Confessions from the Aisle of Shame

Credit: 70023venus2009 via Flickr

“You don’t know what the AOS is?” The shock in Shawn’s voice borders on pity.

“We’ll take you,” promises Susan. They dive into a conversation about the latest hot item, a rug of magical price and quality. The lucky folks who snagged one started photographing their dogs sitting cute atop the fuzzy rug, and one family did not have a dog, so they posed their iguana on the rug.

O-kay then. The Aisle of Shame, it turns out, bisects an ALDI grocery store, and though it rivals People of Walmart in fame, it is far more wholesome. It is, in fact, a deliberate challenge to stigma: ALDI is not, as some well-heeled suburbanites seem to think, a last resort for people living paycheck to paycheck. At least, not anymore. Quality has risen, the deals are quirky and substantial, and today’s shame lies only in the splurge, buying at random because the temporary deals are irresistible.

Given the role shopping plays in American life (identity, aspiration, stress release) and the role food plays (pleasure, survival, community) and the role shame plays in the psyche (revealing, tempting, confessing), I figure there are at least a few more layers. “Count me in.”

“Bring quarters,” Susan instructs. “We’ll hit a bunch of ALDIs, and you’ll see. Oh, and if anyone asks, ‘Where’s the ranch?’ you say, ‘Where the deer and the antelope roam.’ It’s a little in-joke. One woman got so excited when she finally got asked that she blurted, ‘Where the deer and the cantaloupe roam.’”

Seeing my blank face, Susan wangles me an invitation to the ALDINerd page on Facebook so I can do a little homework. Idly, I click on the page link.

Two hours later, I surface.

The posts are funny, warm, and so besotted with ALDI that I wonder for a cynical second if they are plants. But nobody could engineer this stuff. I instantly adore the stranger who posts a photo of a near-empty shopping cart: “I didn’t actually need bread, but the only other items in my cart were a toaster and a bath plug. I didn’t want the cashier to worry.”

The randomness of the AOS is definitely part of its pull: “Going to Aldi for some bread and coming home with a two man tent, a chainsaw and a trumpet” sums it up. Refreshed regularly, the Aisle might stock anything from French cast-iron pots and bamboo cutting boards to soft pajamas, sous vide cookers, giant teddy bears, The Rug. “People kept saying their kitchen looked better with the rug,” Shawn tells me, “so one woman took the rug, threw it over her dishes, and wrote, ‘My kitchen looks so much better now.’”

The anti–Martha Stewart tone is refreshing. ALDI Nerds dispense advice freely, but it is often self-deprecating and always practical. One woman writes that she has $50 to spend for a week’s groceries—suggestions? People flood the comments with recipes, shopping lists, meal plans. I come away with a deep reverence for the disciplined creativity required to feed a family with not-quite-enough-money.

Yet shopping at ALDI is not bleak; there is no feel of warehouse bargains or grimly oversized cut-rate food. ALDI’s cousin, Trader Joe’s, makes fancy food more affordable, and ALDI carries that to the next level, with real steals on candy, ice cream, wine, seafood …

Through it all runs the joy of the deal. America has always comparison-shopped. We do not go every day to the little neighborhood market and buy what we need, fresh, for that night’s dinner, as the French have done for centuries. No, we drive all over kingdom come, because this is the land of plenty, and we have options.

“Can you guess my total?” people write, posting photos of their groceries spread out on the kitchen counter. Because they spend less than they would somewhere else, they leave feeling grateful—and generous. Over the holidays, shoppers would buy a $10 gift card and leave it for the checker to give to someone who needed help. Even the quarter thing (it unlocks a shopping cart, and when you plug the cart in again, the lock shoots the quarter back) has turned into magnanimity: People roll carts gently in the direction of a new shopper, brushing away the proffered quarter.

And then there is the woman who had a little extra cash and her heart set on the latest ALDI find, a crushed-velvet gray comforter set: “I know there are mixed reviews about it being tacky, ’70s-ish, too shiny… I didn’t care. All I could think about was how soft it would feel.” Then she saw a homeless man sitting in front of ALDI, so she asked if he wanted anything. “He said anything. Anything soft because his jaw was sore & he needed dental work.” She invited him to come inside with her, and they bought him raisin bread, bananas, oatmeal, yogurt. “I walked right past that super soft shiny velvety king size comforter,” she ends, adding that there is a big difference between wanting and needing.

