The All-American Aldi

The no-frills grocery chain is a perfect example of spare, unfriendly German efficiency.

Image: Mike Mozart via Flickr

Aldi, a German company with outposts across Europe, has quietly become one one of the biggest grocery chains in the US. Since it first opened its doors in Iowa in 1976, it has established 1,600 locations across the nation. Over the next five years, it announced in June, that number will jump to 2,500, putting its reach alongside that of Walmart and Krogers. The grocer is throwing itself head first into the American Supermarket Wars, and cranking up its numbers in a bid for dominance. But the Aldi strategy also includes a $1.6 billion investment in the renovation of existing locations: the company, after forty years in this country, is giving up its staunch disinterest in US shopping norms.

Existing locations will be updated with brightened lighting, wider aisles, and expanded perishables sections. These updates all mark basic standards in American retail; introducing them is the first major concession Aldi has made to the comfortably expansive, glitteringly bright megamarkets that surround it in the US. Existing stores, pre-renovation, feel more like German warehouses than American supermarkets; the dim lighting, narrow isles, and minimal perishables sections contribute to that feeling. But the entire Aldi system is in opposition to the more-is-more Walmart ethos.

In New York City, the company’s only location (for now) is on 117th on the banks of the East River. It’s five long avenue blocks from the nearest subway stop—no open-armed welcome to curious passersby here. If you are at Aldi, it’s because you needed groceries and you went out to get them, not because you were tempted in by a cute box of chocolates, or a deal posted in the window, or the warm comfort of brightly lit Christmas displays on a cold afternoon.

Aldi makes absolutely no effort to tempt through sensual delight. It’s a perfect example of spare, unfriendly German efficiency. All the goods are displayed on metal racks in their original cardboard shipping containers—no labor wasted on display; there are maybe two options for each type of product—no shelf space wasted on a tenth variety of cracker that is purchased by that one guy every month; employees can be found, more or less exclusively, at checkout, where they will ring you up but not provide you with bags or, god forbid, bag your groceries for you. Efficiency also applies to production, in that almost all the goods are house brands. Nothing extraneous comes between product and customer—hence the high quality of Aldi goods with incredibly low prices (show me another store with a dark, fragrant extra virgin olive oil for three dollars and change).

Spare efficiency has always been an integral (and proudly championed) part of the Aldi business model. In the first years of the company, founded by brothers Karl and Theo Albrecht in post-war West Germany, rapid expansion was facilitated by experiments in self-service shopping at a time when clerks still measured out flour for patrons from behind a counter. But the harmonious efficiency of the brothers’ expanding discount empire (Aldi claims to be the first discount store in the world) was interrupted by the less-than-blissful fallout of family disagreement.

In 1960, unable to reconcile differences in opinion about whether or not to sell cigarettes, the brothers split their company in half. Aldi Süd, headed by Karl, took over stores in the south of Germany, and Aldi Nord, headed by Theo, operated in the north of the country. As the brothers expanded across Europe, they (very politely) avoided competition with one another by checker boarding the map: Karl gets Austria, Theo Belgium and the Netherlands, Karl Ireland, Theo France. What we know as Aldi in the US is actually Aldi Süd.

Aldi Nord operates in the US, too, as Trader Joe’s. This is the one country, aside from Germany, where the two companies coexist, possibly because Trader Joe’s looks so starkly different from Aldi that it effectively erases the fear of direct sibling competition.

When Theo Albrecht purchased TJ’s in 1979, three years after Aldi Süd opened its first outpost in Iowa, the chain operated exclusively in California as a Tiki-themed, affordable gourmet food shop: products came with cutesy literary names and long-winded explanations. Under Theo’s management, TJ’s lost a lot of the nautical and tropical décor, switched to the efficient house-brand-centered sales of European Aldi (helping to keep prices low), and expanded. But it also kept a lot of the original TJ’s effusive branding and added other changes to the Aldi’s system, Americanizing from the get-go as Aldi Süd was introducing its European model to the States.

