What Retailers Can Learn From Aldi

The facade is modern and simple; devoid of plants and random sale items.

The facade is modern and simple; devoid of plants and random sale items.

While working on a research project I figured I finally had a reason to stop in and check out our relatively new local Aldi store. For whatever reason I hadn’t found the time to stop previously, despite the fact I live and breathe retail as a designer and consumer. I will say, I was pleasantly surprised and found the store to not be quite what I expected. While I only had time to do a cursory walk though, I came away with a strong positive impression and noticed several things Aldi does well.

Fixture Free Merchandising

As a designer I always (half heatedly) joked that consumers would buy anything from a card board box cut open on the floor if the price was right. Turns out my first impression as I stepped through the doors of Aldi was of exactly that. Wide aisles are flanked by products essentially sitting in the boxes they were shipped in. A warehouse store for food. While this form of merchandising may be how they do retail in Europe (Aldi is a German based company), it’s not as common on this side of the Atlantic. And those that try over here usually provide a middling shopping experience at best. In Aldi I observed some fixed and wheeled racks, and even climate controlled cases, but it was not unusual to see product neatly organized on the floor or by the unadorned checkout. The look screams efficiency, good prices on products and no-frills.

I make my living designing retail displays, fixtures and environments and I’m telling you: you don’t always need it.

This speaks to one of my fundamental goals as a designer: don’t design, and subsequently produce, displays and fixtures unless you need them. Far too often salesmen and marketers focus on displays and fixtures to salvage products and brands. I make my money by designing retail displays, fixtures and environments and I’m telling you, you don’t always need it. Ask yourself, would people purchase my product if I just laid it out in a cardboard box on the floor? What is my brand, and how do I want guests to experience it? How do my displays and fixtures complete or enhance the experience? While just throwing stuff on the floor is an extreme example, don’t be afraid to really question what you do and don’t need to win at retail. Start with your brand, product, packaging and then yes if you need to finish the deal, take a look at the display.

Product is simply placed in PDQ's on wheeled metal racks. It doesn't get more simple than this.

Product is simply placed in PDQ’s on wheeled metal racks. It doesn’t get more simple than this.

The lack of gondolas makes for great sight lines and a straightforward shopping experience.

The lack of gondolas makes for great sight lines and a straightforward shopping experience.

Simple Signage

The simple, less is more, European-inspired theme carries over to the signage throughout the store, inside and out. A simple multi-level metal C-channel holds product information and pricing in quick to read black and yellow print. Unobtrusive right angle flags (RAF’s) provide category information.

As subtle as the aisle signage is, the large format graphics above the freezer and dairy cases command attention in a clear manner. Giant letters communicate the brand message to guests, and large photos of produce delight. The images and copy can be seen from anywhere in the store. It’s one of the first things guests notice when they walk in the door. Ultimately if you don’t know what to do from a retail environment standpoint then fall back on large format graphics with great art, copy or photography. You really cannot go wrong.

The produce aisle features attractive LED down lighting.

The produce aisle features attractive LED down lighting.

The Aldi brand message is readily communicated with large format graphics and copy above climate controlled cases.

The Aldi brand message is readily communicated with large format graphics and copy above climate controlled cases.

Small Footprint

Aldi is a really small store, especially for being a grocer. I’m not sure there is much depth of product offering, but that probably doesn’t matter to the consumers who visit time and time again. I could easily see every corner of the store from the entrance. Overall it is an open and airy feel that you never get in other grocery stores. The aisles are wide and very orderly. Despite the store’s small size, I never felt cramped walking along. Most stores with that small a footprint would feel compelled to jam as much product (signs, departments, fixtures, etc.) in the store to ruin the experience. Aldi understands why it exists.

The produce aisle features attractive LED down lighting.

The produce aisle features attractive LED down lighting.

Brand

Which leads to my last point, Aldi knows their brand and it plays out in all the details from parking lot to check out. This is the true test of a good retailer. “Simply Smarter Shopping” defines the Aldi brand and experience. Am I going there for everything? Probably not, but what I do buy there will be, presumably, at a good price and decent quality without any fuss.

While the feel is decidedly warehouse there’s nothing overtly cheap. Packaging art does all of the heavy lifting which saves a lot of money. This saves cost by eliminating the need to produce a lot of random signage and displays; these lead to clutter which in turn undermines their existence in the first place. Aldi breaks that cycle which allows it to stay on brand and reduce expenses.

I’m not the only one who’s impressed. The retailer has been picking up good press both here and on the other side of the pond. I for one was skeptical, or at the very least unsure, but I was delighted to see what a great looking, and functioning store it is. I will gladly use these, and other examples of best practices I discovered at Aldi, in the future. It would be worth your while to consider doing the same.

-Chris

No frills check lanes make for a quick check out experience.

No frills check lanes make for a quick check out experience.

Grocery Store Swapping

Earlier this week my wife and I decided to consider switching grocery stores. She had recently taken a field trip with our oldest son to a local northeast Ohio grocer, Heinen’s, and was impressed with the “behind the scenes” tour. We had shopped there before, but never really for a full trip so to speak. This past Tuesday morning was our first comprehensive visit to our local store.

Probably more so than any other retail outlet, where one buys groceries garners the highest degree of shopper loyalty I suspect. You go there every week, list in hand, and you learn the layout. The art of navigating the grocery store waters is refined over the course of years. You learn where your bread is at, where the Kalamata olives are…how best to request the week’s cold cuts from the surly deli lady. So switching stores is not to be taken lightly. One year at Thanksgiving I could remember hunting several different stores for specific ingredients that couldn’t be found in our regular store, only to be frustrated by the various layouts. Ultimately, when life is hectic, getting in and out at fast as humanly possible is just as important as quality and pricing.