Fascinated by these exchanges, I gather my bags and quarters and climb into Shawn’s SUV. It takes me two tries to master the cart thing, and the first AOS is inauspicious, well stocked with heated raspberry fur slippers, gingerbread-man steam vents (for holiday veggies?) and schnauzer-sized skeins of fat green yarn. Susan holds up a purple heather shirt. “Almost looks like Pat-a-GO-nia,” Shawn drawls. There are bags of avocadoes and wheels of Brie and money trees, sweet little plants fraught with symbolism.

“Hey, what is this Chicken in a Red Bag thing?” I ask, having read about 3,000 references to it online: “ONE DAY I’ll get you, elusive Red Bag chicken … one day …”

“You eat it on a brioche bun,” Susan explains. “It’s supposed to be amazing.” We go to the frozen aisle to look. Every other food item is well stocked, but sure enough, the bin for the red-bag chicken is empty. Brilliant marketing. We look avidly—it is now a game—at the next three stores. They are all out. I tell myself I will check next week.

Oh my God. This is how it starts.

The biggest draw of all is the gamble. We are so used to having stuff urged on us, and to seeing a surfeit. ALDI lets itself run out. B.F. Skinner would have called this operant conditioning. Because we never know when we will find our favorite treat or an amazing deal, we keep going back.

At the next ALDI, we find all sorts of gourmet stuff, from quinoa to coconut flour. “I think Ginger and Mary Ann used that,” Susan murmurs. Having begun by saying, “I’m just going to take notes” because I overspent on our regular groceries the day before, I find myself steering a cart filled with salted caramel dark chocolates, mock Tagalog cookies for $1.28, cranberry almond chicken salad, Everything Bagel seasoning …

ALDI began in Germany. Two brothers founded a discount supermarket chain in 1946, and they split it in half in 1962 (after arguing over whether to sell cigarettes). They pruned the shelves of anything that did not sell, kept their stores small and plain, refused to spend money on advertising. The stores spread across Europe, the States, Australia, China. In 1979, ALDI bought Trader Joe’s. In 2018, ALDI caved to a few trends, adding more organic, fresh, and easy-to-fix foods; it is now joining the rush to deliver to your door.

A woman who stopped to offer impromptu advice on pasta and the glycemic index tells us she has shopped here as long as ALDI has existed. “Before the food was good, I’d buy the ALDI cereal and pour it into a Cheerios box. My kids always knew.” Now, the food is good, the prices are still low, and the place is packed with people less concerned with appearances than with deals.

“Years ago, you were forced to shop there,” Susan remarks as we head for the next store, “because it was cheaper. Now there’s a choice—and the Nerds are buying all the chicken. They have infiltrated the best-kept secret and screwed up the shopping!”

Yet no one is throwing tomatoes in the aisle; just stepping inside ends the class warfare and enrolls you in the club. How does a grocery store, deliberately unfancy, inspire such a fierce sense of community? This is not just the deliberate vivacity of the Trader Joe’s checkers; this is grassroots, from the shoppers themselves. People compare notes, offer help. There is even the meanness that accompanies any tight exclusivity: “I find myself being very judgmental of people who don’t really know things about Aldi,” one woman writes, and another comments, “Yes!! Like who joins this page and has never shopped there!?” (Ouch.)

Another comment flares into war after someone sighs over the 9 am – 8 pm hours: “Omg, I didn’t realize that it bothered people that everyone on here can’t get to Aldi’s during the time they’re open. It must be nice to run and do as you please or have help. Not all of us get that.” Replies fly for days, with people saying the hours keep the prices low, defending the ALDI employees’ need for time with families, saying they do not want this to become Walmart.

ALDI can be crowded, but it is nowhere near as … fluorescent … as Walmart. Nor does it have the upscale preciousness of wine bars and gourmet tastings in traditional suburban supermarkets. The scale is manageable, the stimuli minimal. Once you get the hang of its rites and rules, you just shop: no promotional displays and Dutch still-life presentation, no “Raindrops” playing as the produce is sprayed, no elaborate couponing procedures.

Like IKEA, ALDI blends cachet with bare-bones simplicity. Customers see through traditional grocery stores’ tricks: the psychological use of color, the deliberate absence of clocks, the boppy music played to prolong our shopping. The art of the ALDI deals lies in their fusion of frugality and indulgence; plain-jane efficiency and secret-club mystique; reliable bargains and random splurges.

ALDI lets us sprawl on a fluffy rug and drink $3 wine and eat chocolates and feel smug, as though we are gaming capitalism, and sometimes even winning.