Store check report executed and written by: Su-Jit Lin
Aldi is a cult-favorite store known for its low prices and special offers
What started as a single grocery store in Germany in the early 1900s has become a prolific budget discount chain in America. The two brothers behind the store split it into Nord (north) and Süd (south) in the 1960s following a debate about whether they should sell cigarettes. The Aldi Nord group acquired Trader Joe's and not operate under the Aldi brand in the US. The Aldi Süd group owns and operates more than 2,000 Aldi stores in the US.
The US Aldis are beloved for their limited selections and reliable, cheap house-brand staples with no synthetic colors, added MSG, or partially hydrogenated oils.
Its white-private label branded products are often manufactured by national brands that cost two or three times as much. Fans also love the Aldi Savers specials, its "lowest of low prices" offers and Aldi Finds, seasonal items that are available for only two weeks.
Lidl is a quickly growing discount retail chain with low prices
A relative upstart, dating to 1973 in Ludwigshafen, Germany, Lidl reached the US in 2017.
The chain has opened 100 stores across the East Coast, with plans to open 50 more by the end of 2021 and a fourth distribution center in Covington, Georgia, by 2022.
Like Aldi, Lidl promises a limited selection of high-quality, brand-agnostic products at discount prices, and an unfussy shopping experience.
The discounter chains have a few things in common
Other than German roots and a business structure centering cheap, own private-label goods, their similarities include:
Display-ready case packaging to save on labor costs.
Premium product lines (Aldi's Specially Selected and Lidl's Preferred Selection).
Confidence in its brands via Aldi's "Twice as Nice Guarantee" and Lidl's "Love It Guarantee." In both cases, if you don't like a store-private label brand item, you can get your money back and exchange it for the same product or a comparable one.
To eliminate any unfair advantages, since many of Lidl's locations are new, I visited two established Aldis, a newer Lidl, and a Lidl that was retrofitted to a discounter. All were in the Atlanta suburbs.
Keep reading to see how the in-store shopping experiences compared.
I visited Aldi with a quarter in hand so I could use a shopping cart
This Aldi was in a strip mall. In a nook by the entrance were rows of neatly nested full-sized shopping carts, which require a quarter to unlock. You get the quarter back when you return your cart.
A sign explained that the deposit incentivized shoppers to return their carts instead of dangerously cluttering the parking lot and creating a job the store would need to hire for.
Inside, I felt visually overloaded and like I was in an auditory vacuum
The lack of white noise or background music was off-putting, there was a kind of soundproof feeling that pressed on my ears, broken only by the slightest hint of a hum from the fluorescent lights hung from drop ceilings.
In contrast to this void was a visual assault led by the dirty-looking gold-and-cream speckled floor tile. I stepped in the store and was hit with a barrage of junk food in my line of vision. A glance to the side provided a bit more framing, with metal railings separating the entrance and exit areas. The store felt eerie. Down the first aisle, I encountered all manner of snacks: nuts, cookies, crackers, chips, and candy.
The first aisle in this Aldi was loaded with snacks. The brands included Clancy's for salty snacks, Savoritz for crackers, Benton's for cookies and sweet baked goods, Southern Grove for nuts, Simply Nature for seemingly healthy snacks, and Lunch Buddies for fruit snacks and puddings. Right after this aisle of temptation was another: the alcohol selection, which was varied and cheap. Vista Bay is Aldi's line of hard seltzers. Aldi's Vista Bay hard seltzers were on display, though there weren't any beers or cocktail mixers. There were a ton of affordable wine options, including Aldi's Winking Owl label that's usually under US$3. The section was very well-stocked.
Aldi had so much wine. Confusingly, the next section had protein bars and supplements, cereal, breakfast items like syrup and pancake mix, peanut butters, and salad dressings. Aldi also had some familiar labels. Many of Aldi's brands such as Millville, Aunt Maple's, Baker's Treat, and Tuscan Garden, closely resembled its national producers, which felt reassuring.
