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Aldi, a brutally efficient grocery chain, is upending America's supermarkets (cnn.com)
512 points by oftenwrong 40 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 629 comments

I'm an industrial engineer and geek out about Aldi frequently. Here are a few things I've noticed (and researched) which differentiate them from others.

-they have barcode on 5 or 6 sides of their products, and they're typically huge! They nearly never need to orient a product to scan it. Their scan speed is far faster than any other supermarket I've been at.

-if two products are very similar, they'll change the packaging in an obvious way. Blueberry and blackberry yogurt typically look very similar, but the lids are obviously dark and light purple at Aldi. They can glance down and count how many of each, scan one, then hit the number pad for the quantity. I haven't seen the number pad used extensively at any other grocer.

-they combine varieties (like flavors of granola bars) of product in the same box. This greatly reduces the shelf space required.

-depositing a quarter for a cart eliminates the need to pay people to collect carts

-they keep product the box from the manufacturer. This eliminates labor from unboxing and facing product.

-they don't have plastic bags. You can grab boxes (normally a waste stream) and take them home with you.

-they don't list a phone number for their stores. With as few as 2 people on site during the slow times, they can't afford to have anyone on the phone.

-their conveyor belt is far longer than most stores. You should be able to get your entire cart worth of groceries on the conveyor at once. This minimizes the slowness of people handing one item at a time to the next checker.

-They're big on turning inventory over. If they trial a product and it doesn't sell well enough, they have no problem simply not carrying it anymore. You can't always get everything set Aldi, but you can get 85-95% of items you need there.

-they wanted to avoid vendor lock-in, so they had two POS vendors develop solutions simultaneously, awarding the contract to the one which provided the best solution.

I feel quite a few of those things are pretty standard in Europe, so I wonder if ALDI is just exporting european practices to the US. "Coin for a cart" e.g. is almost normal. I noticed that barcodes on all sides of a product is becoming more common, particularly in stores that allow self-scan (ALDI doesn't, but it obviously makes things easier also for customers that self-scan).

That was my thought as well. I live in Denmark, I think ALDI is one of our least efficient supermarket chains which is why they’ve had to fill the niche of low-quality-low-price.

I never knew American supermarkets were so terrible. I mean, you read about the Amazon grocery stores and get the picture of Europe being far behind.

I think ALDI being low quality is mostly a myth, just assumed because of their low prices. The only thing I don't but there is meat, greatly prefer the local butcher.

In some cases the cheaper Aldi products is the same as the more expensive product from another store.

When I was younger there was no difference between olé’s chocolate and Leo with the exception of the package. It was the same taste and factory producing them.

If you have a thing for Girl Scout cookies, the Aldi generics taste just the same for a fraction of the price

There are two ALDIs as article mentions and they differ in quality: https://www.reddit.com/r/europe/comments/63hce5/aldi_nord_bl...

Aldi Süd seems to be more preffered, however I personally prefer Lidl which is based on similar efficiency concepts.

> There are two ALDIs as article mentions and they differ in quality

At least in Germany, where there exist both Aldi and Aldi Süd, quality is not a trait that people would claim that these two differ (they would rather say that the difference lies in assortment).

You are right, I worded it wrongly. Unfortunatelly I can't edit or delete my prev post.

According to wikipedia:

> Internationally, Aldi Nord operates in Denmark, France, the Benelux countries, Portugal, Spain and Poland, while Aldi Süd operates in Ireland, Great Britain, Hungary, Switzerland, Australia, China, Italy, Austria and Slovenia. Both Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd also operate in the United States with 1,600 stores as of 2017.

Aldi Denmark is the worst Aldi I've ever been to.

Aldi made quite a lot of those things standard in Europe.

This. Aldi was founded in 1946, and many of its efficiency-oriented practices were later adopted by other supermarkets in Europe[1].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aldi

Albert Heijn started the whole self-serving thing in 1952 (and was founded in 1887!).


And in the chart in the article you can see that they (AHold) are really big in the US, too. Didn't know that.

Euro here, I don't think chasing the bottom of the barrel is worth celebrating. Also, Germany has the worst standard of grocery stores (I'd prefer grocery stores in general from neighboring France, Switzerland etc) due to their assortment and quality of products - and Aldi and Lidl are responsible for that.

Cheap medium-quality food is not really just an Aldi/Lidl thing, it's culturally a German thing. Germans just don't care about food quality as much as e.g. French people, so competition values price over quality. I'm German and also this way, that's why I'm generally happy to shop in Aldi/Lidl.

It's also diet and food choices. For example I shop in Aldi here in Ireland and this week a standard problem happened. I went with a list of ingredients to make an Indian curry from scratch and only managed to get about 70 percent of what I needed there. The same thing has happened before when doing a Thai or Chinese meal. Comparatively a normal sizwd Tesco would nearly always have everything. In particular Aldi would have a lot less options for things like spices etc.

One thing I do find funny though is the Lidl (and Aldi) practice of selling loads of random items in one or two of there aisles. Many is the funny story I or friends have of going into the shop for milk and bread and coming out with a unicycle, power welder and night vision goggles instead :)

That's my experience as well as an Aldi customer in the USA. I just go to see what they have rather than with a specific list in mind because their selection is quite sparse and at least 20-25% of it changes regularly.

At least here in Houston my Aldi is in the middle of an economically depressed area, so despite the poor selection they're still better than the small convenience stores which have little to no fresh food of any kind. Everything is prepackaged.

I’ve heard They call it three tiered shopping here in Germany - 70% in Aldi, the rest in an upper level discounter (sic) and the delicious or rare stuff at a specialist store or a marketplace.

That would explain why Aldi can be successful in the USA. Even after more than a decade living in more than one states, and I am still not used to the generally poor quality of fresh produce.

Seasonal gardening and local farmers help, but it's not cheap at all. I grew with up with seasonal farmer's market having higher quality at the same or even slightly lower price than the grocery store, but not in the US, higher quality but at fancy price, although they receive the same subsidies and it does cost them that much more.

Germans who can afford it buy only basic stuff at discounters. Fresh vegetables are bought at traditional grocery stores or markets, bread is bought at a bakery, and meat at a butcher, etc. though these latter two professions are heavily in decline in the last 20 years. Comparisons with France and Italy are unfair; these are in a league of their own with respect to food quality (at a price, though).

Good point, actually

Living in Switzerland, I often choose to shop for groceries in Germany! Better prices and (much) better range in Hieber. (Although agree that France usually has both beaten.)

Assuming you mean the Hieber in Weil am Rhein, they really do offer a superb shopping experience, but it's vastly above the standard. I wish more supermarkets would adopt the self-scanning devices, it's perfect when buying single-digit items.

In Lithuania food is so expensive that there's a joke that it's cheaper to drive to Germany to shop. That's a bit of a hyperbole (German border is about 1000km away), but it's definitely cheaper to shop in Poland.

In Poland it's pretty common to do shopping in Germany, if you live close to the border.

It's pretty ridiculous how in that region, as you drive south the average wage increases, but the food prices decrease.

I don’t know about the quality it’s not particularly bad as they also have a brands but Lidl is certainly not all about efficiency. Not those here in Belgium regardless where you go to the Lidl.

I really dislike going there. They have 8 cash registers and open only on or two. The reason being that they are understaffed and employees have a gazillion of tasks: baking, unloading, stock, cash register,...

Haha except in EU it's not a quarter, it's 2 euros! And tons of carts still hang around abandoned with 2-coins in them.

In Germany most newer carts take 50ct, 1€, and 2€ coins. The older ones took 1€ (or 1DM before the introduction of the Euro). Abandoned carts on the premises aren't much of a thing anywhere I lived except for maybe the odd lazy person with a plastic coin in it (some.people carry those around e.g. on their key chain for when they don't have coins on hand).

The plastic coins are given out by the shops themselves.

I usually keep one in my pockets, not really out of laziness, I just don't use coins for much these days.

Any of the ones that take a 1 eur coin will take a 20c one as well. Which is good, because there are always a bunch of them in the cup holders.

I’ve never seen this anywhere, ever?

And honestly, if there was two euros going for simply moving a trolley back to its parking zone, I suspect you would have shoppers who found it worth doing that for all of the free carts, let alone people with less money coming in to collect.

Sometimes there are homeless people loitering in the parking lots offering to take your empty cart to pocket the coin in them.

Indeed. The only few cases are for trolleys left kilometers away.

Don't you have homeless people? ;) In Poland they are quite good at collecting coins from those (and also collecting cans).

What I more often see than carts with coins lying around is people straight-up stealing the carts. If they live in nearby streets they just push the cart home and then use it to carry or store stuff around the yard. You can see several such carts in the streets surrounding supermarkets.

And in Sweden we're removing the coins since the customers no longer carry cash...

> -they combine varieties (like flavors of granola bars) of product in the same box. This greatly reduces the shelf space required.

This is the only thing that fails about Aldi. Let's say you want their Chicken Tikka sauce. The mixed boxes mean good chance you won't see it as Tikka always goes first. You go through the whole 6 boxes of inventory, and yep, all sold - the three spaces in every box. Same for pizza - one always goes first. They don't restock until there's space for another combined box.

This looks related to something that's mystified me for years about Safeway.


- Safeway rotates every product through "sale" and "full price" periods. It's a strictly calendar-based thing; every sale price is going to recur if you wait, and every product will spend a lot of time at "full price" and a lot of other time at two or three different "sale" prices.

- Triscuits come in a variety of special flavors.

All triscuit varieties go on sale together. If triscuits aren't on sale that week, you can get whatever flavor you want. But if a sale has happened, the Parmesan Garlic flavor is probably sold out. This happens, reliably, every time triscuits go on sale, and affects only the Parmesan Garlic flavor. To get that flavor at a sale price, you need to be in the store near the beginning of the sale period.

To me, the diagnosis is obvious: Parmesan Garlic is more popular than every other flavor, and Safeway should stock more of that flavor than they do of other flavors. But though I've observed this for years, they don't. All flavors get the same shelf space, Parmesan Garlic always sells out quickly, and Safeway appears to be happy to forgo the lost sales of Parmesan Garlic triscuits that they could have made if they'd just had them in stock.

I used to work at a grocery store deli. Every week, without fail, we'd sell 75% yellow American cheese and 25% white American cheese (and that's being generous to the amount of white we sold). I asked my boss why we didn't just buy more yellow than white instead of buying exactly one box of white for every box of yellow and she just got mad and said "what, you think you can do my job better than me?"

I still deeply want to know this mystery. It's obvious to anyone who works at a grocery store that certain items are way more popular than others, but grocery stores buy way more variety than makes sense. Maybe it's for appearance in some cases, but no one can see how much American cheese we have stocked at the deli counter, and it's true for the stuff stored in the back of the warehouse, too.

My sister used to work at a super market. One of hey colleagues was tasked with checking the inventory and then restock. My sister saw how her colleague clearly saw that they still had 5 boxes of white chocolate and only 2 of the regular one (I don't remember the actual product but it doesn't matter). Her colleague ordered 3 white and 2 regular. "why the heck are you doing this? Obviously there is more demand for the regular one!" My sister exclaimed. "well I like white chocolate better!" Her colleague explained.

