The future of grocery shopping might just be a 100-year-old grocery chain with a cult following.
A few weeks ago, a friend posted an Instagram story from inside Aldi, the pioneering discount grocery store that is slated to become the third-largest supermarket chain in the United States. They mentioned that they frequent their local Aldi in Kansas City anytime they need to cheer themselves up.
I recognize this behavior too well. The grocery store became a source of solace for me when I moved to New York after graduating from college in Chicago in 2009. I remember going to Westside Market on 110th and Broadway on the Upper West Side and ogling their prepared dessert fridge. I’d stare for what felt like hours at individual slices of cheesecake (in a variety of flavors—chocolate, strawberry, mango—an array I’d only ever seen on a Cheesecake Factory menu), pies, and cake, realizing the enormity of my newly granted freedom and independence: I’m an adult with a job and money, and I can buy the groceries I want. I could eat a whole cake for dinner if I chose. The aisles of the grocery store were like a red carpet ushering me into the best parts of adulthood.
I’ve since left New York, but the habit has stuck: when I need to shake something loose, when I’m stressed out, or when I just need a reminder of my autonomy, I go to the grocery store. The grocery store itself doesn’t matter, and on a particularly rainy afternoon just before Valentine’s Day, I decided to spend an aimless and uninspired afternoon wandering the aisles of Aldi. And then things got interesting.
Aldi has a massive following, with a growing presence in the United States, where there are 2,100 stores in 38 states operating, but its popularity is extending worldwide. From hundreds of fan accounts on Instagram to Facebook communities dedicated to following the chain’s limited and sometimes nonsensical food and product drops (called “Aldi Deals” or “Aldi Finds,” small-run items shelved in the middle aisles of the store, which superfans colloquially call the “Aisle Of Shame”), Aldi has generated a coterie of shoppers that seems somewhat misaligned with its aesthetics and overall vibe. However, despite the lack of a soundtrack underscoring your shopping experience, the halls of Aldi are filled with joy and a sense of excitement that is made accessible through its lower price points.
If the joy of shopping at Aldi is built on relief and affordability, it’s kindled by chaos.
On the surface, Aldi might not strike you as inspiring cheer or comfort. Anna Albrecht opened a small, neighborhood grocery store in 1913 in a suburb of Essen, a city in western Germany. According to Aldi’s website, “the competition was fierce, so they had to keep prices low.” The discount theme continued when Anna’s two sons, Karl and Theo Albrecht, took over running the store after being conscripted into the German Army in World War II. “Lacking capital, they stocked only a tight selection of home and kitchen staples, such as pasta and soap, planning to widen the offering later,” writes Xan Rice in a Guardian piece about how Aldi—which takes its name from the first two letters of “Albrecht” and “discount”—has transformed grocery shopping in Britain. “But they soon realised that offering a limited selection of cheap, fast-selling goods kept their costs down and the cash flowing, which they could use to invest in new stores.” Unbeknownst to them, they were inventing a whole new category of grocery stores.
Information about Aldi is hard to come by: their website is sparse, and Karl and Theo were notably reclusive up until their respective deaths in 2014 and 2010. Rice’s article attributes that to a 1971 incident when Theo was kidnapped and held in a cupboard for 17 days while a ransom was negotiated. But we do know that their accidental business practice of stocking just a few items and keeping prices low allowed them to expand throughout Germany in the 1950s until the brothers split the company, operating in separate regions of the world, in the early 1960s. Allegedly, the break was over a dispute about whether or not to sell cigarettes.
The brothers split their stores geographically: Theo took Aldi Nord, expanding in Northern Germany and Europe, while Karl took Aldi Süd, expanding in Southern Germany and countries outside the current EU, like Britain, China, and Australia. The two don’t have locations in the same country, save two notable exceptions: Germany, of course, and the United States. In the United States, Aldi Süd is simply known as “Aldi,” and the first location opened in Iowa in 1976. Aldi Nord made its expansion into the country in 1979 by acquiring a small, California-based grocery chain called Trader Joe’s. So, technically, if you’re shopping at Aldi in the United States, you’re enjoying the store as imagined by Karl (he’s the one who supposedly objected to selling cigarettes). Theo’s Trader Joe’s is like a recognizable but distant sibling of Aldi—although distinctly different, the small details of each store, like their in-house brands and limited selection, reveal a common shared history.
An overwhelming array of choices can feel debilitating, something Aldi actively combats with its in-house brands.