At the end of the aisle was an endcap of coffee and a dairy case lining the short back wall
The store had a few coffee varieties. The store had its own versions of K-cups, bags of ground coffee, hot-cocoa mix, and espresso powder. At the back of the store was a giant dairy section with gallons of conventional milk at roughly half the cost of supermarket brands.
Aldi's dairy selection was massive. All of the containers were labeled Friendly Farms to match the rest of Aldi's dairy selection of nondairy milks, creamers, yogurt, cottage cheese, and the like. Mixed in were some recognizable brands: Lifeway kefir, Chobani, and Dannon offshoots. I noticed Aldi sold some name-brand yogurts too. Eggs followed, at US$2.79 for an organic dozen and US$2.95 for 32 ounces of whites. Juices by Nature's Nectar kept the breakfast theme going, and there was a small selection of Happy Farms shredded cheeses for US$2.79 a bag.
Bacon and sausages were on this back wall, including options from Aldi's Never Any brand of meats without added hormones, steroids, and antibiotics, followed by Little Salad Bar bagged and chopped salads for US$2 or US$3.
Open chilled shelving had cold cuts, take-and-bake pizzas, and sausages
I saw plenty of packages of sliced cold cuts, Lunchables, and take-and-bake pizzas. At the end of this wall, the meats started … and ended. The meat selection didn't impress me. This section was mostly popular cuts of chicken, beef, and pork. I also noticed a few pieces of salmon.
I thought the meats weren't much cheaper than sale prices at conventional grocery stores. I wasn't blown away by Aldi's meat prices either. In an adjacent case, an assortment of cheeses seemed promising but upon closer inspection had mostly ordinary blocks, singles, cream cheeses, and nicer versions of some common specialty cheeses like mozzarella, cheddar, and Havarti. Aldi is said to have a unique and cheap cheese selection, but I didn't see evidence of that in either store. The seasonal cheeses must have sold out fast or been underordered.
I made my way to the back aisles, where nothing really made sense
The aisle right behind the snacks aisle had a mishmash of paper towels, melting cheese, lightbulbs, and socks.
This Aldi aisle made no sense to me. A small baking section with products labeled Baker's Corner offered cake, cookie, muffin, and biscuit mixes, including a rosemary-garlic version I hadn't seen from any other brand. There was name-brand representation from Betty Crocker, Jiffy, and Bisquick.
There were, somehow, more snacks and beans
As I kept walking, I got more confused. I found single-portion nuts and applesauce containers among croutons, shelf-stable iced lattes, juice blends, cheese curls, and a couple of cases of beans.
Across from that randomness was a small seasonal section that segued into limited-edition items, where it got even more confusing. This is where you can score Aldi Finds, two-week promotional products that could become part of the permanent rotation based on their performance. Aldi Finds are popular among shoppers who love the chain. I guess this was the "stumble-upon" area, the shelves you wander aimlessly until find yourself clutching unheard-of food items and homewares you didn't know you needed. Continuing on, I hit the canned goods, which felt more familiar and reasonable, exciting, even, at only US$0.50 for most items and US$0.89 for organic ones. I noticed, though, that the prices of canned veggies varied by US$0.39 from one Aldi to the other, even though the locations were close.
Aldi's canned goods were nice and cheap.
The produce section in the middle of the store felt like a plastic-filled afterthought
A rule of thumb for healthy grocery shopping is to "shop the perimeter," where dairy, fruits, veggies, and fresh-baked items are typically found. But you can throw this out the window at Aldi: The produce was smack-dab in the middle like an afterthought. Aldi's produce was in the middle of the store. In the produce section, freshness and stock seemed to be lacking in both Aldi stores I visited. If there's one thing even the most devout Aldi lover would admit, it's that the greens could use some sprucing.
