The average American family with two children spends between $885 and $1,056 per month on groceries. What if someone told you that you could cut that bill by 21%? Doing so would save a family of four more than $2,000 a year on food, and it’s exactly what an ambitious German grocery store is promising.
The budget supermarket chain Aldi is making a big play for your food dollars, and it plans to win you over with ultra-low prices on everything from milk to meat. It sounds great, but can Aldi really deliver on its promise to deliver quality foods at budget prices? We decided to find out.
My first trip to Aldi
Like many people, I’d never set foot in Aldi. It wasn’t for a lack of opportunity. There was a store in my Midwestern hometown, but we never shopped there. In the 1980s and 1990s, Aldi had a reputation as a strictly bare bones operation. I’d never been inside, but I envisioned dimly lit aisles and dusty packages of off-brand products. I wasn’t even sure whether it sold fresh produce. Fair or not, Aldi just didn’t have the best reputation.
Well, I finally went to an Aldi, and I’m here to tell you that my ideas about the store were all wrong. Not only was I pleasantly surprised by nearly every aspect of my visit, but I came away wishing there were one closer to my house, so I could make it part of my regular shopping routine.
Aldi is still relatively new to the San Diego area. The first store opened a little over a year ago, and since then two other locations have been added, including the one I visited in Chula Vista. The nearly brand new store was located in a bustling shopping plaza with a Party City, mattress store, and Smart & Final (another discount grocery chain).
It was a Saturday afternoon, and the parking lot was busy — but not maddeningly so. Even better, the parking area was completely free of stray shopping carts that people were too lazy to put away. That’s thanks to one of the biggest quirks of shopping at Aldi: the quarter system.
Yes, you have to pay to rent a cart
Even if you’ve never been to Aldi, you might know about its unusual cart distribution system. You can’t just grab a cart at the entrance like you would at most stores. Instead, you insert a quarter to unlock a cart. You get your quarter back when you return the cart at the end of the trip. It’s just one way Aldi saves you money because it doesn’t have to pay an extra employee to corral carts from all over the parking lot.
I envisioned a system similar to the luggage carts at the airport, with a single point of payment. In reality, each cart has its own lock that’s released when you insert a coin. After I deposited my quarter, it took a little jiggling to get the cart free, but in a minute I was on my way.
As I said before, I’d had the idea that Aldi was a fairly grim place to shop. By now, I’d done enough research to know Aldi wasn’t really like that, but that didn’t keep me from being pleasantly surprised when I entered the store. It was clean and brightly lit. That’s no accident. The chain has been opening new stores and sprucing up old ones in an effort to court picky customers.
The store was small, which meant I could immediately get a sense of the entire layout. Compare that to a megastore, such as Costco, where I feel like I need a map to navigate and supplies to survive the journey. The typical Aldi store is about 12,000 square feet, similar in size to its corporate cousin Trader Joe’s. Compare that to the 43,000-square-foot size of the average U.S. supermarket. That small footprint has some big pluses but also a few minuses, as we’ll see.
Smaller store, smaller selection
To many shoppers, Aldi stores are going to feel tiny. But they pack a lot into a relatively small space. The store I visited had beer and wine (but no liquor), a produce section, dairy, meat, plenty of frozen goods, and all your usual center-aisle suspects, from beans to baking mixes. There were even cleaning supplies, personal care products, and home goods. But within each of those categories, the selection was pretty small. You’re not going to find half-a-dozen flavors of Wheat Thins in the cracker aisle. Instead, you’ll find half-a-dozen types of crackers, period, and most, if not all, of them will be brands you’ve never heard of.
Whether the smaller stores and limited selection works for you is going to be entirely a matter of preference. As someone who finds too many choices kind of paralyzing and is apt to have a crisis in the toothpaste aisle at Target because of all the different options, I’m happy to sacrifice product variety for sanity. But if you have very specific items on your shopping list or just like lots of choices, Aldi will feel Spartan. And if you’re loyal to name brands, shopping here might be your personal nightmare.
Aldi’s in-house brands
Aldi doesn’t just save you money by making you pay to rent a car and having smaller stores (which means less electricity and cheaper rent). The chain’s reliance on in-house brands is what’s really doing your wallet a favor. The majority of Aldi products are sold under its own brands, such as the liveGfree line of gluten-free products or its Specially Selected gourmet products. Aldi claims these products “meet or beat the national brands’ quality” and has a refund-and-replace policy if you’re not satisfied with what you buy.
That’s not to say Aldi doesn’t stock some name-brand products. On my visit, I spotted Pop-Tarts, Budweiser, Coca-Cola, and Cheerios, to name a few. But these were all sharing shelf space with nearly identical private label items at roughly half the price (or less) of their name-brand counterparts. My personal theory: Aldi carries these national brands not so much because people want to buy them but because they want you to see how much you’ll save by choosing the store brand instead.
