ST. LOUIS — Chances are that you have never set foot inside the best grocery store in America: Aldi. And even if you are lucky enough to be in one of the 32 states where Aldi is, perhaps you were put-off by the cardboard boxes in lieu of shelves, or the row upon row of suspicious-looking off-brands. What is this place? Why do I have to put down a deposit to check out a cart? What is the weird giant shelf by the exit? And what do you mean, I have to pay for a bag?
Calm your hormones, meine Schatzis: Aldi, which is short for Albrecht Discount, is the American incarnation of a German grocery chain that is so ubiquitous in the Vaterland that almost 90 percent of Germans shop there. (Not all German imports are luxury cars, beer and super-cool glasses.)
Aldi is part of a charming subset of Teutonic trade: the brother-run company that cleaves in twain. Shoe aficionados already know the story of the Dassler brothers, Adolf and Rudolf, whose bitter feud resulted in the creation of Adidas and Puma. But outside Germany, few know about grocery-store kingpins Karl and Theo Albrecht (who was kidnapped in 1971!) — even though Karl, with a reported net worth of more than 17 billion euros ($23 billion), is the richest man in Germany (Theo's descendants are a close second).
The brothers founded their discount-store empire together. A disagreement in 1960 over selling cigarettes hastened a partition, and an epic game of grocery-store Risk: Theo would rename his business Aldi Nord, and would control territories north of the Rhine, plus a healthy chunk of Europe. Karl would head up Aldi Süd, and get southern Germany, more of Europe, plus the U.K. and Ireland. But both companies operate stores in the United States — Aldi Süd operates as Aldi, and Aldi Nord as the now ubiquitous Trader Joe's.
But whereas Trader Joe's employs just one major cost-saving device — private labeling — everything else about it is Americanized. The place is swarming with upbeat employees; cashiers stand at the till and bag your products for you; you just grab a cart willy-nilly and they trust you to put it back. Aldi also private-labels (those $1.99 "Millville" Rice Squares are Chex, you guys!), but what makes it a more exciting venture — and even cheaper than Trader Joe's — is that it has imported the entire German grocery experience (aside, alas, from employees yelling at you if you do something wrong).
If you've ever visited Germany, you've noticed that a 4-ounce glass of juice at a restaurant may run you $10, while groceries — often of much higher quality than their American counterparts — will be noticeably less expensive. This is in part because of cost-cutting shopping practices whose arrival stateside I greet with a robust "Wunderbar!"
You can always tell an American in Germany by the way they incredulously don't get that nobody is going to bag their groceries for them — they're expected to do so while the seated cashier is ringing them up. Shoppers also have the option of quickly sticking wares back into the cart and schlepping them over to a special low, wide shelf that's an official bagging area. As for the cart: It requires a deposit, and customers must return them to their rightful place — without the help of an employee — if they want their money back.
These are standard practices at even upscale German Supermärkte, so high-end groceries are cheaper relative to other goods than they are here. This is why I am hoping for Aldi's rousing success in America: so that more of our stores, and our culture in general, will incorporate such Teutonic efficiency. First the cost-savings of bagging our own groceries — then the ubiquitous bicycle lanes; immaculate, punctual public transportation; and, finally, required paid vacation and parental leave. It would be ausgezeichnet indeed, meine Lieben.
---Schuman is an education columnist for Slate and adjunct professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.