Monday, February 15, 2016

that kind of luxe just ain't for us

As a belated holiday gift, my wife and I took her parents out to dinner. We went to a small, nondescript, storefront place at the far end of a strip mall in desolate Northeast Philadelphia. After dinner, my father-in-law said he wanted to pop over to a nearby supermarket for a dozen eggs. The supermarket to which he was referring was an ominous-looking Aldi next door.

I've seen Aldi markets here and there, mostly, from what I can tell, in lower income areas. There is one, actually not too far from my suburban home, but it's just over the county border and within the Philadelphia city limits. I have never actually been in an Aldi market, but, from the outside, it looks like a warehouse-style store, offering unknown "off" branded products at low prices. So, when the opportunity arose to actually enter an Aldi, to do a little first-hand, face-to-face investigation while my father-in-law was on his little egg quest, I jumped!

The entrance to the store is guarded by scores of shopping carts, all locked together by a short length of chain between each one. Customers must insert a quarter into the large locking mechanism to release a cart. Your quarter is returned when the cart is returned. This system eliminates the need for a kid to scramble around the parking lot, collecting and organizing abandoned shopping carts. And the savings are passed on to you!

Not what you think.
It turns out that the majority of products that Aldi stocks are their own versions of national brands. There are a few products that you've seen in other supermarkets, but those are few and far between. Also, the products are displayed in open cardboard cartons stacked high and tightly along side each other, thus creating aisles of cardboard shelving. We entered the store in the potato chip/candy/cereal aisle — an unusual grouping of foods and an even more unusual starting point for a grocery shopping trip. As I made my way down Aisle One, I looked carefully at all of the package designs. Most were obvious attempts at copying the well-known brands, using similar product "beauty shots," similar typefaces and positioning on the package. It was as though I discovered the source of all of those products you see in the kitchen cabinets on TV sitcoms or pulled from the Mystery Ingredient Basket on Chopped. (Ah, hard shell coated chocolate candy drops! I wonder what they're supposed to be?) Just past a display of Aldi's rectangular, frosted "Toaster Tarts" (a thinly-veiled version of PopTarts), was the breakfast cereal section. I saw box after box of slightly-skewed renditions of General Mills' "Cheerios" and Kellogg's "Raisin Bran." There was even a near-clone of "Raisin Bran Crunch" in a box that smacked of copyright infringement. All of the cereal was presented under the fabricated "Millville" brand. They weren't fooling anyone.

Fake rolls.
We may need a warrant.
Aisle after aisle, brand after faux brand was presented. I felt like we were shopping in a carnival fun house, each family of products exhibited by way of one of those distorted mirrors. I picked up and replaced dozens of items, but not before examining and chuckling at the blatant plagiarism of the packaging. Mrs. P, now carrying a small shopping basket, had chosen a couple of "Bake House" brand crescent rolls. Clad in a slender, navy blue cardboard tube and looking a little too close to its Pillsbury counterpart, these rolls, surprisingly, carried a pretty reputable kosher certification, something Poppin' Fresh's line sorely lacks. (I believe their ad slogan is "Lard Makes It Great!") Mrs. P also selected several individually-boxed cherry pies from the folks at the made-up "Bakers Treat."  These were defiant affronts to our beloved Philadelphia bakery treasure Tastykake, but they were 49¢ versus Tastykake's hefty buck and a half.

We met up with my father-in-law, who was now cradling four dozen eggs in his arms. We made our way to the checkout lanes, where one lonely, yet friendly, young lady was ready to add up our purchases. We quickly learned that, in order to offer additional savings to their customers, Aldi does not accept credit cards or coupons, nor do they supply bags. "Pay with cash and carry this stuff out on your own" is their apparent company motto. Luckily, because of Aldi's ridiculously low prices, these few items only set us back a couple of dollars. Hey, the eggs were an unheard of 99 cents a dozen!

When I got home, I did a little research on Aldi and its history. (Okay, I "googled" it.) Although it can trace its origins to the 1940s, Aldi was officially formed in the 1960s in Germany, when the Albrecht brothers split up the family grocery business over a disagreement about selling cigarettes. Though legally two separate companies, they both operate under the "Aldi" banner and grew to become a global chain with 10,000 stores in 18 countries. 10,000 stores! I was shocked! (Shocked, I tell you!) I totally and unjustly underestimated Aldi. The chain was voted "Best Supermarket in the United Kingdom" two years in a row. Pretty impressive.

Is it impressive enough to get me to go back into an Aldi again? I don't think so.

1 comment:

  1. I can't stand Aldi's, but the moms in the world tell me that I'm foolish to go anywhere else since Aldi's is so cheap. I feel for Arthur in your last post. Good for your wife to try to find a better home for his memorabilia. Eventually I suppose the same thing will happen to all of our precious stuff?