Apparently, many people are perfectly content to sacrifice name-brand familiarity for savings, as the store was bustling. But while I saw plenty of shoppers during my Aldi visit, there was one thing I didn’t see a lot of: employees.
Can I get a little help?
Aldi and Trader Joe’s have a lot in common. Different branches of the same German family own both chains, though their operations are completely separate. Their retail outlets are roughly the same size, and they both rely on private-label products to save shoppers money. But here’s one big difference between the two: the number of employees. The typical Trader Joe’s is usually crawling with chipper workers, who are stocking shelves, ringing up customers, and generally keeping things running smoothly. Contrast that to the Aldi I visited, where I saw maybe three or four employees total.
Running a store with a skeleton staff is just one more money-saving move from these crafty Germans. That’s good news for your wallet, but if you have a question about a product or need help with something, flagging down someone for assistance is going to be a bit of a challenge. And watch out for long lines. Although my checkout experience was quick, at one point I noticed the line had stretched to at least half a dozen shoppers, which was hardly surprising because only one of the five registers was actually open.
What was in my cart when I checked out? Let’s run down some of the totally random things I decided to buy.
Let’s talk beer and wine
I didn’t head to Aldi with much of a shopping list, but I did have a few things I wanted to check out. First up was beer, immediately to my left when I entered the store. (Not all Aldi stores sell beer and wine.) A little online sleuthing had revealed mixed reviews for the store’s house brand beers, but at an average price of $6.99 for a six-pack, I figured the low price was worth the risk. I picked up six bottles of Kinroo Blue Belgian White Ale. I’m no beer snob, but once I got this home and cracked it open I found a brew that was perfectly drinkable, in addition to being budget friendly.
Aldi sells wine, too. I didn’t sample any of its bottles, but the prices were also low, with most in the $6 to $9 range. I didn’t see anything more expensive than $16. Decanter has rounded up the best Aldi wines to stock your cellar with.
Next up, we look at the produce section.
The pros and cons of budget-priced produce
I’d heard fresh fruit and vegetables aren’t Aldi’s strong suit, and I’ll be honest: The produce section at the store I visited didn’t wow me. Prices seemed fair to cheap: bananas for 39 cents a pound, a bag of baby carrots for 89 cents, fresh blackberries for $1.29 a pint. But like the rest of the store, selection was limited. I didn’t see any fresh herbs, for example. If your shopping list is heavy on fresh fruit and vegetables, particular less common ones, your best bet is probably to head to your local farmers market or a full-service grocery. However, with the exception of one package of obviously moldy blackberries, all the produce appeared to be fresh and of good quality, with some organics mixed in with conventionally grown fruits and veggies.
Next, I headed to the meat section.
The case of the missing meat
I’m not a big meat eater, and I don’t keep a close eye on meat prices of beef and chicken. Usually, I buy what I need when I want it and don’t stress too much about price per pound, though I do stock my freezer when ground turkey is on sale. The latter was on my shopping list because that week’s Aldi circular was touting ground turkey for $1.99 a pound. Here I hit the first real roadblock of my trip. I couldn’t find the advertised turkey in the smallish meat section. Maybe it was sold out. I’ll never know because there was no employee to ask. (Needless to say, Aldi stores don’t have dedicated meat counters.) Apparently, my difficultly in tracking down an advertised meat special isn’t totally unusual, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
An invitation to impulse buy
After the meat, I scoped out the dairy section. Milk, another item I rarely buy, ranged from $1.85 to $2.65 a gallon. The average price is $3.21 a gallon, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, my husband, who I’d dragged along on this trip, wandered off to explore the rest of the store. A few minutes later he was back, a gleam in his eye. A massive take-and-bake pizza was just $6.49. Did we need pizza? No. But we already had beer in our cart, and a cheap pizza and beer dinner seemed like the perfect way to reward ourselves after an afternoon of deal hunting.
The pizza wasn’t the only random item that made its way into our cart. A wheel of Gouda cheese for $2.99 and a 95-cent box of brownie mix also made the cut. A 12-ounce bag of organic, fair trade, single-origin coffee beans was a steal at $4.99, and a 17-ounce bottle of organic extra-virgin olive oil was $3.99. Some items I saw seemed specifically selected to meet local shoppers’ tastes, such as the corn husks for tamales I spotted. The store also had trendy, “healthy” Halo Top ice cream for $3.89 a pint, compared to the $5 or more you might pay at a traditional store. You could even get sushi, but I draw the line at some things, and budget sushi is one of them.