The Aldi produce selection was lacking. The produce items were wrapped in plastic at room temperature, so I wasn't surprised that the section looked kind of sad. Aldi's produce was kept at room temperature. I felt like I could tell which cases were recent arrivals, and though some of the more resilient items, like root vegetables, hard fruits, and cabbages, were in tip-top shape, it was pretty hit or miss. Also, all that plastic packaging made me cringe. I get that it's neater and more sanitary to have fewer hands on your food, but not being able to pick my own broccoli felt weird. Few things were priced by the pound, but for those that were, an ancient-looking scale sat at the ready.
The bread section was cheap and had plenty of options
Aldi's bread selection was killer and cheap. Aldi's brand L'oven blew me away with its many types of bagels, thins, rolls, and loaves of sliced bread, as cheap as US$0.55 for white and US$0.59 for split wheat. I was impressed by the Fit & Active low-calorie, low-carb loaf of bread for just US$1.79. The chain's wide-pan whole-grain breads were only US$1.25, which is amazing when you consider a similar loaf can cost over US$3. Aldi had some fancier-looking options, like brioche buns. Where L'oven ended was where Bake Shop Bakery began, with packaged muffins, pudding cakes, doughnuts, and sweet-loaf slices.
Aldi's Specially Selected line offered brioche, naan, and other global treats. Aldi also had naan, bagels, and croissants. Then I hit a wall with Aldi's LiveGFree gluten-free crackers, mac and cheese, organic brown rice and quinoa, muffins, snack bars, bread, and baking mixes. But beneath that were a bunch of gluten-containing offerings, like keto bread, pitas, and Hawaiian rolls, making this feel like another afterthought or overflow corner.
Some frozen-food options seemed perfect for smaller households
The frozen section was well stocked. Along the frozen-food wall I found raw meats like chicken, beef, and ground turkey; a good selection of processed chicken products like Kirkwood patties, nuggets, and strips; and Fremont Fish Market flounder, salmon, ahi tuna, fish sticks, and shrimp.
Most of this seafood was packaged for smaller households, but when I broke down the package prices by pound, I realized they cost the same as, if not more than, what you'd pay at conventional supermarkets.
A center case had a few frozen potato items, basic pizzas by Mama Cozzi's Pizza Kitchen, and flatbreads and other pizzas by Specially Selected. Other frozen-meal options included Fusia for stir-frys and sushi, Casa Mamita for Mexican dishes, and Bremer for lasagna rolls, sandwiches, meatballs, and shepherd's pie.
There was only one center freezer section like this in the store.
Dessert was relegated to only three doors, with cheesecake bites, popsicles, and a few types of ice cream by Belmont and keto-friendly, high-protein pints from Sundae Shop.
Aldi had some fun frozen desserts. Mochi ice creams, Oreo-type ice-cream sandwiches, and macarons were a pleasant surprise.
Back in the regular aisles, I found some essentials
The toiletries included national brands like Listerine, Pantene, and Head & Shoulders, but these were smaller packages priced noncompetitively and relegated to an endcap. Most of the toiletries at Aldi seemed to be name-brand. Around the corner I found the paper goods I had thought were missing when I first encountered paper towels in the store. Sundry cleaning items followed, with products from Aldi's brands Boulder and Radiance and national ones like Dawn, Cascade, and Fabuloso, as well as plant-based cleaners from newer entrants like Boulder Clean.
I wasn't expecting to find paper goods here. I hit the last of the pantry-fillers: canned soups, pasta and sauces, instant potatoes, and rice. If you want rice, you have a few kinds to choose from. If you want pasta, you get the standard handful of shapes, however, I did appreciate the uncommon black-soybean spaghetti.
Aldi's rice selection was awesome, but its pasta section was lacking. Tomato sauces were run-of-the-mill. Condiments and specialty sauces must have been scattered throughout the store; I didn't find them here.
Checking out was much more efficient than shopping at Aldi
Aldi's checkout process was so fast. Every Aldi lets cashiers sit. They load a cart at the end of the conveyor with your just-scanned items.
