The Under-the-Radar Grocery Store Aldi Fans Will Love

Several Aisles Seen in Front Area of Inside Save A Lot Store


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Several Aisles Seen in Front Area of Inside Save A Lot Store

Save A Lot 101

Smaller grocery stores like Aldi are all the rage with customers who don't want to choose from 20 varieties of mustard, but there's one you may have long overlooked: Save A Lot. Around since 1977, the 814-store chain has been breathing new life into its stores with more private labels; brighter, cleaner decor; and an expanded selection of fresh foods. So how does this veteran compare with much-buzzed-about Aldi, the ruthlessly efficient German import? Read on to find out.

Related: 28 Regional Grocery Stores That Shoppers Love

Save A Lot Store Sign Exterior Front with Windows Showing Fresh Vegetables Photo

It's More of a Neighborhood Grocery

Location, location, location: While Aldi is aggressively targeting suburban areas, Save A Lot still aims to serve a variety of locations — urban, suburban, and rural, according to Sarah Griffin, the chain's director of communications. It bills itself as a "neighborhood grocery store," and the location I visited bore out that promise, in a more densely populated area of town where it would be in walking distance for many shoppers and reachable by public transit for others.

Related: 17 Ways Grocery Stores Have Changed Over the Past 50 Years

Interior Save A Lot 'Cuts & Chops' Meat and Frozen Section of the Store

It's a Little Roomier

Like Aldi, Save A Lot has a much smaller footprint than your typical supermarket and carries a more limited assortment of products — about 1,800 per store, according to the company. Still, the store I visited was more spacious than Aldi, with wider aisles and more square footage throughout to navigate. Anyone who's been in a crowded Aldi lately might appreciate the extra breathing room.

Related: 13 Things That Are Cheaper at Aldi Than the Dollar Store

Various Soft Drinks in Soda Aisle for Sale at Save A Lot

Expect No-Frills Displays

No one has ever raved about Aldi's merchandising — most products are simply stacked on the shelves in the boxes they came in. At Save A Lot, the scene is much the same, and the chain is able to save money (and pass the savings on to customers) by forgoing fancy displays.

Open Daily Sign with Payment Accepted on Front Door of Save A Lot

Hours Are Limited

My local Save A Lot has a slight edge here: Though some stores are open even longer hours, most are open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., giving shoppers a little more time to tackle their shopping lists than Aldi, open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. except for Tuesdays and Thursdays, when stores open at 8:30 a.m. for senior shopping.  Still, at either place, don't expect to find the lights on when you have the midnight munchies. Again, this is all about efficiency, since keeping the store staffed and running in the wee hours is costly.

Related: These Grocery Stores Have Special Hours for Seniors and Other At-Risk Shoppers

Two Rows of Red Save A Lot Shopping Carts Outside

Keep That Quarter Handy

Like Aldi, the Save A Lot I visited also requires shoppers to unlock shopping carts by inserting a quarter. Of course, that helps ensure their return, and allows workers to focus on stocking shelves or checking out customers instead of wrangling carts. Griffin says that not all Save A Lots have the quarter-for-a-cart system yet, but the company has gotten good feedback from those that do.

Save A Lot Aisle with Paper Products and Non-Food Items

There Are Fewer Non-Food Items

One of Aldi's more unique attributes: The "Aldi finds" section, which offers an ever-rotating assortment of seasonal items, housewares, apparel, and other items you don't expect to find in a small grocery store. There's nothing comparable at Save A Lot, where the focus is almost entirely on food. Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially for shoppers who want to avoid impulse buys.

Brand-Name Section at Save A Lot Kool Aid, Lay's, and Pepsi Products

It Stocks More National Brands

While more than 90% of the items Aldi stocks are its own store brands, Griffin says the percentage at Save A Lot is lower, at about 70% store brands and 30% name brands. The more even mix was definitely noticeable while I browsed, with big names including Coke, Lay's, Kraft and Little Debbie sharing shelf space with Save A Lot brands like Coburn Farms (dairy), J. Higgs (chips and snack food), and Kurtz (condiments). Still, Griffin says the chain has been steadily reworking its store brands, and shoppers can expect to see new private label products popping up..

Related: Over 35 Store-Brand Foods That Deliver Quality and Savings

Kiggins Cinnamon Crunch and Cinnamon Toast Crunch Cereals on Shelf at Save A Lot

Its Copycat Game Is Just as Strong

Just like Aldi, Save A Lot makes sure customers know exactly which name brands its own store brands are trying to imitate. The red circular logos on Ginger Evans cake mixes strongly echo Betty Crocker, while the colorful lettering and font on Kiggins Cinnamon Crunch cereal is a dead ringer for General Mills' Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Whether they taste similar, of course, is still up for debate — but you can check out our Aldi taste test here.

