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Recently it was my turn for carpool duty. I had to take my son, Evan, and his teammates to and from track practice at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, in Louisville, Ohio, a short drive from where we live. Having an hour or so to spare after dropping the kids off, I decided to cruise by the newest Wal-Mart supercenter in the area, which opened nearly a year ago and has been quickly redefining who owns what share of the Canton, Ohio market.

Observing a packed parking lot at Wal-Mart and a seemingly deserted Kmart adjacent to it, I opted instead to visit, for the first time, an ALDI limited-assortment store located just a couple of blocks down the road.

While I've written and read a lot about limited-assortment stores lately in Progressive Grocer, I must admit that I had never actually shopped the format. Hoping to better understand the appeal for consumers and get a shopper's-eye view of how the stores are successfully competing with large chains, I drove my Toyota 4Runner into the ALDI lot and parked near a couple of minivans and a Chevy El Camino. Dressed in my K-Swiss sneakers and Adidas workout clothes, I ventured toward the store, observing as I walked across the parking lot that every handicapped-designated spot was occupied. I remember thinking that a lot of older folks must be shopping at the store.

Impressive displays

At first, my intention was not to purchase anything. My plan was simply to identify the types of consumers shopping there; converse with ALDI employees if possible; evaluate the building, lighting, and store layout; and determine what would -- or wouldn't -- persuade me, as a conventional-format shopper, to return.

As soon as I entered the store, however, I was met by a large display of my kids' favorite Kellogg's cereals, priced at 99 cents each. I also found myself admiring a gorgeous display of colorful cut flowers near the cash registers. I thought, "This place might not be too bad." And others seemed to agree, based on the number of shoppers I spied in the six-aisle store, most of whom were either elderly folks escorted by home health aides, or couples accompanied by small children.

Impressed with the Kellogg's display and bouquets of flowers, I rented a grocery cart for 25 cents, tossed two boxes of cereal into it, and began perusing the store. As I walked that first aisle, I found myself searching for trusted national brands, of which there were few. On display were a variety of canned goods and snacks, many of them with packaging that emulated national brands. I examined the items with much skepticism. I asked myself, "If I buy these Baker's Treat nutty bars and snack pies, a brand that I've never heard of, will they compare to the kids' favorite, Little Debbie? Sure, they're cheaper and they look the same as Little Debbie, but will the kids even eat them? And these one-pound bags of Southern Grove shelled walnuts, priced at $3.69 each -- I wonder if they're fresh?"

Before I knew it, half an hour had passed and I was walking down the last aisle of the store. When I glanced at my grocery cart, I realized that most of the products I had selected were nonfoods: light bulbs, dog treats (my Jack Russell terrier, Buddy, has no brand preferences -- he's just happy to be fed), cleaning supplies, bathroom tissues, garbage bags, and a seemingly high-quality five-quart stainless steel colander.

Perishables? There weren't any in my cart. I wasn't at all attracted to the limited variety of nonrefrigerated produce, most of which was prepackaged and displayed on wooden grocery pallets, nor was I interested in purchasing the vacuum-packed frozen steaks, lobsters, or tempura shrimp at $7.99 per 10-count package. While I'm sure these products were safe -- other customers in the store were buying them -- the appeal to me was zero.

Did I have a chance to talk with ALDI employees during my visit? Only when I literally ran into the cashier/manager, who was rushing to sweep the store's aisles in preparation for the day's closing. Realizing that I had no cash in my wallet, I asked the worker what forms of payment ALDI accepted. "Food stamps, cash, or a debit card -- and that's it," she replied, hurrying off to the front end to check out waiting customers.

By this time I was feeling exhausted and my shopping had become a chore -- too much time inspecting expiration dates and questioning whether the kids, or even the dog, would consume the unfamiliar brands. It had started to rain outside and carpool duty was calling, so I headed immediately to the checkout counter.

Do it yourself

There, I was totally aghast when the cashier asked me which bags and how many of each I wanted to purchase -- the five-cent paper bags or the 10-cent insulated plastics with handles. She also informed me that had I shopped earlier in the day (which I realized that I could've done instead of going to an exercise class at the local YMCA), I could've picked up, at no charge, a few empty boxes in the store's aisles and used them, instead of paying for bags to pack my items myself.

"Pack my own?" I gasped.

"Yep. Take your stuff over to the counter by the front windows and bag it there," the cashier said. "If you try to do it here and back up the checkout counter, other customers will start to scream at you. That's the way ALDI does it in other countries, and it works pretty well here, too."

Thankful that the store accepted my debit card, but frustrated about having to bag my own products and rush out to my 4Runner in the rain, I explained to the cashier that I had never before shopped at ALDI, and apologized for being unaware of store procedures.

While my Continental Airlines debit card was processing, I asked the employee how she liked working for the German-owned company. "The pay and benefits are great," she said. "And by the way, if you need to use this grocery cart to haul your bags out to your car, make sure you bring it back to the curb. You'll get your quarter back when you do."

While my visit to the ALDI store was enlightening, reminding me what I most appreciate about conventional supermarkets, I doubt that I'd shop there again. As a consumer I prefer variety, and freshness in perishables, combined with outstanding customer service -- and I'm willing to pay for those offerings, come rain or come shine.

Independent Retailing Editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at [email protected].
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