The untold truth of Lidl

In 2017, German grocery chain Lidl (and that's pronounced "Lee-dul") announced they were taking a run at the American grocery market, according to USA Today. Their announcement came around the same time Aldi unveiled their $3.4 billion commitment to opening new stores in the US, and as for Lidl, they've promised to have the doors of 100 stores open within a year of the announcement… give or take. So, who are they? They're similar to Aldi in that they both offer super-cheap pricing thanks to a bare bones business plan. They both rely heavily on their own private label brands, a small store footprint, and efficiency for savings they pass on to customers. They're definitely not the same — in spite of rumors they're the same company — so let's take a look at what you should know about Lidl.

The chain started in 1930… and again in 1973

Lidl has roots that go back to the 1930s, when entrepreneur Josef Schwarz invested in a tropical fruit business, marking the foundation of the Schwarz Group. Schwarz he had started to turn his fruit business into a grocery when plans were disrupted by the outbreak of World War II. He didn't move back to Heilbronn until 1954, and even though he opened a warehouse in Northern Wurttenberg and built the foundations of the business, it was his son, Dieter, who opened the first Lidl in 1973.

Josef died in 1977, and Dieter took over the empire. He's still at the head of it all, and according to Bloomberg, he set up the company so he has complete control over every decision that's made. Because of that, under German law it's considered to all be a part of his personal fortune, and that makes him worth a staggering $22.1 billion.

There were some naming issues

Lidl wasn't the first choice for the name of the chain, and The Guardian says the first choice — Schwarz-Markt — just couldn't happen. Translate that, and it essentially means "The Black Market"… so you can see why they didn't go that way. It was decided store co-owner and retired schoolteacher Ludwig Lidl would be paid for the rights to use his name for the store. You might think he struck it big and could retire secure in the knowledge his name was plastered all over a multi-billion-dollar company, but you'd be wrong.

According to Bloomberg, Schwarz gave Lidl 1,000 deutschmarks for the use of his name. When the stores opened in the 1970s, that was around $500.

Lidl's founder is super-private

Dieter Schwarz isn't just super-private, he's so private The Guardian says there are stories suggesting he once turned down an entrepreneurial award because he didn't want to have his picture taken. It's unclear whether or not that's true, but we do know there are only two confirmed photographs of him in existence — and one's in black and white. That's pretty impressive in today's technological era, and that also means there are a lot of secrets Lidl just isn't giving up.

Not surprisingly, there are plenty of rumors surrounding the man. In 2010, German outlet Suddeutsche Zeitung tried to get a closer look, and found that he was so unrecognizable even in his hometown of Heilbronn that he could walk through the streets without anyone knowing who he was. They hint at secret addresses for his office, pastors who stay mum about rumors that he occasionally preaches from the pulpit, and whispers of charitable projects funded by a mysterious benefactor who insists he goes unnamed. They were stonewalled at every turn, and said the entire city seemed curiously quiet when it came to the billionaire businessman.

Business practices are super-secretive, too

The Guardian also says it's unclear just what sort of structure the Schwarz Group (which includes the warehouse retailer and discount company Kaufland, as well as Lidl) has behind those closed and locked doors, but they say it's a web of close-knit, interconnected companies, foundation, boards, and councils. 

Lidl has gone head-to-head with unions before, and The Guardian says they not only discourage their employees from unionizing, but they frown on workplace councils, too. Verdi reps say Lidl stores with employees who organize into any kind of cohesive group are closed, while other employees say those who speak out are at risk of unemployment or a transfer to a store miles and miles from their homes. All that compounds to make Lidl as far from an open book as you can imagine.

They seriously violated privacy rights of their employees

In 2008, Lidl made headlines with some shocking revelations: they weren't just spying on their employees, but they were keeping detailed records of their health concerns, personal finances, romantic relationships, and more. According to The Irish Times, hundreds of handwritten documents were found, including notes on the successes and failures of employees' artificial insemination appointments, blood pressure readings, and work absences. The managers' notes were then taken to the regional manager on a monthly basis, when decisions about each employee would be made. The Guardian added they had details on everything from the location and composition of tattoos to details divulged during phone calls made on breaks.

Shockingly, Lidl not only admitted that they knew about and condoned the surveillance, but that it was company policy designed to help pinpoint potential threats to their bottom line, security, and to establish a baseline that would allow them to pick up on any abnormal behavior before it became a problem. A month after the details were released, Spiegel Online quoted supervisory board member Klaus Gehrig as saying the surveillance wasn't going to stop, but they would make employees more aware of the monitoring and allow them to view footage at any time.

There's no real public face

After the 2008 controversy over Lidl's policies of collecting personal details on their employees boiled to the surface, it was spokesperson Petra Trabert who issued an official statement, and supervisory board member Klaus Gehrig who clarified their continuing position to Spiegel Online. That's a bit odd, because most companies have people in positions dedicated to things like social media and the press, but Lidl doesn't. According to The Guardian, they appointed a press officer in 2006, but the position disappeared about a year later. Public relations are at a minimum — so minimal the UK news outlet was amazed Lidl was able to rebound after the expose on their employment practices.

The UK division was handed to a new chief exec in 2017

Lidl UK stores had a major shake-up in 2017, and it's a perfect example of just how strange the inner workings of the company can seem. After six years at the head of the UK division, Ronny Gottschlich was suddenly fired. The Telegraph says no one has said a word on what happened, and when they talked to his replacement, they found Christian Hartnagel was informed he was moving to the UK an hour after Gottschlich was fired, and he had two days to pick up and get there.