So I think it's absolutely possible you could have done your boss' job better. :-)

Probably caused by decouling between buy price and realised sell price.

You might also find the white is partly a byproduct that needs to be made no matter what.

And this brings me to what also is truly good at, they own the full chain and leverage it.

There are certain products I notice that only come in stock some years and it seems like they're made out of excess produce.

I.e. a cereal I like is made entirely out of these chunky things that usually go in as additives to other cereals. It looks like they only stock it when they have a cheap wheat price.

Another one is the nut bars and what kind of fruits they have mixed in.

>You might also find the white is partly a byproduct that needs to be made no matter what.

White is literally the color of the cheese. The "yellow" has food coloring and "flavor" added.


I assume this is a metaphor. But even for products that _are_ byproducts, it seems like the correct solution is to sell the less-popular one at a lower price.

Or... not buy it, as c3534l suggested. The fact that I produce egg whites and egg yolks together doesn't mean everyone who buys my whites is obligated to also buy a proportional quantity of yolks. That would defeat the whole purpose of separating them in the first place.

It wouldn't defeat the purpose at all but it is along the lines of the point I was making.

The yolks are a by product no matter what.

There was an interview on the Daily show or last week tonight where they made fun of a guy eating a plate of fried eggs that looked like 5 yolks and 2 egg whites. My guess, the dinner sells a lot of eggwhite omelettes and makes use of the extra yolks as another option for other people to buy.

In the supermarket scenario, the supplier only has one customer and has to somehow make them buy both no matter what.

The "cheese" part is also questionable...

> we'd sell 75% yellow American cheese and 25% white American cheese

Both are terrible. If there is one thing I really missed on the other side of the Atlantic it was the European quality and variety of cheese.

Go to a real grocery store. If you're shopping at any of the "name brand" grocery stores you're not going to get that much of any quality. Local coops and "high end" grocery stores generally have a great selection and often they have someone working there to help you understand and select cheeses.

Am I the only person who likes both American cheese and more complex artisanal european cheeses?

Nothing beats a hamburger with fresh chopped onions, american cheese, mustard, and pickles on a brioche bun. I will fight over that.

So, to sum up these complaints- retail companies have a lot of data at their hands- they just need to look at it and do something with it.

Safeway's use of data is comically bad.

Since 2010 or so, I've been signed up for their Just4U special discounts, based on what they know about my shopping habits, as a California dad. Recently they offered me a bonus coupon for Pampers diapers.

Not a match! Our kids have been out of diapers since the days when BlackBerry was the coolest phone in town. Maybe longer. I'm not impulse-buying diapers for anyone else's kids.

They let a week go by and then offered me a special deal on Depends, the old-people's diapers. Not in my current need list either.

Another week goes by, and they come up with a third idea. This time it's a discount coupon for Kotex sanitary napkins.

Hello? They've got about nine years of regular shopping data on me. If they still make multi-decade errors in identifying my age -- and can't get my gender right -- their data department hasn't even made it into the abacus era.

..what data department?

Well as for sanitary napkins they may have assumed that if you have kids, you have a wife.

Wrt to depends, maybe their algo gradient descends on natural language first? This guy doesn’t need kids diapers anymore, lets try something less specific.

Why do you assume that retail companies are not looking at data already? Target was (in)famously able to predict that a teenager was pregnant before she herself knew based on her shopping habits. It's entirely possible that retail companies are already following a close to optimal strategy (don't sell too many items at such a low price because they're a loss leader?).

That's not what happened, and you should reflect on what made you think such an absurd claim is true.

Target noticed she was pregnant before her father noticed.


> That's not what happened, and you should reflect on what made you think such an absurd claim is true.

OK, that's not what happened, but I don't see why you're calling the claim absurd. It is unusual-but-routine for women to present with health complaints that are caused by their own pregnancy, without necessarily having realized they were pregnant. Sometimes that health complaint is "I'm in labor". (To get to that point, you have to be really fat, but it does happen.)

Sorry -- I misremembered the story. But as another commenter notes, it's routine for women to not know they are pregnant [0]. So my claim is not "absurd", and I don't feel any need to "reflect" on my actions. The patronization is not necessary.

The main intent of my anecdote is to show how retail companies are already analyzing data. And I think it's foolish to assume that we (i.e. people working directly in tech) know better than the people who are working in tech + retail. (Many retail stores are on the technical bleeding edge - Target spins up K8 clusters in each store [1]!)

[0] https://www.webmd.com/baby/features/can-you-be-pregnant-not-... [1] https://tech.target.com/infrastructure/2018/06/20/enter-unim...

Same thing happens here, except there is always a loyalty card special on some items. If you want, say, a 12-pack of Vanilla Coke Zero, well, you have to buy three of them at once to avoid being reamed at the register. But you had better get there right after it's restocked, because it's always "Buy 2, get 1 free" or worse, "Buy 2, get 2 free," and they never stock more than three or four cartons at a time.

Every time someone talks about how grocery stores are these highly-optimized retail juggernauts that know everything about what they're selling, how much to order, where to place it on the shelf, and so on, I just wish I could take them on a tour of my local stores and ask them to explain various seemingly-nonsensical practices. IMHO, there is a lot of room for efficiency improvements in the retail grocery business.

I think they know exactly what they're doing. Those soda deals are usually loss leaders, i.e. the store takes a loss on every 12-pack they sell, but make it up in all of the other stuff you buy now that you're in the store.

If they can get you to come into the store and not buy the soda, that's a great outcome. Of course, if that happens too often, you'll stop going, so it's a balance. They've probably figured out how much to stock to maximize profits -- which might seem nonsensical if you were thinking they were trying to maximize soda sales.

I don’t understand how the soda display is supposed to pull in new shoppers.

Americans tend to drive to the grocery store in my experience. To me, this means most people committed to shopping at the store long before they got there and saw the soda display.

It’s the driving aspect that adds the competitiveness. If you’re driving, a 15 minute drive can get you to a lot of different stores with the same amount of effort.

If they can get you to come into the store and not buy the soda, that's a great outcome.

No, that's a terrible outcome, because they have taught me to check the soda aisle first (and they have kindly put it near the front of the store where it's convenient to do so). If the shelf is empty, I just turn around and head for the competing grocery store down the street....

... which, of course, is owned by the same conglomerate. Grrr.

This is something I've been thinking about a lot recently. It seems to be an impossible task to build a startup in this area as most supermarkets are far too large and have their own (seemingly sloppy) teams to do this stuff. Experience has taught me that there's probably a reason for things being the way they are.

Buy 2 get 3 free, must get all 5, is the best I've seen. And it's so stupid cheap you can't decline.

Exactly, and no one does. So the typical outcome is a shelf that sits empty for days at a time, annoying customers and earning $0 for either the store or the soft-drink distributor.

It's not just junk food, either -- they will cheerfully leave half their organic cereal aisle empty, waiting for restocked product that either never arrives or sells out instantly. This phenomenon is observable on timescales measured in weeks or even months.

It's possible that the cereal distributor is actually leasing that shelf space, of course... in which case the annoying situation is still caused by morons with money who aren't taking care of business.

It's not just Safeway. I see the same thing at Walmart with 2 liter bottles of Dr. Pepper and Diet Dr. Pepper. I've never seen them run out of Dr. Pepper, and frequently see them out of Diet Dr. Pepper. This has been going on for years, but I've never seen them change the relative amount of Dr. Pepper and Diet Dr. Pepper they stock.

Same story at the vending machines at the office building that my company used to have an office in. The vending company stocked the drink machine with 2 rows of Pepsi and something like 8 rows of Coke. The Pepsi was consistently sold out by the middle of the week after the machine was filled. The Coke? Maybe 10% of it was sold by the time they came around to restock. But they never figured out that they should add more rows of Pepsi and reduce the number of Coke rows.

I thought my store was the only one. At Stater Bros. the Coke product 12-packs will almost always be “on sale” at either 3/10.99, 4/12.99, or sometimes even 5/14.99. (And you must buy the multiple listed to get the deal)

Every time, without fail, the Diet Coke column is nearly empty while the Coke, Sprite, and Coke Zero ones are full. Not only that, but Diet Coke gets the smallest portion of the endcap.

My only rationale for this is that these are loss leaders, and the Diet Coke is too popular to allow too much room? I don’t know.

Reasons that I can think of:

1) they don't want to take more of a loss than they have to go get you in the door, 2) the people who buy diet coke or diet Dr pepper are statistically more likely to shop sales than the people who buy non-diet, 3) the relative allotted shelf space and display area aren't just a store manager decision, but actually a product the grocery store sells to the manufacturers, 4) (2) & (3) imply that stores in different class areas of town might have very different which product sells quickly and utterly fail to optimize stocking of the thing you noticed when it literally never sells out at the Kroger a mile away, for example.

I think your #3 makes a lot of sense. I always forget how much the manufacturer can often dictate shelf placement and layout.

As if. All coke products are way over priced.

Just look at the pricing between different serving sizes. Their price differs often less than 30%, even if you compare 0.5l to 2l.

Given their sales numbers, I’m sure the prices are spot on. The people buying a 500ml bottle of Coke aren’t looking to lug around a 2L bottle, and the people buying a 2L bottle are focused on saving money.

Me, I like cans. They’re about 35¢ apiece. That’s cheap enough to not worry about, and way better than getting a fountain soda at a fast food restaurant.

Market segmentation at its finest!

2L bottles are just way too big unless you have multiple people drinking or a serious habit (in which case you really should just cut back). The problem is the soda goes stale so quickly once opened.

My ideal is soda fountain machines, but of course I'm not gonna have one of those in my apartment, so the next best is cans.

Here in the UK I've seen cans priced at 2/3 a regular bottle - far worse value.

i meant overpriced in the context of the parent comment calling them loss leaders.

and the aluminum gets recycled!

Companies will often sign shelf-space and display agreements with supermarkets when it comes to displaying their brands' products in-store. There very well might be an agreement between Safeway and Nabisco when it comes to their inventory display.

I don't see how this could lead to the observed results. Nabisco shouldn't be any less interested in selling more Parmesan Garlic triscuits while selling the same quantity of other triscuits than Safeway should be. There is no party who gets a win out of just not ordering/selling the triscuits; this is a pure loss for everyone involved.

Safeway might be required to devote equal shelf space to each of the 24 varieties of Triscuit [1], or perhaps at least the same minimum amount of shelf space to each variety. Nabisco doesn't want some competitor to grab that shelf space. And maybe Safeway doesn't find it worthwhile to train its stockers to restock one variety more frequently than the others.

[1] https://www.thedailymeal.com/eat/triscuit-flavors-how-many-a...

Brands went on a diversification kick less than a decade ago. If a customer prefers Triscuits Flavor #5, but stores only stock popular Flavor #3, that person might not choose to buy the brand at all when they go shopping. They could reach for, and learn to prefer, a competitor's brand.

If a potential new customer doesn't like popular Triscuits flavors, but sees a newer but a less popular flavor, the availability and visibility of the less popular but still desirable flavors might convert them into a customer.