The format of Aldi is notably different from most megastores we’re used to seeing in the United States. There’s no music; patrons have to “rent” their carts by depositing a quarter; and the store’s limited selection (their stores average about 1,800 SKUs, or individual items, versus many US-based stores that have anywhere between 15,000 and 60,000 SKUs) means that there’s much less variety. Aldi’s stripped-down approach that eschews costly build-outs and cuts out the middleman in some cases means they can offer items at deeply discounted rates. That quarter used to secure a cart means people are more likely to return them rather than leaving them in the parking lot for a grocery attendant to collect—a clear labor savings that is observed over and over in the more than 2,000 stores nationwide.
“My mom shopped at Aldi when it was not cool,” says Jeanette Hurt, author of The Unofficial Aldi Cookbook: Delicious Recipes Made with Fan Favorites from the Award-Winning Grocery Store. The version of ALDI Hurt knew as a child in the early ’80s was different from the one superfans—Hurt says they call themselves “ALDI nerds”—congregate on the internet to discuss. “It was dimly lit. The produce was kind of gross, but for basics like tomato paste, where you don’t need a name brand, it was totally fine.”
Hurt found herself rediscovering the supermarket as a reporter in Milwaukee, drawn in by the affordable prices but ultimately remaining loyal as quality improved. “It’s not just the money,” she says. “It’s also the time.” You can take in the entire store within minutes—you can count the number of aisles on one hand, in comparison to big-box stores with exponentially more shelves and aisles to browse. Without a dozen brands to choose from, it’s easy to pick up the items you need quickly and get out, saving folks like Hurt, who has kids and juggles multiple freelance assignments, precious time and energy.
For Aldi, this approach has always been intentional. “We do things differently at Aldi, all by design,” says Kate Kirkpatrick, director of communications for Aldi USA. Most of Aldi’s grocery items are from private-label brands like Clancy’s (their line of chips), Savoritz (crackers), Vista Bay (hard seltzer), and Chef’s Cupboard (soups and broths).
Almost all these private-label items have a recognizable name-brand counterpart—for example, Clancy’s Stackerz come in a long, circular tube reminiscent of Pringles, but they are sold for significantly less. At my local Aldi, Stackerz are $1.09 for a 5.5-ounce tube. (According to Walmart’s website, Pringles sell for $1.78 a tube.) Aldi bakes all their bread in-house, and a loaf of white sandwich bread costs 87 cents. At my local co-op, the cheapest option available is $2.99. The differences in price are stark when you look at individual products—a shopping cart full of food at Aldi could easily cost half of what it might at any other grocery store.
With these savings comes a compromise—shoppers don’t have much choice. At Aldi, there’s one option for eggs: Goldhen Large Eggs at $2.39 a dozen. At my local Woodman’s in Madison, Wisconsin, an employee-owned supermarket big enough to warrant a completely separate entrance at each end of the store, I counted 28 different types of eggs. Along with choice, specificity seems to be the rival of Aldi’s bare-bones selection. Sure, you can find canned tomatoes, but can you find Italian San Marzano tomatoes? You might have to go somewhere else for those.
Or you might just have to evaluate how important a specific ingredient is to your recipe. Some of the joy of shopping at Aldi is making do with the randomness of what’s available. It’s like the world’s mildest version of the show Chopped, where contestants are given a mystery box of random ingredients and tasked with crafting a dish. For example, you might find dill-flavored chips or Belgian cookies (I went to Aldi just before Mother’s Day, and the store was filled with candy gift boxes and plants) in the Aldi Finds aisle, but you won’t find smoked paprika. Hurt says this has made her a more dexterous cook. During a time when food shortages have become commonplace (remember when we bought all the bucatini?) and cookbook authors are giving permission to home chefs to adapt or even omit certain ingredients, it’s easier than ever to walk out of an Aldi with (almost) everything you need, confident that what you cook will be delicious.
But isn’t the United States the land of endless possibility? Isn’t a grocery store with 30 different options for tomato paste our God-given right? As I roamed the refrigerated section of Aldi, I decided to grab a bottle of kombucha, and I felt a tinge of disappointment because there were only two different flavors on the shelf. But I’m not sure that having 20 choices would have made me feel better.
In the first chapter of his popular 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, author and psychologist Barry Schwartz visits the grocery store. “My neighborhood supermarket is not a particularly large store,” he writes, “and yet, next to the crackers were 285 varieties of cookies. Among chocolate chip cookies, there were 21 options.”