Hartnagel hinted that Gottschlich wasn't driven enough for the position, and as proof of just how serious he is, he committed to opening a new Lidl every week over his first two years at the head of Lidl UK, spending a whopping £1.45 billion. How does he plan on doing it? He starts with his own routine, and says he gets up every morning at precisely 6:52am. "Not at 6:50, 6:52," he says. "I know, it's embarrassing, but it's all about German optimisation."

They've received millions in public funding

Let's start by saying that Lidl is in no way accused of doing anything shady here, and when a 2015 article in The Guardian reported they had been lent almost a billion in public funding for expanding across central and eastern Europe, they needed to add there was technically nothing wrong with this. Given that the Schwarz Group is in the control of one of the wealthiest families in Europe, it didn't go over well.

The idea they were using so much public funding irked many, especially worker unions. While Lidl claimed their expansions were bringing jobs to impoverished areas, unions were pointing at their less-than-stellar track record when it came to their employees. It's no joke, either — among the damning documents were some from Poland, where Lidl repeatedly violated laws that said employees needed to have at least 11 hours off work every day. When they interviewed the people these stores were supposed to be benefiting, they were less than impressed that the giant was squeezing out more and more small businesses and using public money to do it.

They had to apologize after one store was caught poisoning the homeless

Apparently, 2008 was a rough year for Lidl. According to The Telegraph, a Lidl in one of Stockholm's suburbs was busted for some serious endangerment. Employees who claimed they were sick of the city's homeless showing up to pull expired food out of the trash bins decided to pour cleaning liquids and detergents over the food to keep them away. They posted signs saying they'd poisoned the food… but the starving people took it anyway.

Lidl's Swedish CEO apologized, saying their actions weren't condoned by the company. That apology came on the heels of another apology, this one for a marketing campaign that required the purchase of alcohol to enter a competition (which seemed to contradict the nation's policy of strict moderation). Then, there was more outrage when several Lidl stores in Sweden were caught selling meat that wasn't 100 percent meat… all leading to the need for some major damage control.

They're known for being really rough on employees

There was an entire book written on Lidl's offenses toward their employees. It's called The Black Book on Lidl in Europe, and it was a compilation of stories told by Lidl employees and collected over the course of two years. According to The Independent, Lidl employed around 151,000 people when the book hit, and more than 200 stores were implicated.

There was some seriously dark stuff in there, and a number of workers spoke about what shop workers' trade union Verdi called a "climate of fear". Workers needed to report for work — and start working — before their shift started, amounting to countless hours of unpaid work. Workers who didn't meet outrageous standards were often accused of theft and forced out of the company, and management was tasked with searching employees and their personal property to make sure they weren't stealing. Bathroom breaks were reported to be a luxury they weren't always given, and one former cashier said she wasn't allowed to leave the register, "so I sometimes went home with wet underwear." Later, purchasing agent Robin Goudsblom spoke to Spiegel Online he admitted they'd made some mistakes, saying "We are not a perfect company. We also have a lot of room for improvement — especially [in] the way we treat employees."

Lidl Italia had problems with the mob

In 2017, Reuters reported some tantalizing but scant details on an ongoing investigation that came to a head in May. Four Lidl offices — which were responsible for overseeing around 200 stores in northern Italy — were raided and seized for their connections to the Laudani crime family.

While Lidl wasn't being investigated for the connections, their managers were. Information on just what they suspected was vague, but they did report it had something to do with the mafia strong arming changes to contracts for their benefit, and it's clear the investigation into those connections is ongoing.

Lidl's branching out into fashion

Lidl made their fortune in the grocery business and — like Aldi — by advertising limited-time, weekly deals on other products they score big on. They're branching out, though, and in 2017 they announced they were going to be partnering with Heidi Klum for their own affordable but fashionable clothing line.

According to The Irish Times, Klum's Lidl line is her first complete fashion line, and Klum has said it's the combination of Lidl's international reach and reputation for affordability that means it's a perfect market for her, and that she's psyched to have her clothes on sale at a store that's mostly known as a supermarket. "I'm proud to have a range in the supermarket; I wanted to put it in everyone's faces that we are in a supermarket," she's said.

They've won some major awards for their wine and liquor

Head to Lidl's wine, beer, and liquor section, and you shouldn't discount what they have on offer. In 2017, their Cremant de Bourgogne Blanc NV took home a silver medal at the International Wine & Spirits Competition (via The Independent), and that's not too shabby — especially considering a bottle will run you £7.99 (or about $10), while similarly-ranked champagnes cost in the neighborhood of £50 (or around $65).

It's not just their sparkling, champagne-like wine they're serious about, either. They took home a gold medal for their Queen Margot 8 Year Blended Scotch Whisky from the International Wine & Spirit Competition in 2014 (via The Telegraph), and in 2017 they've been given awards for their Dundalgan whisky, their Castelgy London Dry Gin, and their Irish Liqueurs from the International Spirits Challenge, and for their Prosecco from The Prosecco Masters.

The differences between Aldi and Lidl

So, when you have the option to choose between Aldi and Lidl, what are the practical differences you're going to see when you walk into the stores? The Guardian shopped at both, and gave us a run-down of what they found. Lidl tends to stock more name-brand products, so if that's a deal-breaker for your family, you might want to head there. Aldi scored better when it came to offering European selections of things like meat and cheeses, and seemed to have a wider selection of produce than Lidl.

The State found some other differences. While European Lidl stores have the same coin-operated shopping carts Aldi does, they aren't going doing that at their American locations. Lidl stocks some name-brand types of alcohol as well, and they say Klum's clothing line is a strictly Lidl-only find. There are plenty of other things — like affordability and quality — they're neck-and-neck on, so you'll just have to try them both!