The untold truth of Aldi

In 2017, Aldi announced they were planning on becoming a major competitor in the US grocery store market. At the time the announcement came, they had around 1,600 stores across the country, and their game plan included raising that to 2,500 and investing a mind-blowing $3.4 billion into current and future American endeavors. The push into the American market certainly isn't anything new; the German company had first gained a foothold in their home country before spreading across Europe, and there's a fascinating history behind this up-and-coming US chain.

There's a reason there are boxes on the shelves

One of the first things you might notice when you're looking at the shelves in Aldi is that the product is still in boxes. That's not employees being lazy, it's exactly the opposite. Frugal Bites got a peek behind the curtain, so to speak, and got to visit Aldi's Illinois offices. According to them, product is shipped in boxes that aren't just designed to be functional, but they're a part of what's called the "invisible case" project. Instead of having employees spend time opening boxes and putting individual product on shelves, they open the box and put that on the shelf — saving hours and, in turn, wages. And it's necessary for employees; according to one ex-employee's I AmA Reddit, they were required to empty an entire pallet worth of goods in 30 minutes. That's no time at all!

Business Insider says you'll see efficiency packaging elsewhere, too. Things that aren't boxed — like produce — are wrapped in bundles and milk is shipped pre-racked, all to streamline the process from receiving to shelving to checkout.

They caused a major stir with their bread-on-demand machines

In November 2010, The Food Channel announced that hundreds of Aldi stores across Germany were creating major controversy. According to Aldi, their "Backofen" machines would spit out freshly baked rolls, made to order, in a matter of seconds. While Aldi claimed the machines were a "technological innovation," the German Bakers' Confederation said they were an affront to the country's centuries of baking traditions. 

The organization went farther, saying Aldi was outright lying about how fresh-baked the bread really was. By the time Aldi and the bakers met in court in 2011, DW says there were 1,770 Aldi Sud stories equipped with the machine. It even escalated to the point where the courts ordered Aldi to let them inspect the machines and the raw dough… and Aldi said no.

Aldi said they were protecting trade secrets, while the German Bakers' Confederation said it was clear "[...] they have something to hide." They've claimed false advertising and accused Aldi of skimping on ingredients.

There are some tricks in place to make checking out go so fast

According to Forbes, Aldi checkouts move about 40 times faster than those of other retail stores, and that's great news if you just want to get in, get out, and get home (and who doesn't?). There are a couple of things they've put in place to help keep things moving, including conveyor belts just long enough so that one person can unload a cart full of groceries and have enough space for everything.

Take a look at some of the products, too. You'll notice most of them have more than one barcode — there are multiple barcodes so no matter how the cashier picks something up, it's in the perfect position to be scanned.

They're not as cheap as they claim (but they're still cheap)

Aldi stakes their reputation not just on quality, but on how much cheaper they are than their competitors. Andy Prescott from Clark.com went and did some serious leg work, wanting to find out if Aldi really was exactly what they advertised: In this case, he had a flier claiming they were 42 percent cheaper than their competitors. That's no small potatoes, and he headed to both Aldi and Walmart, found both the national name brands and the store brands of the exact same items, and compared the prices.

Prescott looked at a range of products, from ham and applesauce to sandwich bags. When he compared Walmart's name brand pricing to Aldi's store brand pricing, he found there was a 41 percent savings to be had by shopping at Aldi. Not bad! But if you're looking to save money, you're buying store brands… so how do those compare?

He found that Aldi is still cheaper than Walmart's store brand, by about 20 percent. That's no 42 percent, but it's still a significant number — and in today's world, most of us watch our pennies where we can.

They keep staffing to a minimum

Go to any other grocery store, and you'll see people sitting at the checkouts, others stocking shelves, and others at designated counters. Aldi is different, and according to their recruitment guidelines, there are only four different positions they fill at each store. There's the store manager and assistant store manager, which are titles you're used to hearing. But their other employees are the store assistant, who can be doing anything from working the cash register to restocking shelves, and then there's the caretaker, who helps "keep our store clean and presentable." Job descriptions on their official site are frustratingly vague, and according to people who have worked there, that's on purpose.

Aldi isn't very forthcoming about things like staffing and business practices, so most information is from former employees. According to responses on Indeed, staffing is kept to a minimum with only eight to 10 people being employed at each store and only two or three working any given shift. This low level of staffing may be part of the reason they're able to keep prices so low.

