For this month’s Extrawurst, I’d like to turn my attention to two octogenarian German brothers - Theo and Karl Albrecht. If they sound somewhat unpromising, let me just throw in the fact that they achieved third place on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people last year and are valued at around US$ 28 bn. The Albrecht brothers (who, incidentally, make Charles Saatchi look positively camera-hungry - the latest photos of them available to the press are 20 years old) started their retail operation over 50 years ago - Albrecht Discount or Aldi as we all know it.
The standing of Aldi in Germany is very different to that in other countries such as the UK. According to a study by Young & Rubicam in 2000, Aldi is the best- known brand name in Germany. This is a pretty good achievement, given that the brothers have never given as much as a pfennig to any advertising agency throughout the history of Aldi. It is estimated that 85% of the German population shop at Aldi. This, of course, cuts across the entire age, social and ethnic spectrum although there is one particular group who are the focus of the media attention at the moment.
Germany has an unemployment problem and, in comparison to the ‘traditional’ demographic profile of the unemployed (lower education level, older); the ‘new’ unemployed in Germany includes many well-educated professionals in the 25-45 age group who were working in the media, communication or academic field. This has given birth to the idea of ‘Discounter Mode’, where it is positively hip to be seen carrying an Aldi bag. Some of the cleverest and most talked about advertising campaigns in Germany at the moment are for retailers, based 100% on a price strategy. (Geiz ist Geil or Stinginess is Fab/Brill/Hot is the slogan for electronics retailer Saturn, with TV and film personalities happy to be snapped by the gossip press carrying one of their carrier bags!).
Aldi’s continuing success has been further fuelled by this trend and I thought I’d examine my own relationship with Aldi to get some insight into the reasons behind this success. My first trip to an Aldi in Germany was a mistake. I went in there one Saturday lunchtime to get some potatoes, I think, as they had run out in my usual store. Even given my years’ experience of how dreadful German supermarkets can be, I was in for a shock. The store was packed full of pushing, sweaty people and looked even more like a warehouse than I’d imagined. I had done some travelling in the former Eastern Europe with my previous job and what I witnessed in Aldi could have come straight out of late 1980s Warsaw as far as I was concerned. I vowed never to set foot in the place again.
However, over the next few months, something strange happened. People who I liked and respected began to ‘out’ themselves as Aldi freaks. One friend who is an excellent cook confided in me that he bought the meat for his Venison Ragout from Aldi. My husband bought a new PC (on which I’m writing this!) for around DM 1000 from Aldi. I admired one toddler’s denim dungarees at our playgroup. His mother – a slim and elegant blonde with a fantastically rich husband – told me they were from Aldi. And at the pool barbeque of our friends the beautiful people who have everything, the delicious food and cocktails were care of Aldi.
This all surprised me. Had these people perhaps been in a completely different store? Had I just hit Aldi on a bad day? Gradually, through a combination of asking and experience, I learned my way into the Aldi cult. First of all, I had to rid myself of the idea of the Shopping Experience. Brought up on the UK’s Sainsbury’s, Tesco’s and Waitrose, I had to drop the idea that shopping itself would be pleasurable or give any sort of added value. You have to choose your time to go in order to get through it as quickly as possible. Interestingly, Aldi does have incredibly efficient staff and they are rather more highly paid than the average check-out person here, earning the equivalent of nearly £20K per year. Secondly, I had to understand that Aldi carries standard items and then variable specials each week. The specials are promoted (as an ex-ad person I can’t bring my self to say advertised!) via the ominous sounding Aldi Informiert which is an in-house produced flyer with, simply, the products pictured and the prices. This also appears in daily newspapers and on the website. As the specials are available only in limited quantities, queues form regularly outside before opening time.
In addition, you have to get used to the little Aldi idiosyncrasies. Cash only- absolutely no plastic allowed. You have to line the shopping trolley up exactly where the cashier can put things back in for maximum efficiency and you’re frowned upon if you start any time-wasting activity like trying to pack things into bags! The different names Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd have less to do with geographical location and more to do with whether it’s part of Theo’s (Nord) or Karl’s (Süd) empire. Apparently, they divided it up in 1961 - Theo wanted cigarettes and Karl didn’t - not for any philanthropic reason but just because cigarettes were particularly prone to pilfering and thus lost profits!
Finally, you have to get to know which products are good and which not. Most of the products are made by well-known manufacturers and given a name and packaging that are rather reminiscent of those copy perfumes that started appearing on market stalls in the 1980s. So the Ferrero Kinder Chocolate copy also uses the orange, white, blue and brown colour scheme of the original. In some cases, Aldi have established their own brand name such as Medion for electronics or Formicula for children’s clothing. And sometimes, the original brand name is retained, as is the case with Haribo confectionary.
And it is worth it! The prices really are amazing and the quality (usually) good. If you can make the leap of faith that the shopping experience is not worth paying for, you will be rewarded. This week, there is a ‘15 in one Multi-Talent PC’ which can burn DVDs, has Cinema-quality screen picture, acts as a video, radio, TV, music-centre and so on for €1,179 (£813) or a DVD player for € 99.99 (£69). There is a special on on tennis equipment with a Titanium Tennis racquet for €39.99 (£27.58). In the wine department you’ll find Champagne for €9.99 (£6.89), Cava for €3.49 (£2.41), Rioja for €2.29 (£1.58) or Bourdeaux (A.C) for €1.99 (£1.37).
I mentioned earlier that it took me a while to get into Aldi as a result of my UK experiences. This could be one of the reasons that Aldi has not repeated the German success in the UK. Or, conversely, I think there is a real opportunity for a UK-style grocery retailer in Germany. The shopping experience here is ghastly-that’s a given. Your choice is between ghastly and average price (Tengelmann, Real, Minimal) or ghastly and low prices, with a bit of Discount Chic thrown in (Aldi). But maybe it doesn’t have to be ghastly. Maybe Germans could learn about the Shopping Experience, in the same way that I unlearned it.
Maybe it’s an idea that Theo and Karl or their sons have already got up their sleeves. Watch out for Allux?!
Well, Theo and Karl have both ascended to the great discounter in the sky, in 2010 and 2014 respectively, no doubt to swop thrifty tips with Ingvar Kamprad. As for plastic and cash, Aldi is leading the field not just in modern payment methods, but in sustainability, too. Who’d have thought it? And the UK? Around 900 stores and counting. Even more extraordinarily, the only Aldi TV commercial I’ve seen recently was a Christmas one where the UK Kevin the Carrot idea had been translated into German, with “Kevin” inexplicably renamed “Kai”. Unnecessary, in my view, as Kevin is a popular enough name here, although maybe Karl could have been an idea as a nod to one of the founders.
Some things go on much as always, though - this week’s Aldi brochure features running shoes for €12.99, Campari for €8.88, Nordic Walking sticks and riding jodhpurs.
Still, I have moved on from the Aldi PC, and the beautiful people with the pool and Aldi canapés have long since split up.