They do this tremendously quickly, aided by long barcodes designed for easier scanning. Cashiers at Aldi were allowed to sit. Aldi charges for bags, so be sure to bring your own. After paying, you take the full cart and swap it with your own empty one (or grab your stuff if your shopping day was light), then snag a spot on the long counters by the exit to bag your groceries. Aldi had a counter near the exit where you could load up your bags.
Lidl's exterior was impressive.
Lidl's new freestanding stores are distinctive with glass facades, trapezoidal roof lines, and higher-end interior fittings.
Lidl brings these unique interior details with them when moving into grocery stores that are already standing, which is why it can take the chain more time to renovate. Lidl differs from its European counterparts in that its US stores are about twice the size and offer nearly triple the products, with a greater emphasis on organic and locally sourced ones.
Lidl had carts in 2 sizes for smaller shops and big hauls
Its carts didn't require a deposit and were available in full and half sizes. Some locations even have miniature carts for children. Lidl had two cart sizes. There was also a station stocked with sanitizing spray, paper towels, and gloves.
Upon entering, I felt lightness and brightness
An airy vestibule had special buys stacked against wallpapered faux-rustic walls. The Lidl entrance was kind of comforting. The high ceilings and nearly floor-to-ceiling windows, polished concrete floors, and bright-white track lighting felt industrial chic. The openness and modern ruggedness recalled trendy loft housing designs.
The Lidl felt comfortable and homey. And maybe because of the open-rafter acoustics, the lack of music wasn't immediately noticeable, there was white noise and ambient rustling.
A metal divider separated the exit path from the entry and was lined by a garden area with small plants and bouquets.
The first thing I saw was a gardening section. The next thing I saw was a bustling produce section. Unlike Aldi, where I was thrust into a shopping aisle, Lidl had an expanse for you to catch your breath and survey the space.
In the newer stores, you can go right to the greens or hug the wall to peruse baked goods. I was also greeted by Lidl's produce. Though not every Lidl has the same layout, the chain has aisle signage and categories, which I sorely missed at Aldi.
Lidl's bakery section blew me away
By the front door was a display of mass-produced baked goods, like cookies, two-bite cupcakes, brownies, pies, and tray danishes.
Lidl had some classic American and European treats. In addition to stocking American basics, Lidl gave a nod to its European roots with imported treats like Swiss loaves, sponge cakes, and seasonal baked goods. Fresh-baked items are part of what has made Lidl such an impressive newcomer, viennoiseries, artisan breads, oversized cookies, yeast doughnuts, and more are made on site. It also had incredibly moist muffins (I ate three in bed in one night) and iced cinnamon rolls delivered from its distribution centers. The bakery section blew me away. The selection of pastry items was wide. Croissants had different percentages of butter or fillings such as almond or chocolate. Some offerings were European specialties.
Lidl had tons of pastries and breads. Lidl's ciabattas, focaccias, and rustic loaves came in a nice variety and could be sliced to order. Day-old breads were 30% off. These kinds of bins were found throughout the store to help shoppers make the most of already low prices. I also loved Lidl's clearance bin for items about to become stale. On the next wall, Lidl had its own branded rolls, bagels, and sandwich breads alongside breads from King's Hawaiian, Dave's Killer Bread, Nature's Own, and Martin's, and lavash and naan from Atoria's. The prices were low: US$0.59 for white bread, US$1.25 for wide-pan multigrain loaves, US$1 and change for bagels, and US$2.29 for brioche.
Conveniently next to the bread were spreads like peanut butter, honey, European jams, and more. Conveniently, popular bread toppers were up next. This wall shared an aisle with the produce, lit up to make the greens pop as they do at high-priced organic markets.