Employees don't necessarily love it

Keeping employees happy is a key part of running a successful business, and if you go to Aldi and notice that everyone seems a little stressed — especially when you ask them a question — it's not you.

More than 2,000 employees reviewed Aldi on the UK employment site Glassdoor, and only about half would recommend working there. (Similar results can be seen in other countries, like Ireland and Australia). There's a definite trend in what people have to say, too, with employees (and former employees) saying that while the pay, benefits, and opportunities are good, they often found a difficulty in balancing work life with their home life, and that they didn't get enough hours to make the money they needed. Employee reviews on other sites — like Indeed — are less generous. Their testimony claims Aldi and its managers are only concerned with meeting numbers, working in a major time crunch, and filling quotas, suggesting that it might be a great place to work… but only for a certain type of person.

They're only open peak hours

Some night owls might have found an awesome way to hack your grocery shopping: go at night. Stores that are open 24/7 are all but empty at 2 a.m., meaning you can cruise the aisles, through the checkout line, and out the door in record time. You're not going to be doing that at Aldi, though, as they're only open during peak hours. That means most stores open at 9 a.m., and they're closed by either 8 or 9 p.m., depending on the day.

Like a lot of things Aldi does, this is simply to conserve money. According to Capital Strategies, Inc.'s profile on Aldi, they say staying open later would just cost more in wages and overhead, and there's not enough profit to be made in the middle of the night to make that worthwhile.

And, before you protest too loudly, remember that Aldi is still a European chain. Early closing times aren't out of the norm for Europe, they're expected. Even larger grocery stores — like Tesco, Dunnes, and even Waitrose are packing up to go home by that time.

There's a crazy testing process for products

Since Aldi built their reputation on affordability, it's easy to associate that with a cheap product. But they take the idea of quality very seriously, and in 2013 they invited The Telegraph into their headquarters. It was a big deal — it was the first time an "outsider" was allowed through the very expensive doors.

Aldi has an entire team that works in their test kitchens, and they adhere to some strict policies. Product purchasers join the test kitchen twice a day, sample about 180 meals every week, and try each product 30 times before it even makes it to Aldi's shelves. They're not done yet — they re-test every product at least once a year, and every time one of their competitors launches a similar product, theirs goes back to the test kitchen. In the test kitchen, cost isn't taken into consideration at all —something might be cheap, but they still insist that it be good, too. Once a product meets the approval of the test kitchen, it then has to measure up to the standards of Aldi's managing directors… and then, it's finally offered to customers.

Aldi's Mom-and-Pop beginnings

Aldi's is a multi-billion dollar, global company, but it started with a single grocery store in Essen, Germany. It was called the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, was run by Karl Albrecht and his wife, and opened its doors in 1913. Opening a grocery store wasn't the elder Albrecht's first career choice, and it was only after emphysema brought his work in the mines to a halt that he opened the store. Their sons, Theo and Karl, worked at the store as well, and took it over in 1945. They're the ones that took the company global, but it's been a rocky road.

In spite of the numerous growing pains the company has been through, that original location is still open. They still keep regular business hours, but they're closed on Sunday.

World War II influenced their business model

As the company spread across the globe, Aldi became known for their low prices and bare-bones set-up. That's no coincidence, and according to the Independent's profile on Karl Albrecht, that economic outlook started in the years around World War II.

Both brothers served with Germany's Wehrmacht during the war. Theo fought in Africa with Erwin Rommel, while Karl was sent to — and wounded on — the Russian front. When they returned home, it was to a post-war Germany that clearly had no use for all the fancy — and expensive — extras that grocery stores typically came with. That even went as far as "extras" like shelves for merchandise, and the earliest Aldi stores didn't even have those. The Albrecht brothers developed their spartan business plan based on what they knew post-war shoppers wanted: a good product, full stocks, and affordable prices.

There are two different Aldis

Today, there are actually two different companies: Aldi Nord and Aldi Sud, or North and South. In the 1960s, Theo and Karl Albrecht couldn't agree on whether or not they were going to allow their stores to sell cigarettes. They came up with a pretty shocking solution, and instead of compromising, they divided the company in half. There's a line that runs across Germany — known as the "Aldi equator" — and Theo took the north while Karl took the south. You can tell the difference by looking at the logo: Nord's logo is a basic blue and white, Sud's logo is orange and blue. It's the southern Aldi that's a bit fancier, and when it came time to expand to the rest of the world, those countries were divided up, too. Stores in areas like the UK, Ireland, and Australia are all Aldi Sud, while you're shopping at Aldi Nord if you go into France or Poland.