Three Shelves of Ethnic Foods at Save A Alot

Items Are More Basic Overall …

One of the more surprising parts of my Aldi shopping trips has been running across plenty of specialty items, including gluten-free selections, organics, and even some high-brow foods like imported chocolate or craft soda. I kept my eyes peeled for similar items at Save A Lot, but it's clear the store is focused on stocking the basics. One bright spot: a big assortment of ethnic foods.

Alcohol Section of Save A Lot, Wine and few Spirits on Four Shelves on Left Side, Beer on Three Shelves in Cooler on Right Side
Personal Care Items Section at Save A Lot, Four Rows of Items

Need Shampoo? Don't Buy It Here

Save A Lot struggles in this department, but so does Aldi. Limited square footage puts the squeeze on household goods and toiletries, and neither store offers much beyond the bare minimum. While there was a decent variety of cleaners and paper products at Save A Lot, beauty and health selections were scant. As with Aldi, prices were also lackluster — I could get a three-bar pack of Irish Spring at Target for 30 cents less than Save A Lot, or a tube of Banana Boat Ultra Sport sunscreen for $1.50 cheaper.

Senior Woman Going Through Checkout at Grocery Store While Looking at Coupons
AMR Image/istockphoto

Got Coupons? Save A Lot Takes 'Em

In a bid to keep checkout as efficient as possible, Aldi doesn't accept manufacturer's coupons. Save A Lot has no such qualms, which makes sense given that they carry more national brands. There are also occasional store coupons on Save A Lot's Facebook page and website. Want to pay by check? Before the pandemic you could do that here, unlike Aldi, but right now they're emphasizing contactless payment.

Want Save A Lot groceries delivered to your door? Like Aldi, they've partnered with Instacart to allow customers to shop from home.

Two Save A Lot Circulars for Labor Day Weekend

Use the Circulars to Plan Ahead

Dedicated Aldi customers scour the chain's circulars before they shop, and Save A Lot customers would be smart to do the same. Also look for "weekly wow" deals, which are limited-time savings on less prominent items, and "special buys," which focus on name-brand items that the store may not always stock. You can snag paper circulars at the store, and they're also available online.

Money Back Guarantee Sign Hanging from Ceiling at Save A Lot

It Also Has a Money-Back Guarantee

In an effort to bring in shoppers who might be wary of store brands, Aldi backs purchases with a "double guarantee" that gives shoppers both a refund and a replacement for an unsatisfactory item. Save A Lot's guarantee isn't quite as robust, but there were plenty of signs in the store reminding shoppers that they're able to bring back items for a full refund if they aren't satisfied.

Three Plastic Bags of Groceries on Ledge in Front of Window at Save A Lot

Checkout Feels Familiar, Too

Aldi devotees would feel right at home in the checkout line of my local Save A Lot. Both chains require you to purchase your own bags (it's a dime for plastic, 7 cents for paper at Aldi) so it's best to bring reusable totes if you have them. Like Aldi, Save A Lot also puts multiple barcodes on its store brand packaging for faster scanning, and requires customers to bag their own purchases at a counter in front of the store.

Three Shelves of Food Items at Save A Lot

Food Prices Can Be Low …

Save A Lot beat out Aldi, Family Dollar, and other discounters in a 2016 price survey that determined which store offered the lowest opening price points on food — that is, the absolute cheapest item on the shelf in a given category. And the chain crows about its store brands, which it says can save shoppers a mint over other retailers. A store ad highlighted savings up to 67% when customers switched to store-brand pasta, condiments, chips and other favorites over national brands.

Aisle with Four Rows of Baking Items at Save A Lot

… But Aldi Still Offers Stiff Competition

But what about Save A Lot's store brands versus Aldi's? A quick comparison of nine common grocery items like same-size packages of diet soda, tortilla chips, and apple juice showed Aldi was easier on the wallet six times. The times Save A Lot came out ahead (for example, 6-ounce yogurt cups and fruity cereal, it wasn't by much.

Related: 30 Things to Know Before Shopping at Aldi

Checkout Area of Save A Lot in Front of Store

Don't Write Off Save A Lot

All in all, Save A Lot surprised me. My local store was clean and uncluttered, it was easy to find what I needed, and the prices were at least in the ballpark with Aldi, which is no small feat. Bargain hunters can find good store-brand deals at both stores, though the product mix is a bit different: Aldi sprinkles in upscale items like organics and imported cheeses; Save A Lot sticks to the basics, but gives shoppers a much greater selection of name brands.

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