Lidl's produce section was way bigger than Aldi's and had less plastic
This produce display at Lidl reminded me of Aldi. In the middle section I found bags of produce in the boxes they were shipped in, similar to how Aldi stocks its fruits and vegetables. Aldi had a lot of options. The selection was bigger and more diverse than what I found at Aldi, with rows devoted to several types of apples, potatoes, onions, and tomatoes. Many organic vegetables were available too.
While I could select some vegetables, like broccoli, melons, some tomatoes, and cabbages most were already neatly bagged, with a less jarring amount of plastic than at Aldi. Lidl also had salad kits and leaf mixes to rival any conventional supermarket, with prices on par with the best sales. Most were under the Lidl or Lidl Organic labels, with appearances by Dole and Taylor Farms. Lidl's bagged salads were pretty affordable.
Trail mixes, dried fruit, and nuts rounded out this section of Lidl
The nuts were a mix of brands and quality. I've had a few stale nuts from the store but used my "Love It Guarantee" to get a refund. Lidl had quite a selection of nuts. Some nuts were in a bulk dispenser like you'd see in a Whole Foods. An assortment of coffee and tea ended the aisle. Lidl also had a lot of coffees and teas.
Continuing on, I saw impressive displays of raw and prepared seafood and meats
Lidl prides itself on its salmon selection; all the packages were stamped with their country of origin. Atlantic, Chilean, Norwegian, farmed, marinated, cedar-planked I found it all, with one variety or another on sale. Many were in vacuum-sealed packs. Lidl's salmon selection was impressive. There was cod, whiting, flounder, mahi-mahi, and other popular white fish, plus bay and sea scallops, a fantastic score on sale. Bagged shrimp in different sizes were in the vicinity, but the per-pound pricing wasn't quite as competitive.
The meat section was also great. Lidl's steaks were individually packed, perfect for smaller households or stocking in a freezer. Unlike at Aldi, meat was easy to buy in bulk at Lidl, with cheap whole loins of pork, beef, and even turkey. Aldi's pork selection was a little more varied with better value than what I saw here, but Lidl had some recognizable brands including Premio and Johnsonville. I recognized a few brands Lidl was selling.
Open chillers were loaded with juices, cold cuts, cheeses, and more
The in-wall open chillers started with a section for seasonal items like holiday cookies and rolls.
There were lots of refrigerated beverages, such as juices, espresso drinks, kombucha, and iced tea. These shelves had a range of stuff, from kombucha to pickles. Then came enormous take-and-bake pizzas (think what you might find at Costco) plus fresh ravioli, stromboli, sushi, and deli sides. The take-and-bake pizzas were massive. Completing that wall was a greater range of cold cuts, shredded cheeses (US$2.79, same as Aldi), and sliced cheeses (under US$2). I recognized brands like Oscar Mayer and Hillshire Farms next to Lidl's own lines.
Lidl's lunch-meat selection was impressive. Lidl had bulk and smaller packs of cheese with different qualities and price tiers, from budget-friendly resealable packs of slices to fancy-sounding blocks. I appreciated some of the specialty imports and the fun regional American items like cheese curds and string cheese. Lidl had unique cheeses, which I appreciated.
The dairy section was excellent and quite large
The section started with typical and gourmet cheeses and kept impressing me as I made my way down the wall. The butter offerings included alternatives, name brands, and Irish and European styles. There were different flavored and textured cream cheeses, plus yogurts from multiple brands made with milk, almonds, or soy.
Lidl's dairy selection blew me away. The nondairy alternatives carried over into the creamers and milks, which were conventionally packaged and cheap, at US$1.32 for a gallon and US$0.75 for a half. Organic milk was US$2.89. In the well-stocked egg section, a quart of liquid whites was only US$2.25, less than half conventional-brand prices and 18 cage-free eggs cost US$3.29.
I reached a corner with name brands and premade foods
This section was as fun and full of surprises as Trader Joe's frozen-foods area. I found box meals from Boston Market and Lean Cuisine; snacks from national favorites like White Castle, Hot Pockets, and Super Pretzel; regional snacks like toasted ravioli; a