> If a customer prefers Triscuits Flavor #5, but stores only stock popular Flavor #3, that person might not choose to buy the brand at all when they go shopping. They could reach for, and learn to prefer, a competitor's brand.

...this is exactly the situation I'm complaining about, except that the customer prefers Popular Flavor #3, which the store doesn't stock, to Unpopular Flavor #5, which it does.

Most likely, the sale is to move the products that don't otherwise move (eg, everything but the parmesan garlic). Clearly you're willing to spend full price on those, so there's no incentive to sell more of them at a lower margin.

Assumes grocer’s primary customer is consumers. What does the product manufacturer or the distributor want? Not the same as what the consumer wants. Who pays what to the grocer? Ever seen 3-5 people staring at shelf space and taking notes? Guess what they are buying.

> All flavors get the same shelf space, Parmesan Garlic always sells out quickly, and Safeway appears to be happy to forgo the lost sales of Parmesan Garlic triscuits that they could have made if they'd just had them in stock.

Imho this is probably due to the fact that they make more than enough money during the sales periods.

If somebody shows up during the sales period, with the intention of getting Parmesan Garlic, they very likely will still end up buying another flavor even if Parmesan Garlic ain't in stock anymore.

This is easily justified if somebody went to the store just for the Triscuit sale.

The sales aren't announced. They just happen. There have been many times when I specifically went to buy triscuits, and couldn't do it because they happened to be on sale.

Those are some really weird sales then, what use is the sale if nobody knows about it?

In Germany, most grocers have little leaflets where the majority of sales are announced a bit ahead of time.

Aldi makes a lot of consumer goods business with that, when they sold their first desktop in the mid-90s, all of them built by Medion in the UK, it was a huge deal with long waiting lines even before the stores opened and them running out of stock in a matter of hours.

> Those are some really weird sales then, what use is the sale if nobody knows about it?

OK, it's possible that there's a low-profile outlet for releasing news of upcoming discount periods, and I just don't know about it. However, I can list several effects of the sale that occur whether or not shoppers know about it in advance of coming to the store:

- You might choose to buy more of something than otherwise, since it's cheaper right now.

- As a special case, you might have planned to buy zero of something, only to increase that amount when you notice it's on sale.

- You might choose to buy a discounted item in preference to the non-discounted item you were originally planning to buy.

In addition to that, there are psychological effects. You go to the store and find things unexpectedly on sale, which makes you want to go back to the store. Then when you do something else is on sale, which pleases you again and reinforces you coming back to the store.

The fact that one $3 thing you bought was unexpectedly on sale but every time you go to the store you spend $200 on other stuff is a thing that the store is aware of.

Ah yeah I hadn't considered the random reinforcement effect. Devious, really.

Maybe the causality works in reverse and Safeway discounts triscuits only when they run out of Parmesan Garlic. It would make sense if the supplier only provides equal amounts of each special flavor.

Maybe they are a loss leader and they don't want to sell too much of it at that price?

> Parmesan Garlic is more popular than every other flavor, and Safeway should stock more of that flavor than they do of other flavors

Or they should increase the sale price relative to other flavors, so that it still sells out, but near the end of the sale period, maximizing profits.

Or, they are doing the right thing, and you aren't the only person who has noticed it, and the sales drive people to the store at the early part of the sale, which is why the Garlic Parmesan sells out, and Safeway has other means of taking advantage of that, like merchandising high margin complementary products in conjunction with it.

or people just goto amazon/online retailer that does stock it and order the product there. although infuriatingly companies seem to have caught onto this and don't sell some products online, in which case my contrarian brain just rejects the product entirely instead of accepting the artificial scarcity

I don't know how it works at other stores, but at the grocery store I worked at Christie handled all their own products. One of their reps came in to stock the shelves, do orders and take away expired products. Their products came in a special order and sat in the warehouse until the Christie Rep came. It was like that for all their products, triscuits included.

Our local Publix does this for a few items we buy. The one that's currently biting us is Coke w/ Splenda. Every single sale the shelf is empty, and even sometimes when it's not on sale. And yet they never order additional amounts of it. Most other varieties are full on the shelf at all times.

Well, think about it. Safeway makes less money when the product is on sale. And people are used to the popular flavors selling out when the product goes on sale. (The exact same thing happens with ice cream, especially Ben and Jerrys).

Safeway's job is to maximize profit, not maximize number of units sold at sale price.

Not true - when products go on sale the brand is giving the store a kickback per unit sold or a discount on the cost of goods. The store often makes more on sale items.

Reminds me of how I got to Panera Bread to get blueberry bagels, but they are always sold out..

Nabisco is a DSD vendor. It's own sales associates and merchandisers are responsible for ordering and stocking the shelves. These people are on site (in-store) at most once per day (depending on the unit volume of the store and delivery schedules). Data gets funneled to the sales associate to make their own judgement calls about ordering (though they may be on auto-ordering depending on how close of a relationship the store/chain's snack category management has with Nabisco). High volume stores get 2-3 Nabisco orders in a week.

Sometimes there isn't great communication between sales reps and grocery/store management because of how little involvement is necessary on the store's end. As a manager at a full assortment grocer, unless you have a very specific interest in Nabisco, you may not even notice a SKU is out of stock. Reps will hide shelf tags, and increase other product facings to make it seem like they're fully stocked. Unless a customer brings it up to you, you may have no idea. From a data perspective, an out of stock issue is virtually indistinguishable from a slow-moving SKU as the granularity of sales data is usually only at the "day" level (and due to shrinkage, generated inventory counts are unreliable). So a large demand for parmesan garlic triscuits may not be evident for whoever is reviewing the data.

Also, your reasoning is a little flawed. Parmesan Garlic being out of stock does not necessarily indicate it is more popular than other flavors. It indicates simply that they ran out of their allotment, which (for big sales) is usually centrally planned according to production and previous sales figures. Your store could be in the midst of a negative feedback loop, where previous out-of-stock situations deflate sales figures and affect future allotments, which simply makes the parmesan garlic SKU go out of stock before other "more popular on-paper" flavors.

Another way to look at it is that the margin on triscuits is so low (and even lower when on sale), that caring too much about the extension SKUs is not worth the time/effort. As a rep, you'd mostly be worried about keeping the primary SKU in stock, occasionally juggling other stock from store to store when management gives you a hard time (if they even notice). As a grocery manager, you're probably oblivious if the vendor is actively trying to hide the problem.

Some brands that have an owner-operator type DSD model (where the reps actually work for themselves and own their own routes) are usually more conscientious and concerned with maintaining a full assortment. Ironically, they tend to not have as much frontline support as the corporate DSD behemoths (like Nabisco) so they have to work much harder to cover more stores (but at least they reap more of the benefits of their hard work, potentially). These are usually more regional or local products.

TL;DR Safeway probably doesn't care or doesn't know, Nabisco also probably doesn't care. Best way to deal with something like this is to submit something to Safeway corporate that a specific SKU (include the UPC) is always out during a sales period at a specific store (if you can find out the store number, even better). The most direct approach would be to find the Safeway snack category manager on LinkedIn and shoot him a message.

Source: Was a Grocery Manager for Wegmans for several years

This is a great comment, thanks very much.

I have almost nothing more to add, but I'll mention that I recall reading about Wal-mart's practice of making shelf stockers responsible for deciding which products get how much shelf space, and even for ordering the appropriate products -- the theory being that the shelf stocker is the guy in the best position to notice which products are or aren't flying off the shelves. (Whereas, according to what I read, at a standard grocery store, the shelf space itself is sold to a supplier, and they get to dictate what goes on it.) And when I read that, it made me think of the triscuits issue, and imagine that what was happening was that triscuit varieties were being stocked without bothering to look into whether they were popular.

If you have further things to say in this area, I will certainly read them with interest.

In my experience, it's only really the end cap displays that are bought and sold, rather than the inner aisle space. For instance, Nabisco or Keebler/Kellog's (though they have recently moved out of DSD) might pay to get a permanent end cap space contract across a chain with certain stipulations (must be facing the cash registers, in the front of a high traffic aisle, etc.) and then they'll merchandise that space with whatever their sales items are. To compete with Walmart, many retailers eschew selling this end cap space anymore, instead electing to have vendors/suppliers put that budgeted money towards decreasing the overall cost of goods sold. Instead, retailers plan the endcaps themselves based on seasonal focuses and promotional pricing.

The inner aisles are usually planogrammed (the retail nomenclature for the diagram of where stuff should be, height of the shelves, how many facings, etc.) according to the priorities of the category manager i.e. the person in store corporate offices responsible for that particular product group. You'll notice that categories and subcategories inside of a grocery store are organized into shelfing sections of multiples of 4 feet (most commonly). Each of these sections is assigned to a category manager, and managers usually have multiple categories. So Category Manager A might be responsible for 16' of soup in one aisle and 20' of canned vegetables in another aisle. (The layout of the aisles and which categories go where is a separate discipline referred to as "Space Planning").

So this space isn't necessarily "sold" per se, but the category managers usually work with what's called a "category captain", an individual or team that represents a dominant brand in the category, and they influence the planogramming process. They are supposedly unbiased and are merely providing expertise and insight on their respective industries, but that's a pretty naive view as they clearly get to advocate for their products directly. However, the strategy of the grocer will determine how much influence they actually have. Wegmans, for instance, has a strong focus on private label so Wegmans brand products tend to get the most shelf space no matter what.

Comments like this are the reason I am on this website. Thank you for taking the time to lay this out and sharing your experience with us.

I should add that after looking into the current situation of Nabisco, it looks like Mondelez (the current corporate owner of the Nabisco brand) is actually considering ending DSD in favor of warehousing i.e. distributing through a grocer's own supply chain.

I know only knew a little about this industry from dating someone who was a merchandiser, this filled in so many gaps in what I knew about those jobs! What a great comment

Knowledgable, in-the-weeds, yet accessible discussion of a domain I have no connection to might be my favorite thing about HN comments.

Aldi's where I get 90-100% of my groceries most months and I've had this experience with stuff like the teriyaki sauce and some of their granola bars, but I've learned to live with it. It's still so much a better experience and cheaper than any other grocery store in Pittsburgh. Aldi "gets" how I want to shop for groceries so much - no bullshit with multiple brands, membership cards, self-checkouts, having to buy in bulk to get a discount, etc.

There are a lot of local businesses that I love but have one gripe with, like a great restaurant with an awkward wait procedure (Gaucho if anyone's familiar), or my favorite barbershop that's only open late one night a week, but I've accepted that they know more than me about how to run, and maybe it just has to be like this to be great overall.

No self checkout would be a show stopper for me, some of us actually prefer it to going to a manned register.

Not that we have Aldi where I live, but we do have Trader Joe’s, and I simply choose Safeway or QFC because I really really like self checkout.

Maybe if you went to an Aldi you would change your mind. I generally prefer self checkout as well for a few reasons, all of which are not relevant for Aldi:

1) It's faster for self checkout because the line moves faster (one line for multiple checkout stations) and because I can scan my items faster than they can. However, Aldi checkout lines move ridiculously fast, so this ends up not mattering much.

