Tuesday, April 12, 2016

I Have a Problem

My Name is Jon, and I’m an Aldiholic

I should disclose that I have not been compensated by Aldi in any manner for this post.  Should they find it in their interest to do so, I would gladly accept – preferably in the form of an Aldi gift card.  Just sayin’.

I get really excited for Sundays.  Not because I am a devout person; religious or football (more to come on those topics later).  I get excited for Sundays because that is when the new weekly ads for the grocery stores come out^.  Since my “retirement” I’ve begun to do most of the cooking in our house, which means I also do most of the grocery shopping.  I've actually done a majority of the grocery shopping for some time now because my wife somewhat despises the activity.  I don’t mind it, and have come to enjoy it as an adventurous outing.  It can even by therapeutic if I can go with out kids - which only happens after 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays.

As you may have learned from previous posts, I tend to skew a little to the frugal side (i.e. cheap).  I’m also a huge sucker for a good deal (or what I, often incorrectly, perceive to be a good deal).  If things that we consume with some frequency go on sale, and like mega-sale, I can get a little too excited.  These days, finding a good deal has become even more important because feeding a family of five, four of whom spend a vast amount of time in our own kitchen, is not an inexpensive endeavor.  Especially if you attempt to feed your kids something halfway healthy, or at least “healthy-sounding”.  You may recall that the top thing on my SAHDChristmas List a few years ago was food, and lots of it.

So enter in Aldi, a global discount supermarket chain that some have called the best in the world.  My first experience with Aldi wasn’t the most pleasant.  It occurred at a time when Aldi didn’t take credit or debit cards (“straight cash homey”), reusable shopping bags weren’t cool, and Aldi stores predominantly existed in lower income neighborhoods of larger cities and sported a heavy armed security presence.  I came back around to Aldi, which I’ve likened to finding grocery store religion, after I started staying home with the kids, and realized our skyrocketing grocery bills may require us to take out a second mortgage on our house.  I’ve contemplated reverting to the practice of my college days, donating plasma to cover the cost of groceries – typically frozen pizza and cheap beer at the time.

Like Ben Bailey (Mr. Cash Cab), I love Aldi for a number of reasons, but the biggest is obviously the low prices.   They do this in a number of ways, but the overall concept is to deliver high quality products with a relatively low-frills shopping experience.  They do this by keeping their inventory low, efficiently running their stores with minimal employees, requiring a deposit for your cart (something the company estimates saves them millions each year), and encouraging you to bring your own shopping bags by not providing plastic or paper bags (except for sale) at the check-out.  Unless I find something on sale, happen to have both a store and manufacturer coupons, and am shopping on double-coupon day, I seldom see prices cheaper than Aldi at any of the other local grocery retailers.*

Some of these cost cutting measures Aldi puts in place can definitely put people off, but I see it as a genius way to help consumers save money, time and sanity.  Take the limited inventory.  While most grocery stores offer around 40,000 items, Aldi offers around 1,500, and their stores (and subsequent storage space) are a fraction of the size of other grocery chains.  While this may limit a shoppers choices, as Barry Schwartz has pointed out in The Paradox of Choice (and I’ve referenced before), too much choice can lead to “analysis paralysis” and we end up not making a choice at all or default to the choices we’ve always made.  With limited selection, I spend less time mulling over what brand of cheddar cheese to get, hastily trying to calculate price per ounce in my head while pretending to be conscious of the nutrition label, and just grab the Friendly Farms in the cooler and go about my merry way.  This helps immensely when you have two kids engaged in an active fist-fight while riding in the grocery cart.  Of course the limited inventory means I can’t always find everything that I need, but can typically locate a suitable alternative – like the time I had to use lemon juice instead of lime juice for my Silus Salsa.  Katie, I promise it does not compromise the integrity of the dish.

Along with the low inventory keeping prices low and the lack of needing to hang on to easily misplaced coupons to receive those low prices, I've found that Aldi is quick to discount their already low prices on items that are getting close to their "use by" date (something that doesn't necessarily have any bearing on whether the product is still good) or may not be as cosmetically appealing (a tactic starting to take hold elsewhere).  I've happened upon this phenomenon at other grocery stores before, like the time I scored 15lbs of ground turkey for $15 from the "reduced meat bin".  But while it seems like other stores are hesitant to set a precedent of selling off the goods they will likely ultimately toss at a deep discount, Aldi lets the consumer decide if they think its a good deal.  Last summer our local Aldi had to close for a few weeks for some much needed store remodeling, and in effort to deplete their inventory of perishables, they were practically giving away fresh produce; charging $.25 for a pound of strawberries.  

