How I Saved Over 20% While Shopping For Groceries

AldiLast week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the German discount grocery chain Aldi (subscription required).

In the article, author Zeke Turner notes that Aldi already has over 1,700 stores in the United States, and recently announced it would invest $3.4 billion over the next five years to increase its store count to nearly 2,500. If Aldi’s planned expansion is successful, it would rank as the third-largest grocery retailer in the U.S. by locations, behind only Wal-Mart and Kroger.

Aldi entered the U.S. market in the Midwest in the 1970s, and currently has stores in nearly three dozen states. Aldi stores are known for their low prices, small size, limited selection, and focus on their own store brands.

If frugality is your thing, you might like Aldi. If you like to be pampered while shopping, Aldi may not be for you.

For those not familiar with Aldi, the closest comparison I can think of from a business model perspective might be Trader Joe’s, whose stores also have a relatively small footprint, sell many of their own brands, and offer lower prices than many competitors. Interestingly, Trader Joe’s was purchased by one of Aldi’s co-founders in 1979.

That said, there are some significant differences between Trader Joe’s and Aldi.

Based on my experience, Trader Joe’s stores are generally a bit larger, carry a wider variety of products, have a more casual vibe, and offer a fairly traditional shopping experience from a customer service perspective. The fresh produce and meat sections at Trader Joe’s are much larger than they are at Aldi.

FrugalityIn contrast, in an effort to reduce costs and keep prices low, Aldi stores are a model of stereotypical German efficiency. Much inventory is sold right out of its cardboard packaging, instead of being placed on shelves. You are responsible for bagging your own groceries at Aldi. It even costs a quarter to use a shopping cart – which is refunded when you return the cart to where you picked it up, minimizing the amount of time Aldi employees need to spend tracking down carts in the parking lot.

While the Wall Street Journal article was informative, I found the comments from readers to be more entertaining.

There were some commenters who were major fans of Aldi, some who hated the place, and many who had never been into an Aldi store in their lives, but still felt compelled to share their thoughts on the company with the world!

Comments from those who were fans of Aldi included:

  • Most of Aldi’s generic brands were as good as national brands at lower prices.
  • We have found Aldi to provide many good quality core grocery products we routinely buy, at substantial savings, in a pleasing environment.
  • I love Aldi for its German Chocolates. They sell them under their private label name, but are made by brand name chocolate companies. Their peanut butter cups are much tastier than Reese’s.
  • Aldi just opened a new store nearby and I found that I appreciated the small store, good prices, and actually enough selection to become a return customer. Great business model too.
  • I love shopping at Aldi — I hope they open a store near me soon. Their prices are excellent. The quality is outstanding. It is not limiting choice — it is getting the most for your money.
  • Our upper-middle class family has increasingly adopted Aldi as our baseline grocery source.

Less favorable comments about Aldi included:

  • It was the most disappointing experience I’ve had in a supermarket.
  • It carries mostly in-house branded items and many of the items are ‘staple’ items that most people need so costs are lower. Don’t expect anything fancy and don’t expect much selection, mainly the basic staple food items.
  • The clientele at my local Aldi seems to be people that have far more children than they can afford to raise without taxpayer assistance.
  • I did not find what I wanted. I like choice, appetizing displays, and familiar brands. Aldi reminded me a little of what a Soviet store would be.
  • Where I live, Aldi stores are situated in lower class neighborhoods.
  • It looks like Grocery Outlet. And you don’t see many Porsches in the parking lot of Grocery Outlet.

Because of the wide variety of opinions about Aldi articulated by Wall Street Journal readers, I thought it would be interesting to visit Aldi myself.

Early RetirementI first shopped at an Aldi store almost 20 years ago, but had not been to one in well over a decade, as there are no Aldis close to our home. The last time I shopped at Aldi, I was a single man. Now I am a married father of two.

As fate would have it, last weekend I traveled to an area that does have Aldi stores, so I decided to stop in to see how the experience and prices compared to my memories, and how the Aldi of today might meet our family’s shopping needs.

The verdict:

Were there some products that appeared to be of lower quality in the store?

Yes.

Were there some higher quality, name-brand products, and organic options?

Also yes.

Did I feel uncomfortable in any way shopping at Aldi?

No.

Could our family do all of our weekly grocery shopping at Aldi?

Also no.

We could not do all of our family’s grocery shopping at Aldi, in part because of some specialty items required by family members with severe allergies and other unique dietary requirements, but there were products we use on a daily basis available at the store.

Financial Independence
The bounty from my trip to Aldi!

While visiting Aldi, I purchased four products we buy on a fairly regular basis: organic milk, eggs, corn chips, and salad dressing (all from the Aldi store brand), along with a Naked Juice Company fruit smoothie.

The quality and taste of the Aldi products we tried were similar to those we usually purchase. The ingredients were the same. The organic products we bought at Aldi were certified by a couple of the same organizations that certify products we purchase at our local grocery store or Costco, namely the USDA and Quality Assurance International.

The big difference I experienced shopping at Aldi was the price.

When I got home from my trip, I checked the prices at our local grocery store for its brand of organic milk, eggs, corn chips, and salad dressing, in addition to the Naked smoothie.

The bill at Aldi for essentially identical products was almost 21% less than it would have been at the store where we do most of our grocery shopping!

Based on the comments section of the Wall Street Journal article, there are some people who won’t shop at Aldi because they don’t like the neighborhood the store is in, think they are superior to the clientele, or want a larger selection of options and/or specific brands.

If those things are important to you, you may not enjoy the shopping experience at Aldi. If you are looking for a specific type of berry, color of pepper, exotic fruit, or cut of meat, you probably will need to supplement your trip to Aldi with a visit to a larger and more traditional grocery store.

But if you want to save some money on staples – and who on the path to financial independence and early retirement doesn’t? – Aldi might be worth a try.

After my recent experience, I would certainly go back to Aldi. If they ever open an Aldi in our area (which seems like a possibility, with nearly 800 new stores being planned!) I would do some of our regular grocery shopping there.

Have you ever shopped at Aldi? What was your experience? If you haven’t shopped at Aldi, would you consider it?

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