2) I get to pack my own stuff, most cashier employees don't pack things to my liking (eg cold items should all go in the same bag so they help keep each other cold, but they don't always do this). At Aldi, you pack your own bags anyway, so this is not an issue.

3) Talkative cashiers. I don't care to talk to a random person I'm never going to see again, but at Aldi you don't have to because you'll be so busy trying to load your items on the conveyor belt trying to keep up with the cashier that they won't have time to talk to you (see #1, and no I'm not joking, it can be hard to load up the belt fast enough to keep up with them if you don't have a significant head start).

I actually just like scanning my own stuff. Ya, and avoiding cashiers, eye contact, everything else. Also, I’m urban, so wind up buying just a basket full every one or two days.

Surely that sort of thing is relatively easy to identify and use the data to adjust the relative quantities per pack?? All this flavour sells first, lets put more of that flavour in each box for people to select their purchase from?

Maybe, people return to get the Tikka, resulting in more sales??

I wonder does that lead to a lot of waste?

Eg. the 30% of the box thats the flavour that no-one (at this shop) buys, goes off and is dumped, for every box.

Maybe the ratios are determined by their global sales, who knows. You would think that it would be advantageous for each shop to tweak its own ratios.

Good question - mostly I guess no as they sometimes seem intent not to refill until other levels drop too.

Mostly this averages well enough. Yet for a few things - like tikka where ratios seem consistently wrong. As Britain's favourite curry, you'd expect a few extra jars of that in every box. Or Cumberland sausages up here in former Cumberland - just forget about whatever the other things in the box are. :)

Probably means going the other way that when they drop something there's a chance 1 of the 2 or 3 actually sold well.

They would just reduce the price until it does sell.

Also, packaged food like this typically last at least several months, if not a year or two.

>Eg. the 30% of the box thats the flavour that no-one (at this shop) buys, goes off and is dumped, for every box.

They aren't stupid, if a product flavor regularly doesn't sell 30% of its inventory, they drop it and add more packets with the other flavors...

They basically don't do this for perishables. And they don't seem to restock if there's still some on the shelf. I'm pretty sure they can't afford to waste 30% of a product!

It doesn't get dumped, some customers just buy their second preference.

On that note, they finally moved their cheese away from that model- their new cheese packaging isn't as great for what we use it for, but it does make getting slices out easier, and it's almost always there, which I care about more.

Just consolidate their boxes for them? Is it against the rules or just not practical?

Re barcodes, in Germany, in the beginning, the cashiers were trained enough that they could actually enter the UPC from memory faster than scanning the item. Later, they added the barcodes on all sides which increased the speed even more.

The quarter in the cart thing is very common in Germany even at high end supermarkets. The higher overhead compared to the US makes it very hard to higher people for this kind of job -- the minimal gain in customer acquisition doesn't pay for it.

They didn't enter the barcodes from memory, they entered the price of the item from memory. That alone is a feat, though.

Back then they had much less variation in inventory and very limited price groups: all products fit into the ~10 tiers they had, ranging from 0.19 to 3.99 or so.

The increased variation in inventory and the scanners came at about the same time, and they only did that when they figured out how to keep their famous checkout speed. (and it's still slightly slower than it was back then)

Yep, during peak hours you feared Aldi checkout back then.

When the queue was full the best cashiers would really stress you by observing you putting stuff onto the belt and already starting to enter prices ahead of them reaching their area (where now the scanner is). Half way through loading the stuff into the cart again the cashier would urge you to pay and the next customer's items started bumping into yours. It was very efficient and stressy, best you were two guys to share loading/unloading and paying (back then payment was only possible in cash).

The scanners eased that a bit :)

Not really. I worked in a Winn-Dixie in high school during the pre-barcode era. The products were marked with a price gun that applied a sticker. But of course, sometimes the can of corn didn't get a sticker or the sticker fell off, so you learned what the price was to avoid holding up the line while you called for a price check.

Side-effect: I would have cleaned up on "The Price is Right" if they'd let a kid on the show, since I knew what everything cost.

Aldi Nord entered three-digit SKUs, Aldi Süd prices (both of which where strategically assigned for faster typing speed for common items).

Germany uses EAN-13, not UPC.

What's so weird is that all those sound rudimentary rather than innovative to my european ears.

Yep. The most notable thing about Aldi (and similar competitor Lidl) from a UK perspective is that they pay above average for comparable supermarket jobs and reduce staffing accordingly.

But I remember putting coins into slots for a trolley (and reclaiming them!) when I was young enough to be sitting in the child seat nearly 30 years ago, long before Aldi was a factor in the UK market. Is this really an innovative concept in the US? Are Americans going to be even more impressed when somebody over there invents the magnetic wheel clamps which discouraged taking trolleys back to our university campus? (even when comparatively poor we'd have happily sacrificed the coin...)

I've never seen it anywhere. I have heard of it, but in the two regions I've lived (Northeast and Midwest), never seen it.

I wonder why it hasn't taken off. My son used to work at Walmart after school making around $15/hour to do little more than round up carts in the parking lot and bring them back into the building. Considering how cost conscious Walmart is, I'm surprised.

However, Aldi is putting up a building across the street from my local Walmart, so we'll see what happens :-)

I saw this happen back in 1995. Back then people would leave carts just about anywhere in the parking lot. Then they introduced the concept of the quarter and having to return the cart to the stand. Soon enough it became a habit. And the practice continues till this day.

You'd be surprised at what all counts as an "innovative" concept in the US. Coming over here from Europe as well, the country is 30-40 years backwards in many areas.

(We do have wheel clamps, though ;)

The US has that stuff in bad neighborhoods. The wheel clamp is probably pretty standard in the urban areas and/or poor areas. Out in the well-off places where there aren't wandering street people, wheel clamps would be pointless. The expense, including repairs and downtime, is not justified.

The U.S. has that stuff in good neighborhoods too. It turns out the problem is less homeless people, and more affluent people who can't park close by and are too lazy ass to ever bring those carts back.

(I mean, seriously, Tarzana is neither urban nor a bad neighborhood. It does however have an entitlement surplus at the local Whole Foods)

This is an important distinction in general. Many of the ills Aldi attempts to combat generally are non-existent in other grocery stores in some places, thereby only serving to inconvenience those customers for no gain.

The ills Aldi combats are work that costs the money, like stockers and baggers.

But making customers do the work, Aldi can make more profit and/or customers can save money by doing their own elbow grease

The main reason I have always heard mentioned why they have a deposit is that shopping carts are really expensive and they don't want people to take them home, have teens do silly things with them etc.

Maybe that's not so much a problem in the US, where I imagine supermarkets may not be in the city center but mostly reachable by car and thus less foot traffic to take the carts?

But maybe the deposit here in Europe is just silly? I do know many supermarkets lock their carts up for 1st of May for example and anyway, one euro or one of those plastic discs is not hard to come by, so it is not much of a detriment.

> The main reason I have always heard mentioned why they have a deposit is that shopping carts are really expensive and they don't want people to take them home, have teens do silly things with them etc.

I'm sure the deposit is just to encourage people to put the carts back where they belong, reducing the amount of work staff need to do outside the store.

If you're going to steal a shopping cart, the quarter won't factor in.

Yes, they have egress locks activated by magnet that locks the wheels, or they have another physical lock system, at each pedestrian exit to the car-park of my local supermarket -- that's one reason they are really inconvenient for pedestrians accessing the site, they want to have trolley controls.

The exits are narrow with soft soil and low hedges bordering the paths. You can lift a trolley over, but you need some muscle, especially if your trolley is full of shopping.

Push the cart quickly enough and you can defeat the magnetic locking mechanism. Just push it really fast past the boundary where it would lock and keep going until you’re out of range.

Dunno if that still works, but I enjoyed defeating the locking mechanism at Safeway when I was a kid even though I didn’t even want the shopping cart.

Yep, that's the real reason. Introduced first in France and not by Aldi.

And yet... haven't you noticed that supermarkets in posher areas are less likely to have the coin slot? (Asda and Tesco are two whose policy varies by location).

And in supermarkets with large car parks there are return stations all over the car park. Which means you still need to pay trolley herders...

I am not in America, I can't therefore share your observation. But it is not news that crime of all sorts is lower in "posher areas". Of course it is. What's the point you want to go for?

I think the posh bit is slightly incidental, I think it's shops that people [can] walk to.

Never played Sim City? Zonal planning is not incidental.

Also, most those large stores just outside of town have vast parking lots, enough so that I bet that a lot of people would decide that it's not worth $0.25 to take the cart all the way back to the building.

In denser cities where it's just not practical to put your supermarkets impractically far away from literally anyone who might sometimes want to buy some food, what you typically see is some sort of system where the wheels automatically lock up if you try to take the cart outside the parking lot. Which, compared to the Aldi system, always seemed to me like a $10 solution to a $0.10 problem.

Usually bigger super markets in europe have shopping cart stations scattered around the parking lot:


I can't remember where, but I know I've seen those magnetic locks somewhere in Chicago, I think around 10 years ago while in college.

Every Jewel Osco I've been to in Chicago has the magnetic locks. The homeless that steal carts always have Whole Foods carts.

Having somebody collect the trolleys creates a job, having somebody pack the groceries creates another job, just like having somebody do the refueling of your car at the gas station.

They are not especially demanding or well-paying jobs, but the shift to service-driven economies isn't a new thing nor particularly exclusive to the US.

That's one of the biggest differences between the US and Sweden, and probably most of Europe; access to cheap labor. Too cheap, if you ask me. You could never employ somebody as a greeter here, or to pack your groceries, or to pump your gas, or other extremely menial and near useless jobs. Can people really support themselves on those, or are they forced to work multiple jobs?

It's actually becoming relevant here, because of our recent influx of largely unqualified people/immigrants. There aren't enough simple jobs that can be done without any education, and so politicians are discussing what to do about it. Personally I think it's a big step backwards to have people do extremely basic stuff as busy work. Most stores are removing manned checkouts and replacing them with self checkouts.

> You could never employ somebody as a greeter here, or to pack your groceries, or to pump your gas, or other extremely menial and near useless jobs.

Well, not full time.

Some German grocers have started to employ very young people during Fridays and Saturdays as packers. They look young enough to be still in school, also collect tips with little boxes, but they are not full-time employees but rather "mini-jobbers".

Which is just such a weird transition considering that many of the jobs I did in my youth have now been turned into their own weird job sectors like that.

While delivering papers is now something exclusively done by adults in cars, as an extra income stream for unemployed on social security. I don't know how that can be economic but I see it happening all the time.

> Personally I think it's a big step backwards to have people do extremely basic stuff as busy work.

Some would argue that's been happening on a rather massive scale for a while already. Our productivity constantly increases, so do our numbers, as such it's only a matter of time before we end up with a whole lot of "surplus" humans in terms of labor demand for keeping everything going.

That's odd. In the UK and Denmark, you get youths who look about 16 working in supermarkets, doing the normal tasks: restocking and tidying the shelves, running a checkout. They certainly don't get tips!

The more expensive shops employ more youths, I think the budget stores don't use enough staff to have an older person nearby if the teen is stuck somehow.

