Discount grocery Aldi heads into wealthier areas

By Annie Gasparro & Heather Haddon  |  October 16, 2016  |  Wall Street Journal

German chain makes big push in suburban U.S. with no-frills stores

Are suburban consumers ready to give up the familiar grocery experience for bare-bones stores where they have to do their own bagging and leave a quarter deposit for a shopping cart?

That’s what Aldi and other deep-discount chains are betting as they make a big expansion push across the U.S.

Up until now, the German chain and competitors like Lidl and dollar stores have mostly attracted cash-strapped customers. Now they’re moving into wealthier areas as Americans of all stripes get more budget-conscious and their traditional low-to-middle-income niche gets crowded with competitors. Aldi is going even further in appealing to upscale tastes by stocking some fancier goods, such as organic foods.

Bernstein Research analyst Alexia Howard expects discounters to more than double their average annual sales growth to 15% between 2015 and 2020, from 6% over the prior five years. “They seem to have rolled up their sleeves and planned to make inroads with major expansions,” Ms. Howard says.

Still, she warns, the shopping experience may not resonate with Americans and “it might be hard to re-create their European” success.

Indeed, for American shoppers, especially those used to the coziness of suburban stores, Aldi’s stores can be jarring. The outlets feature no-frills décor, skimpy in-store marketing and a limited assortment of foods, more than 90% of which are house-branded.

Aldi, which has about 1,600 locations in the U.S., says the majority of the latest 500 stores it has opened have been in large suburban retail centers in middle-income or higher neighborhoods.

The company takes a number of measures to save on labor costs. The quarter deposits prod shoppers to return carts to the holding bin. Aldi also puts multiple bar codes on its food packaging so that cashiers can more easily and quickly scan them, cutting down on the need for more staffers to handle customer checkout traffic.

Similarly, milk and egg refrigerators have shelves that roll in and out from both the front and back so that employees can restock 80 gallons of milk and 240 dozen eggs in seconds.

If Aldi customers have a question for their local store, they have to drive there. Individual stores don’t take phone calls as a means of keeping costs down and prices low.

The result? Prices can run 25% to 40% lower than traditional grocers.

Customers such as Sam Bridgeland, a 31-year-old consultant from Chicago, like Aldi’s no-frills approach. “I don’t care about the services,” he says.

But Aldi—which opened its first U.S. store in Iowa in 1976—is feeling much more competition in its core market these days. A broader range of retailers are getting into the discount-food business, from Target to dollar stores.

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