Having been to our local Heinen’s several times previously we sort of knew what to expect, but we made sure to take our time and visit every part of the store to learn the layout and see how we liked it compared to our regular grocery shopping retailer. Size is the biggest physical difference between old and new. Everything at the other store is bigger….parking lot, product offering, number of checkout stations.

“We could have been shopping in our home, save for the fact that Heinen’s is infinitely cleaner than our home.”

I grabbed a shopping cart that was decidedly smaller than what we were used to, and we started in the produce department. The perceived quality of the produce is higher in my mind at Heinen’s than most other grocery stores. The food is displayed artfully and the saturated colors make you want to start making exotic salads and side dishes. Navigating the area was a challenge, because when you’re new to a store you just don’t know where anything is. We spent probably twice the normal amount of time there, but ultimately got everything we needed. One note, we asked the same produce associate where something was about a half-dozen times and each time instead of just saying “oh, it’s over there” he would walk over and physically show us. I had to ask the wife to ask the last time because I was too embarrassed to ask.

Fresh produce lined up at Heinen's. We like that they make the effort to stack up the apples in real life like you'd expect to see in a magazine. No need for some sort of excessive display components when a deft hand can leverage the fruits natural stackable shape.

Fresh produce lined up at Heinen’s. We like that they make the effort to stack up the apples in real life like you’d expect to see in a magazine. No need for some sort of excessive display components when a deft hand can leverage the fruits natural stackable shape.

Produce, both in quality and display, is an area where Heinen's excels in our opinion.

Produce, both in quality and display, is an area where Heinen’s excels in our opinion.

As we passed down the dairy aisle we were loving the wide open aisles. Grocery shopping was no longer a stressful battle with humanity for nature’s bare essentials. It was a relaxing stroll through wood (patterned vinyl) floors with bright lighting overhead. We could have been shopping in our home, save for the fact that Heinen’s is infinitely cleaner than our home. Granted traffic was light on a Tuesday morning, but I would imagine that even with a Summer weekend or holiday rush the store would be manageable, as opposed to most grocery stores that appear to be selling aisle displays in lieu of food. Just as in the produce department, products throughout the store were arranged in an orderly fashion. Packaging designers should rejoice, for the time taken to organize the product on shelves made good packaging design shout out to guests. In a world where retail designers and marketers spout off about making the product “king“, only to have the system delegate product to an afterthought, saddled with promotional signage and overwrought merchandising schemes; it was refreshing to see restraint and product focused merchandising.

Orderly end caps are a pleasant sight for many a weary grocery shopper.

Orderly end caps are a pleasant sight for many a weary grocery shopper.

Wide, uncluttered aisles that benefit guests and enhance the shopping experience, stand in the face of the status quo for grocery merchandising.

Wide, uncluttered aisles that benefit guests and enhance the shopping experience, stand in the face of the status quo for grocery merchandising.

We spent a majority of our time in the perimeter of the store, moving through baked goods, frozen foods, and meat departments. We were pleased to see options for sustainably and humanely raised meat and eggs. Adjacent to the meat department is probably our favorite superfluous “lifestyle” department; a whole area dedicated to cheese, beer, wine and hors d’oeuvre meats.  This area alone pushed our grocery bill well beyond what we would have spent at another outlet, but how can you resist artisan cheeses from Washington state and the joy of hunting for “cheap” wine. The wine selection was a bit pricy for our undiscriminating palate, but we can stock up elsewhere for our kind of wine elsewhere. Regardless, once again the shopping experience was delightful and experiential without being gimmicky.

Artisan sausages displayed in an inviting way, just begging you to buy them and call your friends for an impromptu happy hour at your place.

Artisan sausages displayed in an inviting way, just begging you to buy them and call your friends for an impromptu happy hour at your place.

Worn out from spending so much time in the perimeter, and with a small cart already overflowing, we made a quick dash to the center of the store to pick up various pantry provisions. The shopping experience in the core was every bit as delightful as the edges. Products were in order, offering exotic (to us at least) varieties and old standbys in equal measure. Wide aisles made it easy to park the cart, hunt and gather without hindering other guests.

As a small store in an affluent area, the store’s smallness caters to higher income guest who most likely eat out quite a bit and don’t load up on groceries as much as, say, maybe our hectic family would in a typical trip. Checkout was a challenge as we unloaded our overstuffed little cart. In fact I had to get a second cart, and that’s when I discovered they offered larger carts up front; chalk that up to the learning experience. One other difference, that is probably common in settings where parking lots are smaller, is that the store loads your car up for you. I had to restrain the independently minded part of me and gracefully pull up to loading door. I darted back and forth, the control freak in me making sure the gentleman could fit everything in the back of our Rabbit, which already had two car seats in the back, limiting grocery getting space to just the hatch area. With some planning though everything fit and I showed great restraint.

So are we switching? We’ll keep visiting, learning where everything is at the new store. Nearly every grocery chain has their advantages. Ultimately it comes down to cost, convenience (experience) and quality. Both grocery chains we’ve been using hit on all three in different ways. I could see leveraging each, and others, for their strengths. They are good at what they set out to do, who they set out to be.

When we talk specifically about Heinen’s, from a design perspective I think their strength is providing great quality and great shopping experience. Their brand message plays out in their store, by displaying quality products in an orderly manner without being overwrought. Food is a very personal necessity. Maybe shopping for it shouldn’t always border on being work and something we try to get over with. By fostering that relationship we have with food, Heinen’s helps guests slow down and really appreciate shopping for sustenance. It’s not only our pantry that is renewed after shopping there.