Is there hope for good urban Aldi stores?
Both Aldi and Trader Joe's make the most of their square footage, creating worthwhile shopping experiences at around 15,000-18,000 square feet -- quite a contrast with street-killing, 200,000 square foot Wal-Mart superstores.
The stock selection logic at the two German-owned siblings is similar and canny, just adjusted to different points on the price-taste spectrum. Trader Joe's dispenses with almost all name brands, instead selling the impression that everything in the store -- whether it's TJ's brand of olive oil or arugula, exotic imports or its drinkable 2-buck Chuck wine -- is carefully selected by value-obsessed expert tasters. Aldi's product presentation may look random but the store reliably stocks a wide array of its own lookalike brands, all stamped with Aldi's double-money-back satisfaction guarantee. As at its cousin, you get the impression that someone with tastebuds (and an impatience with crap) makes sure that the quality is near to that of brands by Kraft, Smucker's, General Mills, Procter & Gamble. The slightly-less-drinkable wine there is Winking Owl and it really is 2 bucks. If you can put up with ultra-drab decor, long waits behind cupboard-filling customers and paying for bags (or bringing your own) -- it's a satisfying place to save 75c to $1 per item on boxes of cereal, jars of peanuts, jelly, eggs, cat food, garbage bags etc. My wife and I usually take our savings from there and apply them to treats at local bakeries, farmers markets, co-ops or whatever. And there's even fledgling lines of near-gourmet products such as organic chips, fresh salsa, big cartons of plain yogurt.
As Michael Malak has pointed out on the pro-urb listserv, there are plenty of examples of Trader Joe's stores that contribute positively to mixed-use town centers and hot city neighborhoods. Here's an image of one in a town center in St. Louis Park, MN, where the store fronts onto a tamed suburban arterial street.
It's tempting to hope Aldi could perform similarly in more downscale city neighborhoods. The chain is clever in many ways, like a fox in pig's clothing. Its policy of charging 25c for grocery carts, for instance, creates an efficient parking-lot economy that completely eliminates the problem of carts scattered all over the property, or worse, all over the neighborhood. Its store design today screams out its obsession with the bottom line but it could upgrade its urban design without a big financial outlay and send a message about discriminating value that's closer to what the chain is all about.
Thanks to some pressure from city planners, the store nearest me in Milwaukee has no setback and has a few windows on the sidewalk, plus a fairly big parking lot to the side of the building. It's about average for its industrialized, semi-walkable neighborhood. See a not-so-great photo of this not-so-great building, below the image of the MN Trader Joe's. A better urban design effort could help the chain get a warm welcome in a range of city neighborhoods, instead of getting the cold shoulder that Dennis McClendon observed in Chicago.
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