All About Aldi 

A look inside the discount grocery chain.

I grew up with Aldi, a Germany-based discount grocery chain that has its origins in my hometown of Essen, and I never thought I'd find Aldi in any other part of the world. Aldi stores are part of Germany's landscape like McDonald's are part of America's. And just as the McDonald's experience is the same everywhere in the world, so too is the Aldi experience.

While all Aldi stores are alike, they are different from most other grocery stores. For one thing, they're much smaller, taking up around 15,000 square feet compared to the 60,000 square feet of an average Kroger. In addition, Aldi sells hardly any name brands. Instead, it carries products such as Tandil liquid laundry detergent (200 oz. for $6.99), Shep dog food (20 lbs. for $4.49), Millville instant oatmeal (10 ct. for $1.49), and Bon Italia macaroni and cheese sauce with beef (15 oz. for 69 cents). It also runs specials on a small number of non-grocery items like digital cameras, computers, and portable CD players for a limited time -- usually until they are sold out, which might take only a few hours.

When Karl and Theo Albrecht took over their mom's sundry store in 1946, they founded Aldi, which is short for Albrecht Discount. The first Aldi, as we know it, opened in 1961. Karl and Theo, however, split up and consequently split the German market into Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd. Internationally, the brothers seem to have an agreement as well, since you don't find both brothers expanding into the same foreign market. Aldi Nord, for example, operates stores in France and Spain, whereas Aldi Süd is in Australia and America.

Aldi might be rather mysterious to Memphians. While its flier comes in The Commercial Appeal every Sunday, there is no mention of store locations, and if you're waiting for other ads, don't bother. Aldi doesn't advertise beyond that flier. When the Aldi brothers started the business, they sold highly in-demand items, such as butter, under the purchasing price. They made up for the loss by pricing other items a little more expensively. Karl Albrecht once said that Aldi's low prices were all the advertisement it needed. The news about new store openings or special deals spread through word-of-mouth and that seems to be good enough for the company, which currently operates 7,000 stores worldwide.

The first thing you notice when you go to Aldi is the sign above the grocery carts, which reads, "How a quarter saves you dollars." It costs a quarter to rent a cart. Once the cart is returned, you get your quarter back. This system adds up to one or two people Aldi doesn't have to hire because there aren't any shopping carts to gather from the parking lot.

Inside, you won't find 10 brands of frozen pizza, potato chips, flour, orange juice, or cookies. There is one choice per item, maybe two. Aldi carries around 700 items per store compared to an average of 25,000 items in other chain grocery stores.

The goods at Aldi are sold pretty much straight out of the shipping box, which means even fewer employees because nobody needs to unpack and stock products. Pallets are lined up neatly next to each other, though some items are stacked on shelves. Everything is easily accessible, and the shelves or stacks aren't very tall. This arrangement is an important part of Aldi's concept. There may be only two people working in the store -- the manager and a cashier. They need to be able to oversee the whole store from wherever they stand.

If you try calling an Aldi, you won't have any luck. Store phone numbers are unlisted because, with only two employees working, there is no time to run to answer the phone. At the register, there's nobody to bag your groceries. You have to bring your own bags or purchase a large (and I mean large) plastic bag for a dime or a paper bag for a nickel. To speed up the checkout process, the cashier returns your groceries to the cart, which you can then empty yourself in the bagging area or outside directly into your car. And when you pay up, be sure you either have cash or a debit card, because Aldi does not take credit cards and frowns on checks.

For Aldi shopper David Sienkiwicz, it's like getting gas at a self-service station. Sienkiwicz used to shop at Aldi when he lived in St. Louis, and he doesn't mind reusing his bags or bagging his own groceries. "It's a good way to save money for a family that lives on a tight budget or a family with a lot of kids," he says.

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