> That's one of the biggest differences between the US and Sweden, and probably most of Europe; access to cheap labor. Too cheap, if you ask me.

Another example: when you have road works here and a lane is closed and only one lane remains, temporary traffic lights are put in place.

In America you'll see a half dozen people managing traffic, where "managing" means "holding up a sign".

A colleague of mine was in our India office once and he said that they had a: - person that pushes buttons in elevator (at office, not some exclusive hotel) - person that you ask to to copies at xerox machine in the office

> Can people really support themselves on those, or are they forced to work multiple jobs?

The latter. The US has an army of unskilled workers that work two jobs, live on food stamps and have no health insurance.


We don’t have any minimum wage in Sweden. What we do have however are strong unions and free higher education. Somehow I get the feeling that as a nation, we care a lot more about the little guy and his social mobility than the US does.

Over here it is very common to have a plastic or metal coin shaped objects attached to key rings for releasing the trolley without a coin, most of those devices can be pulled out immediately, without connecting the trolley back to the trolleys on queue.

I think the concept just doesn't work as well in the US. Parking lots are larger than in Europe. You'd need a guy to move the carts from satellite collections points back to the store anyway.

That’s the same in Europe, there will be a collection point every 50m or so, then they drive round with carts to trail them back to base. I don’t necessarily agree with you for parking lot size, some of the hypermarkets here in France are huge

In the article it actually discusses this - the article states that a lot of US grocers tried to have the coin carts in the ‘80s and ‘90s but there was apparently enough of a consumer backlash to them that they took them away. So it’s more of a cultural thing it seems.

Anecdotally I think it’s not as much of a problem with Aldi today because

1. The Aldi parking lots in USA are all pretty tiny

2. People generally know what they are signing up for when they go to an Aldi

Generally I think that there would still be a backlash today if Walmart implemented coin carts, for instance. Which I really despise because as someone who worked as a cart pusher as a kid it’s unnecessarily infuriating for me to see the pure laziness of shoppers who can’t be arsed to walk 5 meters to drop their cart into the return location and instead push it onto the median next to their car.

Side note I want to take this chance to say that I absolutely love Aldi. There’s one that’s just far enough away from where I live to make it not worth the drive and the second they build one closer I will immediately do all of my grocery shopping there :)

I do my shopping at Auchan and I often opt for the basket because I don't have the right coin on me. They probably lose more than they save because people are buying less. Given the prevalence of contact-less payment in Europe, hypermarkets should consider dropping it.

The system makes more sense for markets the size of a Lidl or Aldi.

I visited a Target store in Madison Wisconsin and that was the first place I ever discovered magnetic wheel clamps on shopping carts. So it exists in the US... it's just not super common.

Living on the West Coast I see carts all the time that have the wheel locks, they just don't do anything.

As a person that has been a cart pusher, carts suck. The wheels, especially at the front where they put the wheel locks are the first thing that break. They barely touch the ground and spin in circles all the time. Stores rarely ever invest in fixing or buying new carts.

I firmly believe that many places in the US simply gave up on it, because what happens instead is people still try to steal them, drag them a great distance damaging them, and they have to go get it anyways. I think we had maybe 3 good carts at the Sam's Club I worked at our of like 200 or 300 carts.

As someone who was hired to literally take carts in from outside, yes the concept of a quarter deposit to use a cart feels innovative to me. Would have saved my back a bunch of pain.

Magnetic, electronic wheel clamps are becoming more common in the US, but yes, they are relatively new to metro areas, promulgating in the last decade.

The only "innovation" with the trolleys is that USA used to be a wealthy enough country that it was OK to pay cart collectors. It's not a stupidity thing, it's a poverty thing.

I would actually say it’s a sign of income inequality. There is that much of a wage gap that your customers are basically paying someone to return their shipping trolley. Apparently this business model works in the USA, Im sure it would work in India or China, but definitely not in France or Sweden

That's an entirely incorrect premise. Every Walmart store has cart collectors. You can see them working throughout the day, collecting carts. Walmart is the largest retailer in the world and employs by far the most people, and they still do it.

Besides, the US is inflation adjusted wealthier today than it has ever been at any other point in its history.

On the poverty front, US poverty is dramatically lower than it was in 1960, and homelessness is near record lows. If you go back to ~1960-1973, the falsely perceived peak of US wealth, it was much worse to be poor in the US. In every possible regard a poor person was worse off in the US prior to 1980, than they are today. That's due to a massive expansion of the US welfare state over that time, which has led to many improvements. That includes healthcare (universal healthcare for the bottom 25% didn't exist; even in the 1980s far fewer people were covered), housing, food security, disability programs, et al.

When Lidl came to Sweden most people didn't like to shop there because of their short conveyor belts after the cashier [0] relative to the regular Swedish ones [1][2], so you felt stressed when shopping there. There were no room for your groceries. Usually you put your stuff on the belt, the cashier scans it and moves it along, you pay, and then you pack it in your bags.

It took them four years, then they changed to the same ones everyone else uses.

[0] http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_7YpjO_OmPKo/S3GjfqKcjOI/AAAAAAAAEU...

[1] https://www.ica.se//assets.icanet.se/q_auto,f_auto/imagevaul...

[2] https://uploads.units.se/extrabilder168105_large.jpg

I know a few stores in Europe that have a wall separating the conveyor belts in two parts [0]. The cashier can basically chose if the product will end up on the left or right end of the belt, giving the customers time to pack their things while already serving the next customer on the other side.

[0] https://static.az-cdn.ch/__ip/r-ymFggeoyzNSXf6FkMQRwePLN0/57...

In Denmark that's a 100% of grocery stores

It’s very common in Poland as well though probably not 100%.

Hej! What is the clear wall between the lanes for?

My guess is it reduces the space needed behind the cashier's back.

And/or security, so someone can't reach into the till when the cashier is preparing change.

American grocery stores are so comically bad and poorly managed it's hard to imagine for a European until you move here. Trust me, it's a shitshow. The only one that works is Trader Joe's for completely different reasons and personally in my first couple years I was completely obsessed with it, now a little less.

... and Trader Joe's is owned by Aldi.

holy shit I didn't know that! Makes sense :)

Trader Joe's is garbage though? The produce and meat are poor or almost nonexistent and afaik they don't even have a bulk section so I can't buy spices, rice, beans, etc

You have obviously never shopped in a HEB or Meijers.

I lived in Ann Arbor for a couple years and shopped at Meijers. Not good for European standards. The one on Saline Road (just in case you're familiar with the area) had comically large isles that took forever to scan, the vegetable section would be the standout in the store for sure, much better than Safeway / Vons for sure, and the beer / liquor section was something to behold especially thanks to the local craft brew culture but everything else was just done poorly. Checkouts were INSANELY slow and while there were baggers that would look darts at you if you tried to bag your own groceries, they would routinely forget stuff out and I would drive all the way home to discover I wouldn't have my steaks, or something else...

Sorry, before you say "you haven't tried x regional chain in the US", spend some time in Europe. French chains (Auchan especially) have raised the bar for everyone else, it just hasn't happened in the US yet but I suspect someone at Amazon will look very closely at that model and repeat it here.

I get online, select the stuff I want, and then go pick it up (to save delivery fee) that beats all this efficiency stuff about cashiers and aisles and people and UPC. I don't have to worry about any of that. Just a leisurely drive and then they load up my trunk.

What's comically bad about them?

A lot of clever efficiency improvements & innovations look obvious in retrospect. I have come to believe that "obvious in retrospect" is actually a clue suggesting it could make a good patent.

Same with here in Canada. It’s been the norm at some supermarkets for a long time.

A couple of things I've noticed here at Aldi in Ireland. Particularly interested in the psychological aspects:

- The packing area (after the till) is quite small. This means that if you're not packing quickly and putting items back into the trolley then the till operator will have to stop scanning because of the backlog. They will often make subtle eye-contact (with a smile) when they have to stop, this puts the shopper under pressure to pack quicker. I'm a fast packer so it doesn't affect me but I've seen it with other people.

- The till operator will ask you "Cash or Card" before you have finished packing. Another nudge to hurry you on to the next stage.

- They will open a new till the second the queue goes beyond the edge of the conveyor belt. Often they will open up the till for just one customer and then close it again as the queues have subsided. I've seen a large variance in this though, some Aldi's are lazer-like, others are more laid-back.

This is not the packing area though. In Aldis you are generally not expected to pack at the till at all. What should be happening is that you put all your shopping right back into the trolley, then take it away and bag your stuff at your pace at the window ledge, getting out of the way of next shoppers.

I don't know about Ireland, but in the UK there's been obviously some backlash from the customers who aren't used to this model. I've seen arguments break out.

> This is not the packing area though.

Yeah but if you pack fast enough and have your bags already open on the trolley then you can it done at the till.

This is not the case in my home town, Enschede, less than 5 miles from the German border in The Netherlands. The lines are terribly slow there compared to other supermarkets. I usually spend more than half of my time waiting in the line. (I only go to Aldi for a few products they carry.) There are more and more shops where you do the check-out yourself either at a scan station or with a hand-held scanner. I guess in the Netherlands the price/efficency difference between the various supermarket chains is less.

> They can glance down and count how many of each, scan one, then hit the number pad for the quantity. I haven't seen the number pad used extensively at any other grocer.

I spent a lot of time in Germany in the 90s. Aldi (and Lidl) hadn't switched to barcode scanners and the chashiers were still typing in product numbers by hand.

I was always super impressed with the speed with which they typed and it certainly felt faster than the cumbersome bar code scanners found in the UK at the time.

Do American Aldi grocery cashiers sit?

That's what I noticed the most in German grocery stores. American cashiers stand, German cashiers sit.

At the ALDI's I used to shop at in Tennessee, the cashiers sat. It was an appropriately high stool, sort of like the other poster mentions. (but they were definitely seated.)

The ones near me have a sort of stool thingy- it's for sure not standing, but it's close.

They stuck to it for a long time and the argument was indeed speed and to some extend ergonomics (the cashier doesn't need to lift up items). There is a system to it (100-199 is liquor, 400-499 dairy etc.), so it's fairly easy to memorise it.

Still used for fruit and veggies - at least a few years back, in England. Up to 100 codes to memorize, but some would come and go every week or so.

Yeah, but for those they have a cheat sheet next to the register.

It's not practical to use them in the long run, you pretty much have to memorize them to be able to meet the company standards for till speed. And memorization is expected by the management. At least that was the case when I used to work at Aldi's (in the UK, quite a while ago).

> depositing a quarter for a cart eliminates the need to pay people to collect carts

What's the alternative? Growing up in Germany I've literally never seen it any other way.

In the United States carts are free. You collect a cart at the entrance to the store, and return the cart to a cart corral in the parking lot next to your car. Then a worker from the store periodically goes out to the corral to collect the carts and return them to the store entrance.

In California you run the cart up a curb, leave it in an empty parking space, or maybe give it a gentle push and let it roam free. Corrals are depots for broken and rusted carts.

… /s.

I really hate trying to turn into a spot that's flanked by two SUVs only to find a cart in the way. People are incredibly lazy. I love the ALDI's quarter scheme… it's just enough of a nudge to get people to do the decent thing.

