The Germans are invading, and I for one am ready to welcome them. Don't be alarmed if their spartan, unsentimental fortresses start popping up in your neighborhood. It may take some time to adjust to the European-style management, but I think we'll find that it's worth the inconvenience. Shock troops from the Rhineland are just what America needs right now: brutally efficient, but surprisingly family-friendly. Willkommen, Deutschlanders!
No, I haven't been binge-watching Man in the High Castle. I've been shopping at Aldi.
Discount grocery stores are exploding here in the U.S., and for good reason. Millions of Americans have decided that it's time to small up and simple down. If that's your life goal, then Aldi is the grocery store for you.
What's so magical about these German outlets? In Aldi's case, the bottom line really is the bottom line. Its business model was developed in post-WWII Germany, when the company's founders, Theo and Karl Albrecht, worked aggressively to supply basic staples to a war-torn society at the lowest possible price. Aldi's customer base has expanded considerably since that time, both in size and in wealth. The obsession with price-slashing has remained, however, as the company's most defining feature. You'll notice it immediately just strolling through the aisles. Stuff is cheap at Aldi. This satisfied customer was able to trim her grocery bill without sacrificing her favorite groceries. For the mother of five hungry boys, that seems almost miraculous.
You might think, based on this description, that Aldi is mainly a refuge for enormous families and cheapskates. That's actually not the case. If you expect your local Aldi to feel like a used car lot, you haven't quite grasped the budget-grocery revolution. Aldi shoppers do like conserving their pennies, but we're also conserving our time, and attention. Many people are attracted to discount grocery shopping for the same reasons that they love Marie Kondo's decluttering, the tiny-house revolution, or Voluntary Simplicity. There's no need to think about brand selection, because they only offer one. Leave your phone in your pocket! Cross-checking prices is pointless, because it's Aldi. If they could sell the product for less, they probably would.
Fifty years ago, housewives like me would probably have rebelled against this model. In those days, budgeting was part of the vocation of a wife and mother. Men had most of the earning power, but women did most of the shopping. Corporations facilitated this arrangement by tailoring their brands to the sensibilities of domestic women, bolstering their sense of purpose and identity. As marketers clearly understood, consumption choices can be empowering, even when the products on offer are substantially similar. For a suburban soccer mom, the daily grind tends to revolve around mundane tasks that meet other people's needs. It's easy to feel that your dreams and personality have gotten lost somewhere between the crock pot and the 43rd spin cycle. Brand choices can help these shoppers recover some sense of individuality. Your hobbies and interests may have gone by the wayside, but as the lady of the household, you get to decide whether to be a Tide or a Cheer family. You pick your bologna's first name.
What changed? Women still do most of the shopping for American families, and we still struggle to maintain a sense of identity. Why do we suddenly want to shop like war-ravaged Germans? As an enthusiastic Aldi shopper, I think the change reflects two larger trends. One is worrisome, but the other is more positive.
The bad news is that cognitive overload is reaching epidemic levels in America today. Ordinary people are becoming overwhelmed by the number of things we're expected to worry about and manage. People have always worried about their health, finances, and voting habits. It's becoming more clear, though, that consumption itself can become quite burdensome, especially if we're feeling constant pressure to make informed and responsible choices. From the coffee shop to the grocery store to our TV streaming services, American adults today are bombarded with more information than we can comfortably process. We're getting burned out, which may be one reason that we're more stressed-out and anxious than the impoverished citizens of the developing world.
Choice can be pleasant, but it can also be exhausting if you're expending all your mental energy selecting a single outfit from an overstuffed closet, or choosing from thousands of tomato soup recipes. Our brains are becoming like offices in which every filing cabinet and desk drawer is hanging open. We're desperate to close some, so we find ourselves yearning for less stuff, smaller spaces, and fewer meaningless consumption choices. A wall of different pasta brands once felt like a luxury, but now it's just another source of stress. Is there a difference between Barilla and Buitoni? Am I a bad person if I don't check? Just sell me some spaghetti, please!
To some extent, corporations themselves have created this problem. They spent decades insinuating their way into our lives through commercial jingles, product placement, and logos plastered on every available surface. Eventually we rebelled, and started flocking to stores like Aldi, which promise to liberate us from the endless maze of trivial decisions.
Cognitive overload isn't just a product of empty consumerism, though. It also stems from more positive changes. Housewives today don't need to define themselves through detergent choices, because technology and cultural change have opened a much richer array of options. At-home mothers have endless opportunities for personal development and self-expression. We're keeping cooking blogs, running Etsy shops, and freelancing as musicians, photographers, or writers. Why invest yourself in brand selection when you could be learning sign language, getting SCUBA certified, or becoming a first-class pastry chef? It's good that we're finding more meaningful ways to express ourselves.
American grocery stores are struggling right now to compete with their German competitors. Expect some disorienting shake-ups in the market. Over the long run, though, American companies should be able to find ways to respond to the demand for high-value, low-stress shopping. Imagine a world in which you could enter your family's information (ages, dietary restrictions, food likes and dislikes) into a database, and allow a computer algorithm to generate your grocery list. Swing through a drive through on the way home from work each night, and peek inside your box to see what's for dinner. The computer has already chosen an appropriate wine pairing for you. You'll love it.
Even if automation doesn't appeal, get used to the idea that budget shopping is no longer just for poor people. People of all income levels are craving the simplicity of tiny stores with a few good products. Aldi may not be your grandmother's grocery store, but it's here to stay. Ich bin ein Berliner! Now, pass me a jelly donut.
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