The weird relationship between Aldi and Trader Joe's

There's only one country where Aldi Nord and Aldi Sud share pieces of the grocery store pie, and that's in the US. You wouldn't know it, though, and that's because Aldi Sud — with its blue and orange logo — does business as Aldi, and Aldi Nord goes by another name: Trader Joe's. What? Shocking, we know! But take a closer look, and it'll make sense. Trader Joe's is an Americanized version of Aldi. Gone are some of the elements you're more likely to see in a European grocery store, like putting some cash down to rent a cart (yes, you get it back), employees that don't bag your groceries for you, and a reliance on re-usable bags. But some elements remain, especially private labeling and a definite lack of advertising. Now it all makes sense, doesn't it?

One of the founders was kidnapped

Aldi might be known as a discount store, but their winning formula has made the Albrecht family very, very rich. When Karl died in 2014, he was worth an estimated $25.9 billion, and when Theo died in 2010, he was worth around $24.7 billion. It's no wonder that kidnappers set their sights on the brothers way back in 1971.

It was Theo who was kidnapped at gunpoint, and spent 17 days in a closet in Dusseldorf while his kidnappers negotiated for the ransom. They did get the money (Theo later attempted to claim the ransom as a business expense on his taxes) and released him, but were ultimately identified. The two kidnappers served eight and a half years in prison, and when they both died in 2017, they left millions unaccounted for, with each one insisting they didn't know what happened to the rest of the money.

The kidnapping left both brothers understandably shaken, and both adopted an extremely reclusive lifestyle. They stopped making comments in public, always drove in separate cars, and never took the same route twice.

The secrecy around the family borders on insane

It's understandable that such a wealthy, high-profile family would go to extremes to keep some of their affairs private, but the Albrecht family has gone to extremes that border on insane — especially in this day of social media. According to Bloomberg, it was only in 2016 that the Albrecht family broke their silence about their family business, and when they did, it was over a feud between family heirs. With Aldi Nord up for grabs, Theo Albrecht's heirs weren't pulling any punches when it came to accusing each other of irrational spending. But what the feud really showed was how little the world actually knows about the Aldi family.

There's only a single photo of Theo's son, Theo Jr., and it's decades old. No one had the foggiest idea what the names of the third-generation Aldi heirs were until Theo Jr.'s 20-something quadruplets and their sister had their names published by a magazine in 2015 — which was promptly sued for revealing the information. Karl's death was only made publicly known until a month after he had passed, and when Theo's son Berthold died in 2012, the family waited a month to announce his passing, too.

There are some insane feuds going on

Not everyone in the Albrecht family seems to have the same philosophy of thriftiness, and it's led to some crazy feuds. In 2016, Bloomberg reported that Theo Albrecht's heirs were duking it out in court over what some viewed as the extravagant spending of Babette Albrecht (pictured), the widow of Theo's son, Berthold. Theo's other son, Theo Jr., took her to court over claims that she was using her control over Aldi interests to buy things like vintage cars and art with trust fund money. That all came on the heels of Berthold's death from cancer in 2013, and the fallout from his death was pretty hostile.

The family controls Aldi Nord, which was divvied up into three trusts: one trust for Theo Jr., one for Berthold and Babette, and a majority trust held jointly. In the years since Berthold's death, there have been disagreements over board members, spending, and even claims that a longtime lawyer involved in Berthold's trust is conspiring with Theo Jr. to cut the other side of the family out of decision-making. And that's only what's gone public — what other scandals and accusations are happening behind closed doors, it's impossible to tell.

They were in the middle of a multi-million-dollar fraud case

Those accusations of excessive spending come with a shocking footnote. In 2014, The Telegraph reported that Berthold and Babette Albrecht's art dealer was heading to court on fraud charges. According to the charges, Helge Achenbach falsified the accounts of purchases made on the Albrecht's behalf, including purchases of artwork by Roy Lichtenstein and Picasso, as well as luxury cars like Bugattis and Ferraris.

Achenbach was accused of submitting false receipts to the Albrechts, inflating the amount he paid for the items and, in turn, getting a higher fee himself. He maintained his innocence, even as Babette filed a separate civil suit against him.