You may think a no-frills shopping experience with children in tow would be appetite for destruction, and at first it certainly was.  Until our local Aldi expanded its store last summer to about double the size, the place was tiny.  Every time I went there with an entourage, I swore I'd only return on solo missions - a promise I was never able to keep because the prices are so irresistible.  But I quickly learned how the removal of some of the grocery store "amenities" catered toward families with young children has actually made my grocery shopping experience with my kids easier.  With no shopping carts with race-cars attached to the front, we have no arguments about who gets to sit in what particular seat.  With no on-site bakery, I don't get constantly pestered by the kids demanding a free cookie; a gracious but unnecessary (and somewhat unhealthy) gesture by some of the other local grocery stores.  No suckers or stickers at the check-out prevents the inevitable meltdown if one of the kids does not get his/her favorite color of the moment.  I have sensed that the older two have started to pick up on the lack of these "kid amenities" as they will often let out an audible grumble when I tell them we're headed to Aldi.

Beyond the low prices and the decreased chance of my kids getting a mouthful of cavities from all of the bakery cookies and Dum-Dums, there are a few other nuanced reasons I've come to enjoy shopping at Aldi, and developed a respect for the company in general.  One is the hours, as Aldi is only open from 9am-8pm each day.  While this isn't always convenient, I have often thought it a little excessive for stores to be open around the clock, like our other large local grocery store chain is.  Aldi is also closed most holidays.  This tells me that the company values its employees and believes that they should be celebrating those holidays with their families or just enjoying a day off and not working (and subsequently being paid holiday pay I presume).  Sure this forces me, and other Aldiholics, to be more diligent in our planning for our culinary needs, but it's the price you pay - or actually don't pay, because you're saving so much money.

There is also a recognizable Aldi culture with customers who shop there.  This manifests itself in the numerous times I have been given a cart by a finished shopper, only to have my attempts at giving them the quarter I planned to use for a cart repeatedly refused.  Or the time when a woman stopped me in the store and gave me a $10 off coupon for purchases totaling more than $50 because she noticed I had small kids (and a cart overflowing with groceries) and "claimed" she wouldn't spend $50 on groceries for just her and her husband.  I had already made quick work of the same coupon we got in the mail earlier that week.  Of course there are also those extreme Aldiholics who don't have much time for meandering families of four, or anyone for that matter, getting in their way when they are trying to get their "savings on".  Stay out of their way and you should be in good shape.

The main reason I consider myself an "Aldiholic" is because I feel as though I can try to feed our family relatively healthy and tasty meals without completely blowing our grocery budget. I can purchase fresh produce for the kids without gasping in astonishment when they weigh the bag of grapes at the checkout'.  A plus because they will consume fresh fruit & veggies until their fecal matter is various shades of the rainbow (Too much?  Probably.)  They've also developed somewhat expensive food preferences - salmon, shrimp, T-Bone steak, not Kraft singles, etc., and their quantities of consumption probably won't be decreasing anytime in the near future.  Currently our 15 month old seems to eat like a 15 year old, so I'm a little scared of what our grocery bill might look like in 10-15 years.  Maybe by then we'll all be able to just print our meals.

Until that point comes, I'm going to keep shopping at Aldi, and I'd suggest you check it out if you have one in your area.  In can be overwhelming at first, so I'd recommend trying to find an "Aldiholic" to go with for your first experience.  If you don't have one in your area, you may soon, as they seem to be expanding pretty rapidly.  They just opened stores in California, so if any of you West Coasters want to fly me out to provide some veteran assistance, just let me know.  I'll have to check my calendar and ensure that it doesn't conflict with any of my own regularly scheduled trips to Aldi.
Sure they look excited, but you should see the look on my face.
Outright giddy.  

^I used to get excited for both Sundays and Wednesday, as until the start of 2016, Aldi would release their weekly ad on Wednesdays instead of Sundays.  While I appreciate the uniformity, it has made waking up on Wednesday considerably less exciting.

*Another thing I like about Aldi is they don't accept coupons, which is great because then I never have to wonder if I'm actually getting a good deal by using the coupon.

'At Aldi all of their produce is pre-packaged & weighed.  It saves the staff time at the check-out and keeps you from being surprised when you learn you selected a 20lb bag of grapes that is going to cost you about $50,  

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