout).

I should have popped for the cart.

My first impression was that the store was clean, well lit, and well organized. It felt spacious without being overly large (it was about the size of a Trader Joe’s, but with a smaller selection and therefore wider aisles). It’s all about off-brand items (Aldi’s house brands, it turns out). I’d never heard of Clancy’s corn chips, but they were available in many varieties, including multigrain and organic blue corn ($1.69 per 9-ounce bag). I couldn’t pass up the Rodeo Bill Peppercorn Ranch Kettle-Style Potato Chips ($1.99 for 9 ounces)–heck, because they were called Rodeo Bill. And they’re damn tasty. I picked up a box of 50 quart-size Kwik ‘n’ Fresh zip-top bags ($1.99), and they’re a much better quality than other bargain versions I’ve found.

My haul from Aldi.

My haul from Aldi.

A few name-brand items are sprinkled about the store–there were Reese’s mini cups and M&M’s amid the candy (alongside Aldi’s Austrian-made Choceur chocolates), but for the most part you’ll find store brands, including their Fit ‘n’ Active lower-cal items and La Mas Rica Mexican staples. You can also find dairy products; eggs; fresh meat, poultry (hormone-free boneless chicken breast, anyone?), and pork; canned and frozen goods; and household items. There’s a small section of decent-looking produce, too. You won’t find exotic stuff, but the basics are there. I’ll say the lettuce was looking better than the tired, overpriced, head of Romaine I bought at a gourmet store yesterday.

There’s even a selection of wine, beer, and a few specialty drinks. If you don’t mind buying O’Donnell’s Irish Cream instead of Bailey’s or Monterrey beer instead of Corona (and I don’t), you’re in business.

In other words, you’d find pretty much everything on an average shopping list, but with a smaller, more mainstream selection. Bakers, for example, will find semisweet chocolate chips, but not dark chocolate. But that also helps Aldi keep it cheap and cheerful.

The central part of the store is taken up with oddball weekly special buys–gift sets of body butter, say, or binoculars, or electric stove heaters.

The checkout line is where they really streamline things to minimize staffing. Shoppers are welcome to bring their own bags, or you can purchase one (6 cents for paper, 10 cents for a roomy plastic bag, or $1.99 for a really sturdy fabric version). You bag your own groceries (which you can take to a roomy counter to bag them up after paying). And Aldi only accepts cash or debit cards.

Shop smart

 

 

Milk, bread, and eggs all cost more than they did a year ago, motivating consumers to shop more creatively.

Milk, bread, and eggs all cost more than they did a year ago, motivating consumers to shop more creatively.

By now, we’re all spending less in order to save some dough. We’re driving less. Eating out less and cooking more at home. Shopping differently–everything from clipping coupons, to buying in-store brands, to trolling the aisles at discount stores. The market research firm Booz & Co.’s latest survey finds those are among the top behavioral changes consumers have already made or plan to make. Even well-heeled shoppers who make $95K+ are looking for bargains these days.

Traditional bargain outlets like dollar stores and other high-value retailers are seeing sales climb while high-end retailers are watching sales dip. Sales at the Commerce, Calif.-based 99 Cents Only stores rose 9 percent in the third quarter and the company now boasts “The Right Store..Now More than Ever” on its Web site. On the opposite end of the grocery scale, Whole Foods’ sales grew just 2.6% in the third quarter (down from 10% growth during the same period in 2006), and the company has trimmed plans for new store openings, according to the Wall Street Journal. They’re fighting back with weekly “value tours” to show customers how they can save and still have their Whole Foods, too.

 

I’m certainly shopping differently. A year ago, I cheerfully perused the aisles of Whole Foods, tossing gourmet cheese, exotic produce, and pricey meat into the my shopping cart. Last week, I bragged that I dropped just $18 at the store (picking up a few specific items and ignoring the temptation that lurked at every corner). My best buy was a couple of links of in-store-made lamb merguez sausage for less than $3. I cut them up, cooked them in a soup pot, and sauteed the aromatics in the rendered fat to make Potage de Lentille, which provided us with 2 generous suppers. You can pick up French lentils at gourmet groceries or online.

I’m also planning a recon mission to 99 Cents Only, now that I know I can 99 Logo-Color-Final-EPS [Converted]score a 3-pound sack of potatoes or a 2-pack of red bell peppers for a buck (gratin, anyone?).