Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Trader Joes and Aldi's... My Two Grocery Store Loves

I was first introduced to Aldi's when I lived in Berlin, Germany for a year after graduating college.  After we got married, it became my main grocery store and I absolutely fell in love with it.  It never ceased to amaze me how much money we saved by shopping there.  When we moved to California, I was so sad to leave behind my much beloved Aldi's, but soon found a new love... Trader Joe's.  Our more recent move back to the midwest has left me an hour from my beloved TJ's, but I have fallen in love again with Aldi's, which is once again five minutes from our house.

At first glance, Trader Joe's and Aldi's may seem polar opposites.  One caters to middle to upper class white people, while the other attracts lower class people, including many minorities.  One carries organic, gluten free cookies in a whimsically cute box while the other has large, unattractive pallets of staples like white flour and (probably GMO) sugar.

But there is more similarity than meets the eye.  One thing the two stores have in common is the fact that they carry a limited selection of grocery items, which makes for smaller stores and lower prices.  Another similarity is that almost everything sold in each of these stores is privately labeled.  Neither store usually runs sale prices, most things (except for produce and dairy) are the exact same price every time you go.  But the reason for these unusual similarities isn't by chance, it goes back decades... Aldi's and TJ's were once the same company, founded by two brothers in Germany.  At one point they had a disagreement and the company split... and now decades later the result is Aldi's and Trader Joe's.

For those who are unfamiliar with the two stores, I want to share my love: comparing the things they have in common, as well as contrasting the ways they are different.

Low Prices.  This is obvious for Aldi's, but for Trader Joes?  This would seem hard to believe for a store that caters to the upper-middle class.  I remember the first time I went to TJ's was while I was in college, on the recommendation of a friend who told me how great the prices were.  I went in, looked around and picked up about 2 items and then left, thoroughly unimpressed with the prices.

The key is you have to know what to buy at Trader Joe's.  The produce prices are not impressive, though if you compare prices there are a few things that are a decent price (when we lived in Cali I regularly bought organic carrots and bagged lettuce there, and sometimes avocados when they are in season).  Packaged foods are likewise not that impressively priced (but we don't buy many packaged foods anyways, as they are pricey everywhere, at least compared to making food at home).  But they have a good number of frozen and dry goods staples that are very reasonably priced.  In fact, when we lived in Cali, most of their staple goods (things like pasta, flour, certain cheeses, tortillas, milk, frozen fruit and veggies) were cheaper than any other grocery store I compared their prices with (including discount stores).  I haven't done as much price comparison here in Indiana, but there are a handful of things I will pick up there still when we happen to drive in the direction of the TJs near us.

Special Buys.  Both stores have a very predictable repertoire of food items, which allows them to keep costs low (and makes shopping simple- yay!).  But both regularly get in special shipments of various specialty foods, which makes shopping there a bit like an adventure.  Its exciting when you see something new, and get to try it out.  Sometimes when they have a new items I really like I stock up because you never know how long they will have it.  Even better- when Aldi's doesn't sell their special buys quickly enough (they seem to want to have quick turnover of products) they put them on clearance for half price, which is why twice in the past 6 months I have come home with over 10 pounds of organic cheese for cheaper than conventional cheese (I bought every single bag they had on the shelf both times!).

Specialty/Healthy/Organic food. This is an area where these two stores part ways a bit.  TJ's definitely gets the prize for having more specialty/healthy/organic foods.  For example, I love their frozen, pesticide free spinach and blueberries, as these are cheaper than organic because they are not certified as such, but also don't have the nasty chemicals (conventional versions of these are very high in pesticides).  They also carry certain obscure health foods like almond flour, brown rice pasta and coconut cream (all three of these in particular are at really good prices).  They also have a fairly wide selection of organic foods.

However, Aldi's is catching up.  They recently expanded their selection of organic produce and have a few dry goods that are organic (cereal, salsa, spaghetti sauce, etc).  They have organic meat and cheese on special buy every once in a while.  They recently had a special buy of gluten free products, which was a blessing to us as it happened right when I started a GF diet for some issues Hudson has been having.

Shopping Experience.  Lets be honest.  Shopping at TJ's is way more fun than shopping at Aldi's.  TJs has free samples of food, incredibly overly friendly employees (they must give them the same drugs as Starbucks employees), coloring pages for kiddos, and a entry to win a gift card if you bring your own bags.

Aldi's has shopping carts under lock and key (the key is your quarter), bags for sale (or you can bring your own bag without the hope of a gift card drawing), employees who must be on a different kind of drug for how fast they scan your items, and a bag your own grocery policy.  However, though I like the experience of TJs, I will choose to bag my own groceries any day in order to save a bit more money.

The Cool Factor.  Shopping at TJ's is cool.  Aldi's is not cool. This is because TJ's has an advertising budget while Aldi's spends very little on advertising.  I am more inclined to mention my shopping trip to TJ's on facebook, than my trip to Aldi's, though this is a subconscious thing.

But this isn't a make or break thing for me.  Lets face it, I'm a stay at home mom and a Christian, I'm not the epitome of cool.

Have you shopped at either one (or both) of these stores?  What do you love about Trader Joe's?  What do you love about Aldi's?

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