Best and Worst Things to Buy at AldiKiplinger.com
Haven't shopped at an Aldi supermarket yet? That could change soon. The German chain, famous for its no frills and low prices, is in the midst of a boom. After steadily expanding its footprint in the eastern part of the country over the past 40 years - the first U.S. store opened in Iowa in 1976 - Aldi is now adding locations in Southern California. By 2018, the company expects to have close to 2,000 stores nationwide, up from fewer than 1,600 today.
If you're new to Aldi's minimalist approach to grocery shopping, you're in for a shocker. You pay a refundable quarter to rent a cart. You bag your own groceries. Oh, and you'll even need to pay for those bags unless you bring your own. There are few shelves, few employees and none of the amenities you've come to expect from the likes of Wegmans or Whole Foods. Still, discount shoppers have proven willing to accept the tradeoffs. We compared prices and reached out to shopping experts to identify some of the best things to buy at Aldi based on cost, quality or both. We also identified some of the worst things to buy. Have a look.
SEE ALSO: 12 Secrets Costco Shoppers Need to Know
Buy Kitchen Staples
Heading to the supermarket for some basics, say a gallon of milk, a dozen Grade A eggs, a loaf of white bread and a jar of peanut butter? Strictly judging by the bottom line, you may want to give Aldi a shot.
We priced out these four kitchen staples at an Aldi in Northern Virginia, and then compared the everyday, non-sale prices to similarly packaged store brands at three other nearby grocery retailers: Giant, Harris Teeter and Target. Here are the results (from cheapest to most expensive):
Don't Buy Fruits and Vegetables*
Like most of Aldi's goods, fruits and vegetables are typically sold from the bulk boxes they were shipped in. No fancy, bountiful horn-of-plenty displays. And unlike major chains, the bulk of Aldi's stores don't refrigerate produce. While I've found Aldi's fruits and vegetables generally top notch, others disagree.
"Produce [from Aldi] can spoil more quickly," says Tracie Fobes, a money-saving expert at the website Pennypinchinmom.com, "so buy only what you can eat within a few days."
Also, Aldi pre-packages many of its fruits and vegetables in bulk, so if you want, say, an apple you need to buy an entire bag. Most big supermarket chains sell similar produce loose. The latter approach allows shoppers to pick out the freshest individual items available.
*This advice applies to most of Aldi's older existing stores. New (and newly renovated) stores are another story...
SEE ALSO: 8 Secrets Wegmans Shoppers Need to Know
But Do Buy Fruits and Vegetables at New Aldi Stores
Aldi is rolling out changes aimed at fending off competitors including Whole Foods' offshoot discount chain, 365 by Whole Foods. On top of better lighting and wider aisles, Aldi's new store format puts fresh produce center stage and includes refrigerated units for the likes of greens, perishable fruits and (shocker!) premade soups and dips. Bulk packaging still rules at new stores, but that's a big reason why Aldi can keep produce prices so low.
If you're produce shopping at an Aldi store that hasn't adopted this new format - which means most of them - there are workarounds.
"Aldi's fruit and vegetables are usually the lowest price compared to other grocers, and they rate as good quality, especially if you shop early mornings when stock is full to choose from," says Brent Shelton of money-saving site FatWallet.com. "A good tip to improve shelf life is to make sure you wash any produce as soon as you get home."
Buy Aldi's Name-Brand Knockoffs
You won't find many name brands at Aldi. About 90% of the items it stocks are private-label products wedged into a mere 15,000 square feet of space (about one third the size of a standard supermarket).
Yet, as you walk Aldi's aisles, a lot of the packaging will seem familiar even if the brands aren't. That's not by accident.
"A good majority of Aldi's private-label products are actually name-brand products, just repackaged," says FatWallet's Shelton, "so quality is high, and price is usually lower than the brands available at regular grocers."
Fobes of Pennypinchinmom.com says quality is especially high in Aldi's canned goods, pasta, condiments and almond milk, which is "smooth and creamy, but more affordable."
SEE ALSO: 8 Worst Things to Buy at Dollar Stores
Buy European Novelty Foods and Drinks
Aldi wears its German roots proudly. Look no further than the strudel in the freezer case for proof. You'll find German and other European chocolates on store shelves, too. According to Fobes, specialty chocolates, in general, are among the best things to buy at Aldi because they are "smooth and creamy at a much lower cost than most other stores."
Aldi loyalists also rave about the inexpensive, and interesting, selections of wines and beers, as well as the selections of Italian and French sodas and lemonades. Look for packaged gourmet cheese, too.
Prowl the aisles to find more European products that aren't carried by other U.S. grocers. Keep checking back, since Aldi tends to rotate stock at a high rate. Many products are here today, gone tomorrow.
Buy Organic and Gluten-Free Products
Aldi has been stepping up its game with organic and gluten-free products, especially as it escalates its war on Whole Foods with the redesigned stores.
"They have a huge variety [of organic and gluten-free products]," says Fobes, "which is much less expensive than the name brands."
And if, from a health perspective, you're concerned about the quality of Aldi's private-label foods, there's been a major change over the past year.
Aldi has removed from the majority of its private-label goods such healthy eating no-nos as partially hydrogenated oils and MSG, says Shelton. The company has also removed growth hormones from its dairy products and carries a line of packaged meats labeled "Never Any!" that is free of added antibiotics, hormones and animal by-products.
Don't Buy Anything You Can't Eat or Drink
Savings experts say it's best to steer clear of most toys, home goods, cleaning supplies and other non-food items at Aldi. But if you're tempted - every so often, Aldi will score national-brand products and put what appears to be amazing prices on them - first pull out your smartphone and price-compare.
"Make sure you check the price on these as they tend to be higher prices on lower quality items at Aldi," says Shelton. "Plus, you can often find coupons for these types of items at other stores, even grocers, which would make buying them elsewhere a smart thing to do." Aldi doesn't accept coupons.
When we compared prices on a roll of paper towels, for example, Aldi's price of 99 cents was the same as the price at Giant and Target. However, coupons and loyalty discounts could've brought down the price more at the latter retailers. (Aldi doesn't have a loyalty program, either.)
"Paper products are not always less expensive [at Aldi]," agrees Fobes. "You may find a better deal and quality at the big-box stores."
Copyright 2017 The Kiplinger Washington Editors