Aldi time in the world

John I. Carney
May 27 · 5 min read

On Saturday, at the head of a three-day weekend, I decided to go to Tullahoma and shop at two of my favorite places, Ollie’s Bargain Outlet and Aldi.

Ollie’s is sort of like Big Lots — only better, friendlier somehow. I think it may be the caricature of the (now-deceased) co-founder that you see everywhere in the store. And even though the normal prices are already cheap, they sometimes do special events or coupons. Yesterday, I had a 15 percent off coupon that I got in the mail for being part of the “Ollie’s Army” discount card program.

But what I want to write about is Aldi. Some of you already love Aldi; some of you have never set foot in one and don’t really know what it’s all about. My North Carolina brother and sister-in-law do most of their shopping at Aldi.

Aldi store in Ohio. Photo by Nicholas Eckhart (Creative Commons, via Flickr)

For those of you who don’t know about Aldi, I’ll explain it. It’s a German chain with a long history. It offers low prices on groceries — but those low prices are achieved through some unique cost-saving measures. Aldi shoppers don’t seem to mind, though, because the store really does pass the savings along in the form of lower prices. I’ll save the best-known quirk, Aldi’s unique way of handling shopping carts, for last.

  • Aldi stores are smaller than Kroger or Walmart or Publix, and have a much more limited selection. There’s a heavy emphasis on store-brand items, although some of the biggest brand names are available. Aldi’s store brands are great. By the way, when I say “a limited selection” I don’t mean that everything in the store is budget food. When I went yesterday, as a special little treat, I got a package of serrano ham. They have nice things as well as everyday food — they just don’t have every single item you could ever conceivably want. And they don’t have 14 different varieties of ketchup, or 75 different flavors of potato chip. If you’re looking for a special ingredient for that exotic recipe from the Food Network, you may have to make a side trip to Kroger — and there’s nothing wrong with that.
  • Aldi stores have limited hours. The Tullahoma store is open 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. (I’m writing this on the day before Memorial Day, and I think they will have shorter hours on the holiday.) You can’t run to Aldi on the way to work or to satisfy some late-night craving.
  • Aldi does not provide free grocery bags. Most people bring their own reusable bags or boxes. The store’s shelving methods mean there are sometimes empty boxes in the store, and you’re welcome to use one of those as well. You can pay for grocery bags if you don’t bring any.
  • As the attendant rings up your groceries, he or she will move them from your shopping cart into an empty cart. Then, after you’ve paid for your groceries, there’s a big, convenient counter that you can pull your cart over to and use as you bag your groceries. (Or you could just take them loose out to your car, and deposit them in boxes or plastic tubs or what have you.)
  • Now, about those carts. At Walmart and Kroger, you will frequently see loose carts left in the parking lot by people whose time is much, much too valuable to be troubled to walk 20 yards with an empty shopping cart and return it to one of the corrals. These carts are a safety hazard, an inconvenience, and just a sign that some people are rude and inconsiderate. (This is a pet peeve of mine — can you tell?) You never see this at Aldi, and here’s why: At Aldi, all of the carts are kept next to the building, each cart linked to the one in front of it by a little chain. To release one of the carts, you have to push a quarter into the locking mechanism. But this quarter is not a fee, it’s a deposit — at the end of your trip, if you take the cart back and reconnect it to the chain, your quarter pops out. (If you’ve been paying close attention, it’s not the exact same quarter, because your shopping cart got swapped out in the checkout line!) This policy is actually another of Aldi’s cost-saving measures, since it means they almost never have to send an employee out into the lot to round up shopping carts.

I really wish we had an Aldi (or its copycat competitor, Lidl, which seems to be mostly on the East Coast) in Shelbyville. Aldi’s real estate guidelines require a site with a daily traffic count of 20,000. According to the state’s official traffic count map, there’s only one place in Shelbyville that meets that requirement — North Main Street near Walmart. So it’s not out of the question, but heaven knows what they’re asking for some of those sites. Anyway, I’ve never heard any sort of rumor or report that they were looking at Shelbyville.

An interesting bit of trivia about Aldi is that it was founded by two brothers, Karl and Theo Albrecht, who turned their mother’s single grocery store into a chain in 1946. Later, though, they decided to divide up the company between them. Aldi was split into Aldi Nord (north) and Aldi Süd (south), with one brother taking the stores in the northern part of West Germany and the other taking the southern part. Both companies share the Aldi name, but they are completely independent, have slightly-different trademarks, and they stay out of each other’s territory. When worldwide expansion became a factor, they divided up the rights to the Aldi name in different countries. Based on that agreement, all of the American Aldi stores are operated by Aldi Süd. However, Aldi Nord also has a foot in the American market — just not under the “Aldi” name. Aldi Nord is the parent company of Trader Joe’s, which it purchased from the original founder in 1979.

John I. Carney

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Small-town journalist; United Methodist layspeaker; lover of old movies and new comedy.