Warning: This post contains all manner of consumer economics / retail design nerdery.
I love grocery shopping. LOVE IT. Like, way more than I enjoy clothes or shoe shopping. The first person to merge a bookstore with a farmer’s market will be rich because I’ll be there all the time.

Over the last few years I’ve tended more towards specialty shops and green grocers than supermarkets or big box stores; my one exception being Trader Joe’s.  Trader Joe’s is a feat of branding brilliance. Here’s this store that doesn’t really put out ads or coupons and sells mostly private label items. By all reasoning this should be a massive failure. Yet this chain has built a fervent following by creating a well-defined identity as low-cost, high-quality, cool, fun, and hip (yes, I said Hip). Even snooty foodies have had TJ food or sipped “two-buck Chuck“.
(Trivia: Did you know the Charles Shaw Winery is run by one of the Franzia brothers? This man has built his fortune on getting people drunk for pennies. As Kathy Griffin’s Mom would say, “Tip it!”).
Problem is, TJ’s isn’t as cost effective as it would like everyone to think it is. Most of what they have is priced comparably to national brands and the specialty items, while nice to be able to find, are as expensive as a specialty item would be anywhere else.  Add in the “ooo shiny” impulse buy factor, and I’m rarely getting out of there for under $60 and not much to show for it.
The second I read The Consumerist’s article about Aldi, the company that owns Trader Joe’s, I was on a mission. My first chance to visit was earlier this month and it was…interesting.

As a shopper, the “ohhh, lookit that” factor remains, but this place is less about it’s own identity than cribbing someone else’s. As a consumer advocate, I admire the commitment to capitalizing on the general public’s confusion by bucking the norms. It’s like being in bizarro world, starting with the second you walk in the door. Traditionally, store entrances guide people to the right . Most people are right handed and look to the right first upon entering an unfamiliar place anyway. Typically stores have a decompression zone then advertised sales and specials a few feet onto the sales floor to really grab a shopper’s attention and draw them deeper into the store. Aldi breaks the rules – the door and tall shelving force you to the left, and there’s no decompression zone. Heck, the shelves are so high you can’t even see into the next aisle. It’s like being in a tunnel of value priced items and the only way out is to go all the way to the back of the store to the refrigerated cases before you can see what lies in store. It’s highly disorienting, somewhat overwhelming, but very effective.  Because you’re forced to look all around to figure out what the heck is going on, that’s where the highest concentration of bagged and boxed food items lie, things that will be picked up on impulse by you and especially by kids. I saw more than one parent screaming “put that back!”.  I personally picked up at least 6 things in that first aisle and ended up purchasing four.  67% success rate ain’t too bad.  Once you make it out of the tunnel o’value you’re confronted with the refrigerated cases. 1 line of them. Not the 4 aisles you’re accustomed to; there are exactly 6 doors: cheese, milk, deli meat, yogurt, butter – 1 to 3 varieties of each. You get what you get and don’t get upset.

Just when you’re getting fatigued, they bring out the big guns. The Weekly Special Buys pull you up the next aisle. Lets talk pricing. $1.99 – $4.99 seems to be Aldi’s sweet spot. Very few items breech that $5 boundary, but with the special buys, all bets are off. During my visit, they were selling a vacuum. Next week they have a quilt set. What’s that, you don’t need a new quilt? But they’re only here for this week, you gotta get it now at this super duper special price only for you today today today. See how that works? Enjoy your new bedding.

I forge onward, noticing something interesting. All of the items are recognizable from a distance, which isn’t usually true for private-label goods. Theoretically the shopper should be unfamiliar with the packaging, but everything is just slightly similar enough to engender a false sense of trust and security.

Look Familiar?

The areas where I saw the greatest margin of savings for comparable quality compared to store & national brands were health/beauty and meats /poultry.

Cheap Meat!

Most of the animal proteins were $.50 – $1 less per pound than supermarkets in the area. Not content with anecdotal evidence, I did a product to product price comparison using a local supermarket’s Shop At Home feature.

Criteria: Products had to be of comparable size and quality, and if available, on sale.

Aldi Reciept

Shop@Home Comparison

Results: Aldi Total: $57.43
ShopRite Total: $95.29
Percentage Increase: 65.924%
Savings: $37.86

Conclusion: Aldi is kind of worth it if you’re not a brand devotee and hate cutting coupons. Even taking into account that I’ve been traveling, there’s still plenty of protein in my freezer to get me through another few weeks and this was a quick and easy way to shave $40 (or more, because I haven’t been buying lunch) off of my food budget.

What’s your favorite supermarket, and why?

Photo credits:
Campbell’s Chunky Soups – somewhereineverexpected.com via Google Image Search

All the rest are by me. booyah!