If you haven't been in an ALDI lately you may have a very different picture of the no-frills store that seems to be taking the country by storm. My friends who are in-the-know and value-conscious have sung praises of the chain for years, and my frugal-shopping mom has been a regular since ALDI opened in my hometown in the 1990s. But I resisted, with images of frozen food and limited, sad produce in mind.
The company has been working to change that image though, updating their stores and offerings, appealing to a new generation of shoppers.
After growing frustrated with the Kroger chain closing my neighborhood's location and leaving us in a food desert, I decided to bypass the chain's next-nearest location and try ALDI instead. Before my first outing I turned to consumer savings expert Lauren Greutman, a long-time fan of ALDI, who shared some insights and tips with NBC News BETTER.
ALDI is great if you're trying to cut grocery costs
Greutman started shopping at ALDI 10 years ago while working to get out of tens of thousands of dollars in debt, she said. The first budget area she tackled was grocery spending, and with her debt-reduction plan, she only had about $200 a month to spend on groceries for her family. (The USDA Food Plan says food spending for a family of four today should range between $130 and nearly $300 a week.)
While Greutman also learned to coupon and meal plan, the cost savings of shopping at ALDI was significant in her grocery budget. She found so much success, she said, that she started a website and began to speak at events and teach meal planning.
Ten years later she's still shopping and saving, but has seen the brand change. “They've definitely redone most of the stores so it's got more of a Costco kind of feel,” she said. They're “more updated, not so dirty and run down.”
Offerings have been updated as well. “They carry a lot of fresh food, produce and meat,” Greutman said. “Actually only one aisle is frozen and in the past it was a lot of frozen food.” Another notable change, she said, is “They made a big push on organic, they have a phenomenal line of organic food that is amazing. You're going to save at least 50 percent off Whole Foods. It's a game changer.” They also stock a strong selection of gluten-free products, she said.
Some items at ALDI surprised me (including the prices)
On my first ALDI outing I saw she was right. The store nearest our home still had a small footprint, though bigger than before, but aisles were wider. It also felt fresher and brighter than the last time I'd visited. It still seemed pretty packaged-food heavy, but the produce looked better than I remembered. And they had some surprising items. Who knew ALDI carried White Claw? Other on-trend items were represented as well, with Kombucha, offbeat hummus flavors, and their own line of sparkling water.
My husband and I loaded up our cart and joined a fast moving line to pay. The total — well below $100 — was definitely sticker shock, in the best possible way. We visited several more times over the next few weeks and each time I almost couldn't believe the prices. Especially on organic items, they legit were around half of what we were used to paying at other large retailers.
Prices were so low, in fact, I didn't feel quite right. How is anyone making money when egg prices are a throwback to decades ago? Along with milk, eggs are one of their best-priced items, Greutman said. I can't speak for the producers of those products, but the employees are well paid, she said, because ALDI is just extremely efficient.
“Think about the overhead that a lot of these grocery stores have,” she said. At ALDI, though, “you don't see a ton of people working there, just running the cash register and stocking shelves. They don't have to hire someone to do carts. The people that I've talked to that worked there bust their butts, they work hard, and they make good money.”
ALDI cuts costs in a few different ways
They're known for some of their other approaches to keeping costs low — that quarter you need to get a cart, for instance, that pretty much guarantees you'll return it. Other retailers might spend big bucks not only on cart corralers, but on labor-intensive cart containment systems. Shoppers also have to bring their own bags (making ALDI a forerunner in the green movement on that count!) or buy one there — and don't bother looking for a bagger. You're on your own to hurriedly stuff your purchases in your tote, or box if you grab one from the shelf; goods are often kept in the cardboard box they were shipped in.
And they keep a lean inventory, tightly editing selections. “People need to know that they have one of every type of product,” Greutman said. “You're not going to have a huge list of peanut butter to choose from. There are different kinds of cereals but not everything you want.” Some 90 percent of items they carry, according to ALDI's website, are ALDI brand. “If they can make it better and cheaper [than a national brand] they will carry their own,” Greutman said. “If they can't and the name brand is better they'll carry them,” Greutman said.
Did I hop on the ALDI bandwagon? Not just yet
ALDI is confident enough in their products that they offer what's called a Twice as Nice Guarantee. If you don't like something, bring it back and they'll replace it and refund the purchase price. Here's where I have to share that in fact there were several products we should have returned under that guarantee. This comes down to our individual palates and expectations, but a sliced turkey lunch-meat, a staple in my husband's pack-for-work lunch, went uneaten after one bite. Their take on LaCroix is still sitting in my pantry after I had one can. Somehow pickles and relish “didn't have much flavor,” according to my husband. And a heat-and-eat brisket dish went into the trash.
Other items were fine. We enjoyed fish tacos prepared with frozen cod. A bag of walnuts and jar of almond butter were good values. Greutmans' favorites include organic granola, organic yogurt, apples, bananas, strawberries, almond milk, shredded cheeses, gluten-free cake mixes, and 99-cent spices. And their “ALDI Finds,” a rotating selection of consumer goods that could range from a sewing machine to patio furniture could be worth a trip on their own for the low prices.
But overall, I have to admit I didn't join the ALDI bandwagon for our regular grocery shopping. Maybe if I gave it longer, worked harder at learning what's good, and did a better job meal planning around those things it could work. But I still prefer Trader Joe's offerings for packaged goods, a small local chain of produce markets for fresh foods, and a local butcher shop for meat. And I begrudgingly go to Kroger for times that I need a wide variety and good selection of items in one fell swoop. Perhaps ALDI will go into that rotation; I know of at least one friend with a family who's perfected a shopping cycle that includes ALDI.
For us, where I think ALDI will mostly fit in is for entertaining. Greutman echoed what I've heard from friends on that front. “Especially around Christmas time they have the most amazing cheeses that are so cheap,” she said, along with snacks like dried meats and prosciutto. If I needed to put together a big party tray, hands down ALDI would be the best-priced choice. I'll just be sure to take a quarter and my bags.