The untold truth of Aldi

Aldi hasn't always had the best reputation as an American grocery option. For years, they were considered inferior to better-known chains, and many assumed their lower costs also meant lower quality. But lately, Aldi has been changing things up in a major way. They're shedding their misfit label and working hard to become the number one grocery destination for many American shoppers — and it's working.

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 functional, but they're a part of what's called the "invisible case" project by being designed to blend in with product packaging. 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 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 manager trainee, as well as the shift manager and store associate, who can be doing anything from working the cash register to restocking shelves, and cleaning up.

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 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.

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

According to Forbes, Aldi checkouts move about 40 percent 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 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 a lot, so 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, and 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 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 else to do it.

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're only open peak hours

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.

Like a lot of things Aldi does, this is simply to conserve money. According to Capital Strategies, Inc.'s profile on Aldi, 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.

They've won some major awards

Picking up Aldi's brands will save you money, but it turns out you're not even compromising on the quality — 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 in a blind taste test, 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 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 year they also 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 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 voted Aldi their supermarket of the year for 2009, 2012, 2013, and 2015.

Some lucky people can get their groceries delivered

In August of 2017, Aldi announced they were rolling out a plan to join the grocery delivery craze, starting with Dallas, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. According to Food and Wine, those were the first cities selected to see how Aldi customers responded to the idea they could order their groceries via Instacart and have that order delivered right to their door. It's a potential lifesaver for busy families, and it's a growing market.

Aldi already created some serious industry waves when they took on the established supermarket giants and big box stores, and now, they're taking aim at another Goliath: Amazon. When Amazon acquired Whole Foods, they pretty much became the major player in the grocery delivery service, and Instacart spokesperson Dacyl Armendariz says that has to change. With the announcement came hints the service would expand to cover more cities— and they've already grown to include Chicagoland—but just who is likely to get the service next remains a mystery.

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

In November 2010, The Food Channel reported that hundreds of Aldi stores across Germany were creating major controversy. According to Aldi, their in-store baking 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 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.

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 the first time an "outsider" was allowed through those doors.

Aldi has an entire team that works in their test kitchens, and they adhere to 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 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. 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.

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.

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?

You'll be seeing Aldi at Kohl's

What do Aldi and Kohl's have in common? Absolutely nothing, at first glance, but in 2018 it was announced Kohl's was going to start subletting space in their stores to Aldi.

It started when around 300 Kohl's stores were remodeled to free up space that would be sublet to partners in an attempt to boost traffic and profits, and Aldi was a logical choice. On one hand, it's turning unprofitable space in Kohl's into profits, and it's allowing them both to take shots at the competition — particularly Target. As for Aldi, they're focusing on expanding the same kind of product lines Kohl's customers are looking for — fresh options and fine European foods. Forbes says the partnership is a relatively small part of Aldi's US expansion plans, but it could give them a serious boost in terms of building credibility as a respectable grocery store. 

The program will start in only 10 stores, and CNBC says it has the potential to be a win-win for both sides.

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 — and tens of thousands of extra products.

The billionaire owners of Aldi practiced what they preached, too. Theo Albrecht was known for 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.