I find that funny because we were taught growing up that leaving your cart out keeps the cart-collecting people employed, kind of like refusing to use the self-service checkout -- a different decent thing!

The carts still need collecting. And at least when I worked at K-Mart in the 1990s, there was no dedicated cart collecting person; it was the task of whoever had the free time, usually someone handling stocking, typically junior, and especially someone young (though these days they have the electric carts).

What you were told sounds like one of those slightly tongue-in-cheek excuses people sometimes use to justify behavior, though that doesn't necessarily make it insincere. For most of high school I worked dishwashing jobs. A typical task for a dishwasher includes picking up trash in the parking lot. People throwing trash in the parking lot weren't doing me or anyone else any favors.

I never heard that one but my mom refused to learn how to use ATMs because she wanted to have tellers. Same with any sort of self-scan groceries. And Oregon is one of two states where you can't pump your own gas.

Do you do that consistently now that you're an adult? Do you bus your own tables at local restaurants (small business owner) but not at franchise restaurants?

It's been a quarter for at least the last 18 years. You'd think with all the inflation that's happened over the years they'd have to increase the deposit at some point.

The coin thing is free too, it's just so people have to put the cart back to collect their coin (usually 1 or 2 euros). I wish we had it in the US, people are freaking idiots and leave carts all over the place in the parking lot.

Carts are free at Aldi too. You just put a coin in to release a cart, and when you return your cart, you get your coin back.

They aren’t free if you don’t have a quarter on hand.

Well they aren't really for sale or rent either. Not sure what your point is?

I never, ever carry change.

In germany, paying with hard cash is still very common, having some change is basically the norm (you can also use plastic tokens instead of real coins, you can get those for free from a lot of places here, including the shop themselves, either as promotion or if you ask)

If you visit Aldi at all regularly, you just keep a quarter in the car's change drawer.

Why not? Cash is divisible, readily accepted, and anonymous.

Today for the first time in two months I went to a retailer that was cash only. I haven't carried my wallet with me for two months - I just leave it at home and use Apple Pay for literally everything, including public transport.

But then, I also don't shop at Aldi or need a trolley.

Credit card fees are included in every purchase. I typically end up with 20 to 100 bucks every month. If I use that for travel I get even more. Twenty dollars in cash tends to last me an entire month.

And needs to be acquired and carried. I don’t like coins, the weight and noise of them.

I also don’t carry things in my pockets.

The fees associated with debit card transactions don’t land on me, so...

It does land on you via higher prices. Nothing in life is free.

Actually, the cost of handling cash, for stores, is more than debit.

Maybe not intentionally, but it was a pretty good pun.

Pun? I missed it - ELI5 please!

It takes a quarter to free one from its chain.

OK, I'm genuinely curious, why the downvotes? Did I accidentally invoke some sensitive imagery?

Not sure, but perhaps because it's not actually a pun?! At least I still don't get it.

Free as in beer vs free as in speech.

You don’t need a quarter, just something quarter-sized. Google “shopping cart coin keychain” for examples.

Quite right; my family has a few plastic "coins" that work just as well.

Here in the UK, shopping carts used to take a £1 coin, which incidentally had very similar geometry to the Indian 5 rupee coin (worth about 5 pence) - that was a great little find for our family, who always had a few 5 rupee coins lying around from our time visiting family in India. Sadly they updated the design of the £1 coin, so this trick no longer works.

Just about any store around here that uses the coin system also hands out free "cart coins" if you ask the service desk.

One thing that enables this to work for Aldi is their parking lots are much smaller than most grocery stores. You're walking maybe 100 ft round trip to return your cart, whereas it could be several hundred feet at larger stores with giant parking lots.

There are a few corrals throughout the parking lot where customers are expected to deposit their carts. The store then has someone who goes around from time to time to retrieve a row of them and push it back to the front of the store. It's often a job given to somebody mentally handicapped who can't do a lot of other things at the store.

Publix gives the job to the bagger/loader, who is usually a friendly person. This person bags your groceries, then offers to take them to your car and help you load them into your car. If you accept the help, then as they return back to the store they bring in the carts.

I never take them up on their offer, I would rather leave the service for the elderly, handicapped, or extremely pregnant women.

As others have said, in the US you leave it in the parking lot, hopefully in a cart return thing.

Honestly, having to put a coin in to get a cart would mean I would likely never get a cart. I never pay with cash, and thus I never have coins with me, so I would be limited to whatever I could carry. This is obviously bad for business, so I think businesses just eat the cost of having an employee round up the carts.

Then again, I hate seeing carts everywhere, and sometimes find myself returning a few because they're such a nuisance. If this solves the problem, I might consider leaving a coin in my wallet to shop at Aldi instead of my cart-ridden local grocery store.

Most people in Europe have a coin in their car for this purpose (usually a plastic one that the supermarkets give out). You park and grab the coin before leaving the car, simple.

The alternative, which was current when I was growing up in Germany, was to just have no such mechanism at all. People would just behave.

This thing was introduced in France, because the French customers had another attitude to it and that got extrapolated by the huge French hipermarché concept.

Most of the IKEAs I have been to in Germany don't do this. They have a couple of poorly payed workers who do nothing else all day than collect carts from the parking space.

Tho IKEA works on a different scale compared to most grocers in Germany, their stores are always extremely busy, particularly on Saturdays and they handle a lot bigger wares which means customers having a trolley, sometimes even multiple of them is a more regular occurrence.

With that kind of throughput and the involved logistics of bigger pieces handed out on a trolley at the order counter, introducing the money deposit for the trolleys would massively slow down everything, possibly creating waiting lines at trolley stations as they sometimes happen during busy times at grocers.

At least the employes collecting the carts have electrical little pushing cars, enabling them to push impressively long "snakes" of trolleys.

In the US I have never had to deposit any money to use a cart. I'm not sure how that would even work, is it some automated machine that spits out a cart?

They are linked by chains: every cart has a coin-operated lock accepting a chain and a chain for the next cart to connect.


Put a coin in the drawer and close it, the chain of the next cart pops out the back and you can take it. On return, you push the chain back in, the drawer pops open and you get your coin back.

Store employees just occasionally balance cart numbers between the corrals, if there's multiple.

No, it's much simpler than you are probably imagining. The cart locks to the one in front using a short chain with a plug between a device attached to the handlebars of each cart. It comes out of the back of one and locks into the front of the other.

Put a coin(or any coin shaped object) in and a simple mechanic latch releases the chain, plug it back in and you get your coin back.

Theres a coin activated mechanical lock on each cart, carts are stacked and chained together by these locks.

To get one, you insert a coin (or a plastic token - these are usually given away as freebies by many companies if not the stores themselves) and that unlocks the chain.

It's not about the money, no one earns anything from this. It's about putting something that you own (can be worthless, the emotion counts) in the cart which you can only possibly get back if you return the cart to any number of bays on the parking lot or next to the entrance.

The handle of each cart has a lock and a small chain. Initially the carts are stacked inside each other, with the chain locked in the lock of the next cart. If you put a coin (or other round flat object like the handle of a key) into the lock you can remove the chain and use the cart. When you return the cart you insert the chain from another cart and get your coin back. It's a very simple and robust mechanism.

You insert a coin into a slot in the cart, and a chained key releases the cart from the next cart it's chained to. When you want your coin back, you return it to the line of carts, stack it and then insert the key from the next cart into yours. Your coin is released and the store doesn't have to pay someone to collect them.

It's similar to the "SmartECart" luggage cart kiosks you may have seen at airports. Sliding a cart in locks it in place on a set of rails, depositing the money releases a mechanical catch on the end, allowing you to pull one cart out.

You might be thinking of this system used by Ikea. https://youtu.be/JRXdlgBe8wg

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smarte_Carte looks like it might be the airport system you have in mind.

The usual European shopping cart system works with a coin deposit, chains and mechanical locks on each cart, as described in several other comments.

not sure why 10 people needed to answer your question lol

Trader Joe's has a yellow line beyond which you are not supposed to take your cart. I was always wondering how this works so I pushed a cart behind the line. It immediately locked its wheels so it got stuck there. I guess some employee knows how to unlock these carts.

Usually there are return bays spread throughout the carpark where you can theoretically return trolleys/carts and they'll be taken back en-masse by a store employee later.

Often this results in them being left all over the place or stolen though.

In most supermarkets in the US you just leave your cart in the parking lot after you load up your trunk. They have people who then come and collect the carts.

No it's a common courtesy to put them in a coral or return them to the entrance (if it's a small lot). You aren't supposed just leave them in the parking lot just drift and bang into people's cars and block spaces. That's just lazy.

People leave there carts in the lots and workers collect them

In my experience, people leave their carts in the designated spot, mostly well nested. And a store clerk has to come out for about 5 minutes to bring them back every hour or so.

I don't feel like that amount of labor is a tremendous cost for the supermarket.

I worked at at supermarket when I was young. Even when people left the carts in the best possible locations, it was still way more than 5 minutes per hour that we spent out there. Sometimes 2 of us would spent 10 minutes each per hour, but more likely one of us would be our there for 20-30 minutes per hour, especially during busy times.

And that's when the cart collectors were being quick and not just out there fooling around.

In addition, if things got busy inside and we forgot to collect carts for a while, we'd run out and customers would get upset that they didn't have a cart to use. This was especially likely during rain when no customers would return carts or bring carts on their way in.

Even in places with high employment and minimum wage?

Yes. Essentially every traditional Walmart and Target store in the US does it that way, regardless of high employment and minimum wage.

Walmart as one example has a motorized cart mover. The employee collects and stacks the carts into a line, backed by the motorized unit, and then can just gently guide the whole flock of carts and it moves along with little human effort. It enables the employee to move dozens of carts at a time across the parking lot without very much physical risk of injury.

> -they have barcode on 5 or 6 sides of their products, and they're typically huge! They nearly never need to orient a product to scan it. Their scan speed is far faster than any other supermarket I've been at.

On a historical note (I am old enough to have shopped before bar codes existed):

Generally stores had little price tags attached to every single item. Which was labour intensive twice: First someone has to attach the tag to each item and at the checkout it needs to be found somewhere on the product, read and the price to be entered into the cash register.

With only 1000 products (back then, IIRC) and no weekly offers at all it took only 2-3 days for a new cashier to learn all prices by heart and easy for the store to skip the stickers altogether and just mark the price at the shelf. Typing prices without having to search for a tiny little sticker somewhere on the product was super fast and efficient compared to the competitors. Cashiers just dropped the product into the cart with one hand and typed with the other.

Aldi introduced bar code scanners several years after the "full assortment" competition. At some point probably the better inventory book-keeping started to outweigh the costs.

(Edit: clarified that Aldi had no price stickers at all)

There's a store called Bulk Barn here in Canada where cashiers still do this. Everything is sold in bulk (flour, nuts, candy, etc.) out of giant tubs with scoops, that customers use to fill clear, unlabelled bags. The cashiers have this spinning cylinder thing that lists all the prices, but I've never seen them use it. Instead, they plop each bag on the scale and type in the code, which takes two seconds each.

