I Shopped at Aldi for the First Time and Here's What I Learned
German grocer Aldi has been earning more and more U.S. devotees, but I'll admit I've been late to the party. After all, I already shop for food at a lot of places — Kroger, Costco, Trader Joe's, and Target — and the thought of adding one more store to my list has seemed silly. But the store's cheap prices on everything from mac and cheese to hummus had me intrigued, so I decided to try Aldi on my next small grocery trip. Here's what I discovered.
I vaguely remember exploring an Aldi maybe 15 or 20 years ago, and it seemed like a lot of cheap canned goods, pantry basics, and not much else. Aldi has definitely evolved: My local store was packed with produce, frozen foods, snack foods, bakery items, and more to round out those inexpensive kitchen staples.
The first thing my husband asked when I told him I was heading to Aldi: "Isn't that for scratch-and-dent-type food?" It's a common misconception, but my trip confirmed that nothing Aldi sells is scratched, dented, dangerously close to expiration, or otherwise "off" in any way (unless you consider suspiciously low prices "off").
Organic produce? Aldi has a small but mighty selection. Gluten-free? Yep — there's actually a whole line of products called liveGfree. There's antibiotic- and hormone-free meat, cage-free eggs, and a gourmet label called Specially Selected. I even saw hibiscus-berry craft soda, plenty of fancy cheese, and an admirable selection of imported chocolate (some of which may have ended up in my cart).
Sometimes I like to hit Kroger at 10 or 11 p.m., when the kids are in bed and I can cruise the aisles by myself. That's not an option at my local Aldi, nor is early morning shopping. It opens at 9 a.m. and closes promptly at 9 p.m. on weekdays, and 8 p.m. on weekends. This is all about efficiency: Keeping the store open extended hours would mean higher labor costs, the store says.
I figured a small store such as Aldi wouldn't have a huge selection, and I was right — there's only so much it can pack into its compact footprint. Instead of carrying dozens of brands and flavors of potato chips or yogurt, for instance, the store carries just a few. That isn't necessarily a turn-off for me — Costco, after all, also strategically limits its inventory — but it could be for a shopper who needs a very specific item, or simply isn't sure what they want and feels like browsing.
Paying for a cart seems a little mind-boggling at first, but as with everything else Aldi does, it's all about keeping costs down, since corralling carts sucks up time that its workers could better use doing other things. After popping my shiny quarter into a little red lock attached to the cart handle, I could liberate my cart. Happily, as soon as I returned and relocked the cart, I got my quarter back.
If you've got reusable grocery bags, bring 'em. Otherwise, you'll be stuck paying 7 cents for each paper bag, or 10 cents for each plastic bag, when it's time to check out. I confess that I forgot bags, but I discovered an easy (and free) Aldi hack: I just used empty cardboard boxes — the same ones the food is shipped in — that I found around the store. (And yes, Aldi is totally cool with this.)
Cost-cutting Aldi strikes again: There are no baggers. But what better way to make sure the milk doesn't smash the bread than by bagging everything yourself? There's even a bagging area at the front of the store where you can arrange everything just so, without worrying about holding up the checkout lines.
My local Aldi was bright and clean — frankly, it was more attractive than I thought it would be, in a pleasingly minimalist way — but products are left to sell themselves. In most cases, items are simply stacked on the shelves without being removed from the boxes they were shipped in. Costco and Sam's Club shoppers won't bat an eye, but if you're used to enticing displays, you won't find them here.
Here are some things I never thought I'd find at Aldi: A vintage-inspired turntable. A set of luggage. A portable hammock. A pool float shaped like a poop emoji. (Yes, really.) Labeled "Aldi Finds," these kinds of non-food items are limited-time buys that are often seasonal. They're certainly worth a browse, even if only for the entertainment value.
If you must have your Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Tropicana orange juice, or Heinz ketchup, Aldi is not your store, as it carries about 90 percent store brands. Its website lists nearly two dozen exclusive labels, including Clancy's snack foods, L'Oven Fresh bread, Little Journey baby products, and much more. I spotted a few familiar brand names including Coke, Tyson, Gatorade, Crest, and Tide, but they were the exception, not the rule.
Aldi is king of copycat packaging. If I hadn't been paying attention while browsing, I might have actually thought I was staring at Velveeta instead of Clancy's CheeseMelt, Mountain Dew instead of Summit Mountain Frost, or Lucky Charms instead of Millville Marshmallows & Stars. Some of the product names are also pretty cheeky. For instance, you won't find Ritz crackers, but you will find Savoritz crackers — packaged in bright red, of course.
If you want to get your drink on, Aldi has you covered (though local laws may affect availability in some locations). At my store, there was a ton of cheap wine, from $4 to about $15 a bottle, as well as champagne, sangria, and ready-made mimosas and bellinis (brunch, anyone?) The beer selection is curated to echo mass-market favorites, such as Holland Lager (think Heineken), Cerveza Monterrey (think Corona), and Wicked Grove (think Angry Orchard hard cider).
There's no question that food is the star of the show at Aldi. Sure, you can get things such as shampoo and paper towels there, but the selection seemed particularly thin. The prices weren't a slam dunk, either — for instance, a liter-size bottle of Aldi's Dentiguard mouthwash was 10 cents more than Target's store brand, Up & Up. Throw in Target's better selection, frequent sales, and REDcard discounts, and it makes more sense for me to keep stocking up on these things there.
I had to watch the Aldi cashiers in awe for a moment, because I've never seen grocery-store checkouts move this fast. One of the reasons for the speed? More barcodes on each product mean the clerk doesn't have to keep turning over a product to find one to scan. In fact, on a 12-pack of Aldi's Summit Cola, I found a whopping seven barcodes. Also speeding things up: No one is fumbling with coupons or checks, because neither is accepted.
Aldi clearly wants to reach its skeptics, and one of the ways it's trying to do that is with its unique "double guarantee." If you don't like something you buy, Aldi will refund your money as well as offer a replacement. According to the clerk who checked me out, the store makes a point of not hassling folks who take advantage, as this is a way to lure and keep customers.
Aldi actually publishes a couple weeks of circulars at a time, so you can preview next week's specials before coming back in. Wednesday seems to be the day big meat specials begin (promotions I saw included rack of lamb for $10 a pound, and ground beef for $1.79 a pound). You can also preview select non-food "Aldi Finds."
Low prices are the draw here, and Aldi didn't disappoint. I ended up with two full crates of groceries for just over $40 — not bad at all. Some of the highlights: a full-size bag of tortilla chips for 89 cents, a dozen eggs for 49 cents, a pound of strawberries for 99 cents, and 6-ounce cups of yogurt for 35 cents. But don't take my word for it: Aldi beats Walmart and Kroger on prices in our test of cheap grocery stores.
The million-dollar question: Does Aldi's food actually taste good? I can't vouch for everything, but I've been pleased with my items so far — especially some to-die-for chocolate-coated butter cookies that I picked up on a whim. And my picky kids have given their all-important approval to staples such as fruit snacks, animal crackers, and mini muffins.
If I had to sum up Aldi, I'd say it feels like Trader Joe's and Costco had a baby. Like Trader Joe's, it's stuffed with store brands and has a small, unintimidating footprint. Like Costco, it has a no-frills, value-first feel but still packs in enough surprises to keep shoppers on their toes. I'm not sure I can completely ditch Kroger — there are some products there we're just too attached to — but for quick grocery trips when I don't need anything too exotic, Aldi seems like a no-brainer.
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