This German Supermarket Import Is Like Trader Joe's, But Better
Starting an argument about who pays more to stay alive—Americans or Europeans—is a tricky thing; certain basics on their end, housing is a big one, might be less subject to market forces, but for every break they catch, there's an advantage we Americans are probably not taking into account. One thing's much harder to argue against, however, at least when we talk about the major countries over there, for instance Germany—a trip to the supermarket for good quality staple items will almost certainly cost less than back home, sometimes to the point where it's almost infuriating.
These days, rather happily, you don't have to hop the Atlantic in order to see for yourself—in recent years, after spending a long time testing the waters, German supermarket chain Aldi has made significant inroads across the United States, offering sometimes dramatically lower prices on everyday necessities in a no-frills, do-it-yourself environment. If that weren't enough, one of their biggest competitors overseas, Lidl, has now arrived on our shores, too.
Already a household name across Europe, from Sweden to Portugal to the United Kingdom, Lidl, like Aldi, is not known for its charm—you come here because of the prices. Load up your cart and get out. Bags are an extra charge, you won't recognize a lot of the brands, and the only thing you can really be picky about, if you're going to shop here, is saving money.
Which is okay, because you're going to save a lot—a just-released study out of the University of North Carolina shows that prices for key staples went down by as much as 55 percent in American markets where Lidl has already set up shop. That's three times more, according to the study, than the effect seen when Walmart enters a new market. To call this kind of upheaval seismic is an understatement.
When I went looking for the nearest Lidl store to New York City, I was expecting a dimly-lit bunker filled with things I didn't want. But wait, what's this? Once I got past the giant inflatable rat, dressed in a banner featuring a German flag with a big mark drawn through it—clearly, this is one market that's not taking the changes well—New Jersey's first Lidl store, located in the city of Vineland, was—there's really no other way to put this—beautiful. A glass atrium swoops up above the entrance, the ceilings inside are high, like we're in a modern hangar of sorts. Aisles are wide, the space feels colorful, inviting, the lighting is very good, and fresh, perfectly-browned croissants are coming out of the oven and going onto the shelves of the bakery, which you have to walk past in order to get into the store. (Smart!) What, exactly, was going on here?
The prices were as low as expected—this wasn't like Europe, it was Europe, right down to the quality of the baked goods. There was a perfect brioche for $2.99—discounted on that visit to $2.24. A rustic, crusty loaf of German Sourdough bread was $2.49, slashed to $1.86. Beautiful little cinnamon rolls were 59 cents, marked down to 44 cents. Oversized, proper German pretzels, 69 cents, down to 51. And those croissants. Everything you want from a croissant, perhaps one of the best croissants you will ever find being sold in an American supermarket, and certainly at this price—a screaming deal at 49 cents normally, but that day just 36 cents. I wanted to buy a mountain of them, but by the time I got to the case, there were only three left.
The produce section was much bigger than expected, and full of good buys; a bunch of kale was 99 cents, bananas 35 cents a pound, organic carrots for 99 cents a bag, good Brussels sprouts, proper haricot vert, giant mangoes—all at great buys. There was a bulk section, with raw almonds for $5.99 a pound, there were boxes of house brand cereals for $1.15, packages of sliced Serrano ham for $2.49, a generous sampler of three Spanish cheeses for $3.99—I wanted to sit right in the aisle and throw myself a little tapas party. On and on it went—once word gets out about Lidl's house brand Skyr, the Icelandic-style yogurt selling for $3.99 (24 ounces), it'll surely be on the fasttrack to cult status, that's how good it is—ditto the bricks of Irish salted butter for $2.79, which beats the lowest prices I've seen (at Walmart) on Kerrygold. There's milk from $2.18 a gallon, you've got cage-free brown eggs for $2.29 a dozen, and, if you choose, a slew of organic options, once again at entirely reasonable prices.
And I hadn't even gotten to the really fun stuff. To the single origin chocolate bars for $1.99, the packages of delicious stroopwafels, the bottles of imported Italian mineral water for $1.29—as in many European supermarkets, whether you're just in for the staples or are looking to treat yourself at a reasonable price, Lidl appears more than up to the task. Aldi may have started the conversation, but Lidl, given a chance, might end up becoming one of America's favorite grocery brands.
So why isn't there a Lidl in every American town, right now? No fear, they're working on it—the first stores just rolled out this year, and the company has plans to open up to 600 in total, according to an internal report. Right now, you'll find them up and down the East Coast, as far south as Georgia and as far north as New Jersey.
Grocery is the trickiest of businesses, of course, and rather predictably, there have been growing pains. The almost luxurious prototype that the company chose for its entry into America has proven to be slightly more than overkill, for starters. (Headquarters in Germany, apparently, finds them too extravagant, and they're probably right.) In addition, Lidl is entering the market with a model and a store experience that will require a certain amount of retraining for customers not already accustomed to shopping at Aldi, or Trader Joe's.
No matter how great it might be, Lidl's success in the United States is not yet a sure thing; just ask the British retail behemoth Tesco. Known for pretty much crushing most markets they enter, Tesco managed to fail miserably on American soil with its gone-but-not-forgotten Fresh & Easy brand. These Trader Joe's-sized stores were located all up and down the West Coast, each store filled to the brim with terrific product at often equally terrific prices, but shoppers just didn't care. They didn't get it, and Tesco couldn't figure out why, and after years of hoping Americans would come around, they unloaded the business to an American company, but by then it was too late. A couple of years later, Fresh & Easy simply disappeared.
Lidl, for its part, appears to be taking a more proactive stance—they're already talking about smaller foot prints, about giving up their beloved prototype, and about choosing pre-existing locations with better guarantees of traffic and sales volume, not to mention quicker buildouts. No matter how this all plays out, LIdl is very much here for the time being—according to the trade pubs, they're devoting billions of dollars to the expansion effort. Reasonably priced croissants for everyone, it sounds like—for now anyway, and hopefully forever.