Perhaps the most visible Americanization of Theo’s TJ’s is its embrace of the extreme fun that characterizes shopping in the US, from décor to absurd numbers of pastel-packaged snacks to free Dixie cups of coffee—stay a while! there’s so much to look at! you are so very welcome here, have some coffee while you look around! The plainness of German efficiency is replaced with the bubbling prettiness of American abundance. At TJ’s, there is always another type of cracker, and there’s a heartwarming story to go along with that cracker in a curlicued font on the back of the package. The staffing system at TJ’s also fully embraces American maximalism, with assistance so comprehensive it puts standard giants like Kroger’s to shame—there are staff members assigned to the checkout line. Dressed in nauseatingly bright red, they are as cheery as Rudolf’s nose and as omnipresent as Aldi’s staff is absent. Even the “internationalism” of “Trader Giotto’s” and “Trader Jose’s” is very, well, very American—slap a stereotypically Mexican name on some salsa and you’ve basically got Mexico right there in the store!

US Aldi’s proposed changes make no mention of differences in packaging or product display or staffing. They are more hardware than software—the stores will lose some dim and dinginess, but they will presumably avoid TJ’s full embrace of fun and fancy. The transformation will put Aldi more visually in line with direct competitors like Kroger’s than its estranged brother. But TJ’s is the model of what Aldi looks like when it fully embraces American shopping with all the verve of a smart outsider. It’s a portrait of the direction in which Aldi is rerouting, and of what, if it thinks it’s necessary, Aldi could likely achieve.

The fact that Aldi is only starting to make concessions to US norms now suggests that it has been content with its model in the US: it’s found enough of an audience here to make money, likely in large part because of its astonishingly low prices. But Aldi’s customers aren’t all bargain hunters willing to put up with anything for the right price. They come from a range of economic backgrounds, and, from my observations on 117th and in Philly Aldis, they are a mixed bag of ages, races, full-carted families and single people shopping for one. Slicing across different American communities is a demand for something other than TJ’s (or Walmart)—I’d hazard a demand for crackers without a cracker experience.

If Theo gave the US the epitome of its own system, the cheery chit-chat and endless chip options that define a certain shopping ideal, Karl gave it the antithesis of that system and that ideal. His store might not stock every ingredient you expected to put in your co-op’s dinner tonight, but in return for accepting that, and the absent staff, and the utter lack of decor, you get freedom of movement, quiet, and to trust your knowledge about what you want, what you need, and who you are. You also might get lucky and find a few funny German import items: dark German-style gingerbread coated in chocolate, panettone freshly imported from Germany’s Christmas production lines. If TJ’s offers the internationalism of Trader Jose’s, Aldi offers the internationalism of a genuinely different attitude towards what it means to shop for food, one that sees it not as an adventure but as a prerequisite for sustenance.

But Aldi, as it makes its bid to be one of the top grocers in the US, doesn’t seem to think that its audience (or the bit of fatigue and frustration lurking in other American shoppers that might make them part of that audience) is strong enough to carry it to the top of the supermarket heap. The renovations indicate that the company’s management believes the majority of American shoppers need the welcoming glow of a billion watts to find their pasta sauce. To stage a coup of the American grocery industry, Aldi is giving up its we-give-no-fucks-you-will-shop-in-the-shadows attitude.

The company, however, seems loath to abandon its founding principle of efficiency-above-all-else: the US website continues to emphasize Aldi’s “no-frills grocery shopping experience,” and in the promotional video happily announces that it is “doing away with anything unnecessary” and has the “fastest cashiers in the world” (no dillydallying here). I’ve yet to see mention of popping groceries out of shipping containers or increasing staffing in Aldi’s literature on the renovations.

Whether the company continues conceding to dominant US grocery norms with further changes will probably depend on how this Supermarket War goes. With Amazon in the mix, our understanding of what it means to shop for food in the US is in serious flux. Shipping containers lining Aldi’s brighter-and-cheerier widened aisles may find a place in the new order as one version of normal. Or we may all be getting dinner from a drone that pops by the kitchen window every night by the end of 2018. But I put in my vote for Aldi: if we lose it, we lose an antidote to American excess, we lose the right to privacy and untampered-with choice, we lose the possibility of a different mood. Aldi, huddled at the edge of the river and staring passively past the expectations of Christmas gluttony, is so beautifully ugly.