I don't know how they tell the difference between all the generic powders that look the same, like white flour and rice flour, but they do. And if they don't, I suppose they just ask the customer.

You’re supposed to write the bin code on the tag you use to close the bag!

I don't shop there often, but I've never seen any tags you can write on, or even writing implements of any kind. That's just how the store works.

Aldi cashiers didn't type the prices but numbers for the products. The register would lookup the prices. Cashiers would quickly punch those numbers in without picking up the items for many items and then swoop 5 to 10 items over the register part of the counter at once. I think Aldi held on to the system longer because it was indeed more efficient than scanning. But there is a limit on how fast one can bag the items, so I guess a little inefficiency can be tolerated.

> The register would lookup the prices.

Not in the 1970s and early 80s. Do you know what computers costed back then? 1 KB of memory was as expensive as the whole cash register used by Aldi/Lidl. And there was no computer networking whatsoever, not even between multi-million super computers. When the German railways introduced computers at the ticket windows in the 80s all ticketing data was stored on 8 inch diskettes. And if you bought a not so common ticket the agent had to swap the diskette first.

I don't think Aldi/Lidl used diskettes at their cash registers. Maybe when scanning started in the mid/late eighties, but they certainly didn't have to swap during the day.

> 8 inch diskettes

Maybe floppies was the more common term. Obviously that part of my memory hasn't been refreshed for a couple of years...

Don't copy that floppy!

If they had an unique barcode for each instance of a product, inventory management could have been easier.

The article critical piece of the old scheme is tar before computers, no one had a use for tracking whether the correct price was actually charged. And thanks to inflation, the range of possible prices was smaller.

As an admitted traditionalist concerned more about consumer comfort than company, some of these are the reason I don't and wont shop at Aldi. It's funny because depending on who you talk to, some of the same things that are seen as inconveniences to some are seen as beneficial to others. It's also funny to watch some of the same people laud inconveniences in one company and bemoan some of the same inconveniences in another.

I find it hard to shop at Aldi because of the almost brutal aesthetic. No signage, no colors, no nice lighting, just industrial meta shelves on an industrial floor with bare fluorescent lights overhead and everything jammed together. It gives me a headache just thinking about it.

I will however still occasionally run in because although they run out quick almost every day, when they have grass-fed meat and some organic veggies, they are about twice as cheap as any other retailer around here has them for.

I've wondered why they don't improve the aesthetics a little bit, it can't make that much of a difference to the bottom line.

I think it's just part of the philosophy: you come because it's cheap and the quality is good for the price point, you buy, you leave.

You don't get a experience, you get a utilitarian transaction. And that is reflected by the interior.

They are remodeling some stores - the one near me actually feels nicer than most traditional grocery stores in the area. Funny how things change.

I've found that groceries run for and by immigrants have a similar approach. The "experience" Americans crave is revealed to be so vacuous.

Depending on where you’re from and how impoverished you were, being able to go to a store full of food, putting one or more of a large sample in your cart, and only pay at the very end, can be quite an “experience”.

I’ve observed that this effect can last for decades if your formative years didn’t involve enough food.

Also a lot of restaurants run by (and mostly for) immigrants. They aren't into fancy decor with statues and paintings from the appropriate country the way ones aimed at Westerners tend to be. Cheap tables covered by plastic tablecloths and folding metal chairs work just fine.

True but even that tends to be driven by a certain 'idea' of authenticity - look at all the restuarants in here that would like to upgrade the decor and food (and prices!) but immediately get dinged as 'in-authentic' when they make those changes


There's a middle ground between a fancy luxury market and flickering green-tinged fluorescent bulbs that always make you feel slightly ill. Signage & organization also serves a function aside from "experience".

It's almost like taste is subjective or something.

> they combine varieties (like flavors of granola bars) of product in the same box. This greatly reduces the shelf space required.

I don't understand how this reduces shelf space, but there are no Aldi stores anywhere near here (nearest is 804.18 miles away, according to their store locator) so maybe I'm not understanding what they are doing. All I've got for comparison are the variety packs that manufactures often sell at the stores we have here (Walmart, Safeway, etc).

For example, if a bar comes in 3 flavors, and is sold in boxes of 6, a box takes up the same space if it has 2 of each flavor or 6 of one flavor.

The box they are talking about is the box that comes from the factory. By mixing all of the flavours you only need the shelf space of one box. They place more boxes behind that one.

If they needed one for each flavour, then they would need three boxes, side by side taking up three times as much space.

TIL you can call American stores. Why do people do that?

To ask if they have something specific you are looking for without you having to physically get there and check yourself?

With products that are in high demand, you can even get stuff reserved.

I'm not even American, and I've done both of these.

And for some reason, stores rarely have an online system for checking inventory. I really don't understand that, because it's literally the main reason I go to a given store, and it's already digitized so it wouldn't cost them much.

The only time I've done that in the current century is to confirm holiday hours when not made explicit on the web. eg. If it's New Year's, "are you open today, what time will you close?"

If the store is clever they will leave a pre-recorded message announcing holiday hours.

If you are picking up catering from say Whole Foods, being able to call is essential. Also helps a lot to call and see if X item is out of stock that is almost always out of stock.

For example to check inventory/stock before going there.

Even with online checks, I’ve had to call the store.

Walmart always lists under 6 inventory counts as « low stock » with no guarantee.

Since I was looking for a particular auto battery that never has more than a few units in stock, I had to call for them to check.

To find out something about the store; hours, events, product availability, etc

For other stores, generally to ask if a product is in stock. For a grocery store, all I can think of would be to ask if it's open.

Calling is handy to ask what price an item is and whether it's in stock, or order something prepared by the deli or bakery that you want on a certain date/time.

I called a few times to ask the pharmacy hours, which are shorter than the main store's.

call and ask if they have a rare produce item in stock like Rhubarb or something..

Wait what, not only is there someone to call in US stores, but also rhubarb is considered rare?!

This whole thread is just a constant TIL/am-I-taking-crazy-pills moment :)

just an example from my childhood like 20 years ago. maybe supply chain for rhubarb is awesome now, i don't know, i don't buy it..

So much of that is standard in Ontario (or all of Canada, I don't know). I hate coins for carts. I don't carry currency. Now I have to carry coins. Also they're irritating to handle while also handling my kids. Finally, they make me feel untrusted. Because some classless people walk home with carts and dump them in a ditch, I'm no-longer trusted not to do the same.

You forgot another important bit: the pickup area after their conveyor belt is one of the shortest out there, which forces customers to pack in a hurry so as to keep up with how fast the cashier is going.

Speaking for myself, it's the part that annoys me most when I shop at one. I get why they designed their POS it, but it's just obnoxious for the elderly and for parents with by small children.

It would seem simple enough to solve, too: just add two such areas.

They don't want you to pack it at the till. They want you to put it straight back in the trolley then take it to the packing area to bag it up.

I've noticed everybody does this in Germany but most haven't grasped it in the UK yet.

> It would seem simple enough to solve, too: just add two such areas.

Many (most?) Australian Aldis have that -- each cashier has two 'lanes' they can run groceries down after scanning, and customers alternate between the two.

I don't have Aldi where I live, but we do have a place called WinCo. At WinCo, there are two conveyer belts after the cashier, and the cashier switches which conveyer belt to use by switching a gate. So, once you pay, you go over to your conveyer belt and bag up your purchase, and the stuff from the next customer goes to the other side.

It works pretty well and I actually prefer to reload myself, as opposed to other stores that have someone there to bag for you.

I've been to quite a few Aldis and the flow in all of them is that the items get scanned and immediately placed in a cart, then there's a separate bagging area (a large counter along the wall near the exit door, a couple feet across from the cashier section) to actually move the items from your cart into your bags however you please. Are there Aldi stores which don't work like this? I can't imagine trying to bag fast enough to keep up with the cashiers...

In all countries I've seen, except the U.S., Aldi cashiers move items into a small buffer area, and the customer then transfers them back into their cart, in sync with the cashier. In some non-German countries (e.g. UK), customers often don't cooperate or are slower than the cashier, which reduces efficiency. The U.S. system is different, where the cashier directly pushes items into the cart, and also there seems to be a weird cart-switch going on, where you get the cart of the person who used to be in front of you. My guess is that Aldi couldn't educate U.S. customers that they have to work in sync with the cashier, and then they came up with this solution.

U.S. checkout shape: https://www.trbimg.com/img-589b8178/turbine/ct-aldi-expansio...

Non-U.S. checkouts: https://www.lebensmittelzeitung.net/gallery/media/852/15994-... http://www.wochenanzeiger-muenchen.de/media/archive/wsp/5634...

My thought is that, although much of this is common sense, retailers have largely lost the will to live. They waste a lot of money on typical corporate money pits, but tend not to try improving the retail business itself. From what I gather in what people say, having only been to one Aldi before (so I don't really have enough experience to say much); I think Aldi has bucked the trend, and is trying to do a good job, and that is why they are succeeding.

> depositing a quarter for a cart eliminates the need to pay people to collect carts

I've seen Americans remark specifically about shopping cart deposits a couple of times on Hacker News; I never thought there was anything special about it.

I think the vast majority of retailers and grocers who offer shopping carts, in the three Canadian provinces I've lived in, use coin deposits for shopping carts.

They still end up in rivers and alleyways on occasion, usually stolen by vagrants and hooligans, but the customers at least tend to comply.

The coin thing is psychological. If you want to avoid carrying bags by hand, melt it for scrap, push your friends around, or get to your car 2 minutes faster, foregoing a quarter is great value.

Unfortunately for them/me, if I’m coming by chance by bicycle, I usually don’t have a coin and reduce my shopping to the necessities without a cart.

When you feel the weight of each item, you think more about every item you buy.

I don't have a coin ever because I never use cash. Requiring a coin deposit would just discourage me from getting a cart most days. If I regularly shopped there, maybe I'd consider putting one in my wallet or something to guarantee I have one, but I'd have to be sold on the place first.

Requiring a coin is a hardship, especially in a plastic-oriented culture.

If you go ask at the service desk they tend to give out special branded cart-coins for free, they come with a little quick disconnect hook for on your keychain.[0] It's still cheaper for the stores to do that than to hire a specific person to gather carts.

[0] https://www.jmpromotions.nl/images/winkelwagen-muntjes/plast...

Probably why they use a pound coin in the UK

I just wish Aldi also had baskets to make it easier when I bike there.

>depositing a quarter for a cart eliminates the need to pay people to collect carts

Years ago when I read the bit in Freakonomics about the daycare that instituted an additional charge for picking kids up late to discourage the practice but found that the rate of late pickups increased instead because parents felt like they were paying for the service of extra daycare thus alleviating the guilt, I immediately thought of Aldi carts. Do Aldi carts get stolen more per use than Price Cutter carts because people have to pay a quarter for them? I know that's both not what the quarter is for and not what it is attempting to discourage, and I'm not claiming it necessarily does have this effect... I just wonder if people can somehow rationalise taking carts easier when they have to pay something for it.

Virtually all grocery stores in Finland works with this principle. Coin for a cart. It works remarkably well, people want their coins back.