I’d filled my cart with (hopefully) tasty food, but what about the non-food items Aldi sells?
Beyond the food aisles
Aldi specializes in helping you stock your pantry and freezer for cheap, but food isn’t the only thing you can get in the chain’s stores. There was also a small selection of tissue, toilet paper, paper towels, and similar items. A single roll of generic paper towels was 99 cents, about what I’d pay for an equivalent item at a regular supermarket, so these didn’t seem too enticing. Aldi also had a small selection of personal care products, including shampoo, hairspray, and soap.
I wasn’t surprised to see Aldi sold paper towels and aluminum foil, but I wasn’t expecting to see a spiralizer, paella pan, and a taco rack. In fact, the store seemed to be running a stock-your-dorm-room sale, with ultra-budget prices on things, such as storage cubes and sheets. I’d seen similar items in a Bed Bath and Beyond ad a few days earlier for two or three times the price. Parents who are feeling the sting of rising college tuition, take note. Aldi has your back.
Having filled our cart, we proceeded with our bounty to the checkout.
The checkout process
The long checkout line I’d seen earlier had given me pause, but by the time I headed to the registers, there was just one person in front of us. We piled our haul on the conveyor belt and pushed our cart to the end. As the clerk rang up our items, he transferred them back to the cart. Bagging is another luxury Aldi doesn’t have.
My only interaction with an Aldi employee was pleasant, if brief. Unlike at Trader Joe’s, where the employees are so friendly it’s sometimes off-putting, this clerk kept extra chatter to a minimum and didn’t feel the need to quiz me on my weekend activities — perfect when you’re a socially awkward shopper like me. I paid for my purchases with my debit card, but the store started accepting credit cards in 2016.
Transaction completed, we moved on to the final stop on our Aldi journey: the bagging area.
No bags, no problem
Aldi doesn’t do free grocery bags. If you want to get your purchases home, you’ll need to bring your own reusable totes. In California, which recently banned single-use plastic bags, the policy doesn’t require much of an adjustment. We already bring our bags to the store. But if you’re not in the habit of grabbing your shopping bags when you leave your car, Aldi’s policy could take some getting used to.
Rather than force shoppers to frantically pack their own bags as the cashier rings up their purchases, the store provides a dedicated bagging area. We headed to a long shelf at the front of the store to transfer our purchases from our cart to our bags. I thought this was convenient, but it did seem like bagging could be a challenge if the store was very busy and the area was crowded.
Now, all that was left was to return the cart.
Total damage: $54.46
Returning the Aldi cart was a breeze. Simply unload your bags, return the cart to its row, lock it to the preceding cart, and you’ll get your quarter back. Easy-peasy. We hauled our purchases to the car, budget-friendly shopping mission accomplished. Or was it?
In total, we spent $54.46. Not too bad for 20 items, including slightly more expensive things, such as beer, coffee, and the pizza. But I didn’t exactly leave feeling like I’d saved a bundle, mostly because of those random impulse buys. I was looking forward to munching on the Gouda and the white cheddar cheese puffs (which Aldi shoppers named their favorite product of 2017), but I didn’t go to the store intending to buy either. Ditto for the quartet of hummus flavors and the Kalamata olives.
The final verdict
Overall, my first visit to Aldi was a positive one. Shopping at the store was pleasant, and I appreciated the more limited selection of products and the smaller footprint, which made the experience of navigating the store far easier. I didn’t half to trek a half mile back to the produce section when I realized I forgot to pick up bananas, for example. But the store wasn’t as convenient to get to as I would like, which means I probably won’t make it a regular part of my shopping routine. If I do return, I’d go with a more specific list of staple items and try to steer clear of the impulse purchases — a good rule for grocery shopping in general.
Should mainstream grocery stores be worried about Aldi muscling in on their turf? Maybe. Aldi’s prices on many items are enticingly low, and based on the products I’ve tried so far from my trip, cheap doesn’t have to mean sacrificing quality. Many price-sensitive shoppers already appreciate the store, and I expect more will do so as the chain expands.
But full-service grocery stores offer advantages that streamlined operations, such as Aldi, don’t. The Von’s in my neighborhood has a pharmacy, butcher, floral section, bakery, and much wider variety of products overall. There’s definitely something to be said for one-stop shopping, especially when it’s within walking distance of my house. Nor did Aldi have the wide selection of prepared foods you’d find at a Whole Foods, and it didn’t have the quirky charm and cult favorite products you get at Trader Joe’s (hello, Cookie Butter). But Aldi is really good at what it sets out to do: Sell quality groceries for less. If I were really committed to save money on essentials and it was just a little more convenient to get to, I’d be making Aldi a regular part of my routine.