They have an insane return policy

Sure, most places will offer a money-back guarantee, but Aldi offers even more than that. They call it their Double Guarantee, and that means if you don't like something, just return the unused portion and they'll not only replace it, but they'll give you your money back, too.

Sounds like a sure-fire way to run yourself right out of business, doesn't it? POPSUGAR talked to Liz Ruggles, a spokesperson for Aldi, and she explained. "We're so confident in the quality of our products that we offer a double guarantee [...]"

That's impressive! It's no wonder they go to such lengths to guarantee the quality of everything on their shelves, and they absolutely stand by each and every product — their bottom line depends on it.

They charge a deposit to use their carts for a very good reason

It's a little disconcerting, the first time you go shopping at Aldi. It starts with the carts: what is this thing, and why the heck do I need to pay to use it? You'll get the money back, as long as you're a good citizen and return the cart (unless it gets taken away by a well-meaning but clueless fellow good citizen, like this guy).

There are a couple reasons for that little gadget on the shopping carts, and according to Michael Roberto, Professor of Management at Bryant University, it simply has to do with their bottom line. When customers return their carts, Aldi doesn't need to pay someone to do it.

They banned products that use bee-harming pesticides

In 2017, The Guardian reported on the results of a massive field study showing insecticides and pesticides had a huge negative impact on bee populations, which have been declining for years. That makes Aldi's move to ban all products created with the help of bee-harming pesticides that much more landmark.

Aldi's announcement came in 2016 (via Greenpeace), and officially went into effect on January 1. Any suppliers who wanted to keep selling their products to the grocery chain needed to phase out any and all pesticide-containing chemicals that were harmful to bees. That requirement went above and beyond the partial ban previously written into law by the EU. 

They removed artificial colors, hydrogenated oils, and MSG from their Aldi products

Now more than ever, we're aware of the additives in our foods, and in 2015 Aldi announced they would no longer manufacture or sell products with questionable ingredients.

With the announcement (via Consumerist), they confirmed they were no longer selling items with partially hydrogenated oils, artificial and synthetic coloring, or added MSG. According to CEO Jason Hart, about 90 percent of the products sold at Aldi are their own brand, so that gives them some serious control over the ingredients in the food they sell. And, if you haven't noticed a difference yet, you won't. They didn't make the announcement until after they'd already done it.

They've won some major awards

Picking up some of Aldi's brands will save you money, but it turns out you're not even compromising on the quality of the food you're buying — and they have the awards to prove it.

In 2017, Aldi's Cotes de Provence Rose placed second in the International Wine Challenge for rose wines, and that's even more impressive considering it only costs around $10 a bottle. It beat wines that regularly sell for three times the price, and it was all done in a blind taste test. And in 2015, Aldi's Highland Black 8 Year Old Whiskey took home some top honors at the International Spirits Challenge, where they also won awards for their 5 Year Old Whiskey and their Clarke's Kentucky Bourbon Whisky. That rounded out a big year for Aldi in the British market, where they took home 25 medals in the Grocer Food and Drink Own Label Awards. The competition compared the products of grocery stores across the UK, and with both Aldi and their budget competitor Lidl both doing better than the more expensive stores, they both considered it a win for the idea of affordable, quality products — something acknowledged by the British consumer rights group Which?, who has voted Aldi their supermarket of the year for 2009, 2012, 2013, and 2015.

It's all about simplicity and thriftiness

Aldi doesn't allow their employees to talk to the media, but when regional manager Dieter Brandes left Aldi, he became an author — and he started with a book that revealed Aldi's business plan. According to Brandes, their philosophy of keeping things simple is best summed up be a single word: verzicht. There's no direct English translation, but The Irish Times says it's a combination of "doing without" and "giving up." Brandes says it boils down to setting a goal and getting rid of everything else, even the massive amount of sales data most retailers use — Aldi doesn't have any of that, and they don't have tens of thousands of products either.

The billionaire owners of Aldi practiced what they preached, too. Theo Albrecht was known for sitting in meetings and using pencils down to the nubs, and The Washington Post says one former employee remembered being criticized by the owner for using paper that was too thick and therefore, wasteful. When the Albrecht brothers bought their burial plots at a municipal cemetery, according to The Guardian, it was fairly abandoned. They dispatched a handful of Aldi's trucks full of rhododendrons and shrubs to clean up the cemetery… but only when the shrubs went on sale.