Throughout the book, Schwartz argues that the tie between liberty and choice is one Americans take too literally, and that the overabundance of options—particularly in low-stakes situations—is overwhelming, hinders our ability to make good choices, and makes us sad as we stew in guilt over having made the wrong decision. And where does most of that grief take place? Inside grocery stores. “Americans spend more time shopping than the members of any other society . . . when asked to rank the pleasure they get from various activities, grocery shopping ranks next to last.”
And yet so many stores pride themselves on the variety of their selection. “Sometimes, I’d just see customers staring at shelves, looking bewildered,” says Stephanie Gravalese, a freelance writer, photographer, and marketer based in Western Massachusetts. Gravalese worked in a big-box store during high school and college, and she says that, throughout her time on the floor, she’d observed customers trying to process the number of brands and choices available. “There’d be five or six shelves of one item, depending on the category, and they’d be like, ‘I just need a can of tomatoes.’”
An overwhelming array of choices can feel debilitating, something Aldi actively combats with its in-house brands. “When I go to a place like Aldi, the idea of brand loyalty—of brands having to compete for my attention—goes out the window. I almost breathe a sigh of relief,” Gravalese says. “I don’t have to look at eight different brands and compare how they’re different. ‘Why is this one two cents more?’ I love that the decisions are made for me.”
If the joy of shopping at Aldi is built on relief and affordability, it’s kindled by chaos. Many Aldi Finds are food and pantry items, but many are an inexplicable array of household products—with a loose definition of the word “household.” During my last visit, I found a treadmill ($199.99); a back brace designed to improve posture ($8.99); a wireless car charger for your phone ($22.99); a Friends trivia game that includes a ball players throw to one another, a reference to an episode from the show’s fifth season ($9.99); and a two-person outdoor swing ($99.99). “I bought my son a cotton candy maker from the Aisle of Shame,” Hurt says. “He loved it. I would have never thought about getting him a cotton candy maker.”
Seasonally, Aldi really steps into its absurdity: the selection of holiday specials and limited-time items runs the gamut from exciting treasures to nonsensical surprises, both of which fuel the dozens of online communities. Advent calendars are popular year-round, particularly those with beer and wine, and the selection changes often. You might find Christmas-tree-shaped pizzas at the end of the year or turkey-and-cranberry-filled ravioli in November.
I visited my neighborhood Aldi for the first time in early February, and the store was decked out in Valentine’s-themed goodies. I perused the hearty cheese section—which is perhaps the best indicator of the store’s European roots, although they boast a robust international selection of products across all categories—and picked up a small, wax-sealed block of English Wensleydale cheese ($3.99 for 5 ounces). It was wrapped in pink wax shaped like a heart, it was gin-and-rhubarb flavored, and there was no way I was leaving without it. The last time I visited, although tempted by the Mother’s Day candies and cookies, I instead left with a handheld fabric steamer ($19.99). I suppose when you think of terribly gendered gifts moms are sometimes given (like vacuum cleaners and other items to perform domestic duties), this fabric steamer counts as seasonal.
Folks use the online communities to share if a particular store is out of a highly sought-after item or even to ship one another items from their local Aldi store that aren’t available to their colleagues. “In Philadelphia, you can’t get booze,” Hurt says, sharing that people will ship bottles of wine from Aldi’s signature brand, Winking Owl (which ranges in price from $3 to $5), to their fellow Aldi nerds. Some go a step further, making Aldi stores a stop on their vacations and travels to new cities.
At the core of all this is accessibility. “Saving people time and money is what we’re all about, so it’s no surprise that Aldi appeals to shoppers of all ages, locations, and incomes. New customers are always surprised at how much they can save by switching to Aldi,” says Kirkpatrick. The store’s typically small square footage means they can be built in almost any city or neighborhood, and by eliminating excess stock and reducing staffing needs (register attendants will not bag your groceries are expected to check people out quickly, and Aldi ranks #1 for the fastest checkout line among 55 other grocery retailers) Aldi is able to both pass down savings to consumers while investing in silly delights to fill the Aisle of Shame.
Things labeled “discount” or “bargain” are often expected to be devoid of joy, as if those who cannot afford higher-end items should derive no pleasure from their use or consumption. Intentional or not, shopping at Aldi is a reminder that everyone deserves to have fun when buying groceries and that sacrificing joy is not a prerequisite for accessibility. Everyone is entitled to get lost in an aisle full of seasonal surprises and find delight in their shopping experience—and maybe pick up a heart-shaped block of cheese or two.