I've seen it work! If I hadn't, I might question it. My comment wasn't wondering whether there are more carts left in the parking lot of an Aldi or a Price Cutter, it was wondering if more carts get taken off property entirely and used for other purposes. If that's your goal, a quarter is pretty negligible. Years ago I worked at motel near an Aldi and a WalMart, and saw a good number of both companies' carts left in the parking lot. More WalMart carts, for sure, but they also get more traffic. I used Price Cutter as an example instead of WalMart because I think some people have a special hatred for that particular company that might make stealing from a WalMart easier to rationalise for other reasons (I'm not making a value judgement about that, just stating it as something I've anecdotally observed).

Efit: s/anf/and

It's a whole euro though, so maybe it's high enough that it has more effect than a quarter dollar.

Though not all stores have a deposit for carts, Colruyt in Belgium doesn't for example, and I don't see carts lying around.

To be honest I live in Europe and it's more about getting the quarter back so that you have one for the next time rather than 25c.

Even if someone leaves their cart around, someone else is bound to drag it along if they are gonna pass the cart corral anyways: it's free money.

You don't pay for the cart, when you put the card back you get your quarter back.

Owning a shopping cart at the house would be the epitome of low class in my opinion.

Putting aside your classism and focusing on the observation of human behavior, I've seen people do this who regularly used the same stolen cart to get groceries (sometimes from different stores). I've also seen people use a cart to get their food back home and then just leave it nearby without the intent of further ownership, even bringing more carts from the same store and putting them more-or-less next to each other rather than push an empty cart back to the grocery store.

> they have barcode on 5 or 6 sides of their products, and they're typically huge! They nearly never need to orient a product to scan it. Their scan speed is far faster than any other supermarket I've been at

Scan speed is never a bottleneck of a checkout process. Packing and payment are. They might be saving millisecond on scan time, but the paper and printing of a label cost money too. Not sure if it’s the best showcase of efficiency here

> depositing a quarter for a cart eliminates the need to pay people to collect carts

It also makes people not want to go there if they don’t have spare change. And if they go without a cart, they will definitely spend less

> It also makes people not want to go there if they don’t have spare change.

Aldi doesn't have a membership fee, but it has a culture and following akin to Costco or Trader Joe's. It works for some people, but not for others. The barrier to entry isn't that big, it's just a bit different.

>Scan speed is never a bottleneck of a checkout process. Packing and payment are. They might be saving millisecond on scan time, but the paper and printing of a label cost money too. Not sure if it’s the best showcase of efficiency here

I entirely disagree with this point in the context of grocery stores. Convenience stores I'm likely to agree because people typically buy a couple items and the payment time is effectively identical to that of a grocery store.

I should look up metrics to see if it's tracked, but the scan speed makes a huge difference! They don't bag at Aldi at all, when they're checking out, the employee is pulling a cart around, scanning, or waiting for payment to process. I can pretty much guarantee they process more customers per hour and can complete more scans per minute than any other grocer in the US.

The marginal cost of printing barcode is effectively 0. They are already printing the packaging and black and white are always on the color palette for the single barcode.

One more item I forgot to list above is that they print their receipts one line at a time, so you never wait to have your 3 ft receipt printed after your payment is processed. They do a great job at eliminating the non-value added tasks in the entire store, cross training employees, and reducing overhead.

On the topic of printing receipts: the cheapest models of receipt printers are capable of spitting out half a foot of receipt every second, so even if you did wait until after scanning to print the receipt it'll hardly take more time than it takes customers to pick up their stuff anyways.

>It also makes people not want to go there if they don’t have spare change.

I think it fits the philosophy. They aim at customers that have a mindset to go out and save. They are prepared. They're willing to work a bit to save money, but hope to compromise a bit less on quality.

I believe they also source their own branded items from multiple vendors to avoid lock in. If one fails to deliver, they have another source. Keeps everyone one their toes at all times.

I wonder if one can pin a camera on the ceiling looking down at the conveyor belt, scanning all barcodes at once? Better than doing them manually one by one. If every box has barcodes on every side it should be possible for the software, knowing the size of the box, to get an idea if everything was scanned correctly or if an item had the barcode obscured. Maybe 2-3 cameras under different angles.

Cameras are cheap, and recognition software scales well.

There is a European sports store called decathlon that uses RFID. Put a tennis racket, running shoes, football, horse bridle, socks, ski goggles, bike tyre etc (they sell everything you can think of) in your basket, go to the till, place the basket in a blue outline at the till and it reads everything in your basket immediately. No scanning!

I was really impressed. I did some prototyping with RFID a few years back and reading multiple cards in unpredictable positions (e.g. overlapping, side-on) was quite challenging but looks like decathlon have worked it out.

It's also great for returns. Their backpacks have 10 year warranties. When I returned one, they were able scan the RFID to get all the details up and refund me.

Their backpacks are also silly cheap for the quality you get.

Is checkout speed really limiting factor in grocery store growth though? Like are people that sensitive to the few extra minutes (at most) at the checkout counter they'll switch where they shop?

I personally can't see myself switching from my local store even if it takes like 3 more minutes to check out. Maybe I'm just lucky though to think it's 3 minutes extra at most?...

You don't speed up checkout because people care about faster checkout, you speed up checkout because people care about lower prices and faster checkout reduces fixed costs, or increases revenues allowing you to lower prices.

If checkout lines are supply constrained (eg. there are always lines) then increasing speed increases throughput which increases revenues.

If checkout lines aren't supply constrained (eg. there are empty checkout lines) then you can reduce the number of open lines without increasing wait times, reducing your headcount and driving down your labor costs. If you lower your labor costs you reduce your semi-variable costs and you can keep the same contribution margin and lower prices.

> Is checkout speed really limiting factor in grocery store growth though? Like are people that sensitive to the few extra minutes (at most) at the checkout counter they'll switch where they shop?

Have ever been inside a walmart? There's only ever like 2 checkouts open and massive lines, that's a long time to stand there.

Waiting in line at the grocery store I thought was one of the most common annoyances people have?

Sometimes I just leave the store if the line is too long. More often I just don't go, knowing it's going to be too long a wait this time of the day.

Perhaps I am an impatient outlier, but whatever the profitable wait threshold is, it could be maintained with fewer cashiers if checkout were faster.

I shop at 1am or later at 24 hr stores just avoid waiting. Life is finite. Not enough of it to waste in line.

-their conveyor belt is far longer than most stores. You should be able to get your entire cart worth of groceries on the conveyor at once. This minimizes the slowness of people handing one item at a time to the next checker.

As others have pointed out, this isn't particularly innovative: this is the norm in large European supermarkets, regardless of brand.

It's normal for Walmart as well. You can easily fit a shopping cart of groceries on their conveyors. There's definitely nothing innovative about it.

One other thing you didn't mention is that they don't accept credit cards. Debit or cash only, to avoid the extra fees. Although I've heard this may have changed recently, but at least for a while all the ones I went to never accepted credit cards (now I sadly don't live near one).

Also they let the cashiers sit down, which means they get less tired and are therefore more productive.

I can't imagine how much less productive I'd be if I could never sit down at work.

The only reason I can think that Coles\Woolworths\etc\other supermarkets don't do this is that they straight up enjoy being cruel.

All cashiers sit in Europe, at least in the countries I've seen. But there were quite some scandals of how Lidl (not Aldi) handles toilet breaks and humiliates women cashiers on their period by having them wear bracelets so the manager knows they are allowed a little more toilet breaks.

>I can't imagine how much less productive I'd be if I could never sit down at work.

This is the rule for FC employees at Amazon - you can squat, or kneel, but never sit.

They say it's a safety issue, but I suspect they really just consider pain to be a more effective motivator than comfort.

> I haven't seen the number pad used extensively at any other grocer.

The thing I do see at HEB is they'll scan the same item n times when they see I have n of the same thing, so they do effect roughly the same efficiency. They might not as intelligently differentiate the packaging, though.

This sounds a lot closer to Pak'n'Save of New Zealand than the Aldi's we have in Australia.

Seems like they might have quite a lot of variation on locality.

Ive noticed this in the small too, some suburbs have much better Aldi's than others when it comes to selection.

decades ago there was a story, how the shelves at aldi looked cheaper, but where actually more expensive, and just gave the impression of looking cheap. in hindsight, i now think that while true, those shelves are probably also more efficient to use (allowing them to put up products in their boxes, hold more weight, etc)

aldi was also selling products for less than what they paid for. this is common practice in some places but in germany it's actually illegal, and they had to stop that.

And yet I will never shop there again. Quality of meat, produce and snacks are very poor. They are great at what they do, but they do nothing I want.

Here's a fun fact to add to the mix: Aldi's gin is one of the best in the world, and cheap to boot. And they're pretty good at various other spirits and beverages too. Do they carry those in the US?


I've never successfully purchased anything at aldi. Generally what happens is I'll walk in, grab what I want, proceed to the checkout, notice that there's only one register with at least 10 people in line and I'll drop whatever it is I went in to get and leave. I can't be bothered to wait that long to save 14 cents on eggs.

On the other hand my wife goes there somewhat frequently and is able to buy things in a reasonable amount of time so maybe it's just me.

I'm my experience if there's a long line of people like that they are great about opening another line. I've had that experience at multiple Aldi stores so maybe yours was just understaffed or something.

Didn't you save time on finding the eggs? I shop at Aldi and Lidl, not for the low prices but for the convenience of getting what I want and getting out quickly.

Do they have scales?

One thing I've admired about Grocery Outlet is the lack of them.

The ones near me do have scales, in two places

* Analog spring-based scales in the produce section, for customers to check weights before they buy

* Precise scales at checkout, built into the scanner / register.

However, most things are sold by package — only a few are sold by weight.

Scales to weigh fruit/veg? No at leas not in Germany. The scales are built into the barcode scanner of the register. They only have scales so you can double check when you are shopping.

Yes, but I mean not weighing things at all.

All fruit/vegetables/meat are sold by the item or in fixed price bags and packages.

I do like my plastic bags.

Maybe it's regional, but Aldi by me definitely has plastic bags. They're fairly sturdy as well— I've definitely gotten my 10¢ worth

You should stop that.

I assume you're vegan, you don't own a car, you never travel by airplane, you don't use heating or air conditioning, you only take cold showers, you wear your clothes until they're worn out beyond repair, etc. When somebody takes environmentalism that seriously, it might actually make sense to worry about a few grams of plastic.


1. Plastic bags often don’t really get destroyed, but get shipped to poor countries and land in the ocean. 2. Paper bags or boxes do the job as well, unless you are driving home your stuff through a long walk under rain or bike. But pedestrians and bikers usually have enough bag capacity with them.

I’m only using plastic bags every couple months, because I know keep bags and boxes in my car trunk. Easy, 0 impact for me.

Or at least bring last trip's plastic bags into the store with you.

I use them for garbage - I don’t have any left to reuse.

Well, the problem with plastic bags is that when I need them, I usually don't have the last trip ones. If I prepare for my shopping, I don't take the plastic bags because I prefer my cloth bag.

the quarter trick is everywhere in Europe.

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