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All Contents © 2019The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Bob Niedt, Online Editor
| April 4, 2019
Aldi is rapidly expanding in the U.S. Already, the no-frills German supermarket chain has nearly 1,800 stores in 35 states offering super-low prices on brand-name knockoffs. Indeed, 90% of Aldi's products are exclusive store brands, and many mimic the packaging and taste of national brands. We found several great items at Aldi that deserve a spot on your grocery list based on quality or value -- or both.
But after checking in with shopping experts, as well doing comparison-shopping (and taste-testing) on our own at stores in Northern Virginia, we found that some deals at Aldi aren't worth it. First, brand-name knockoffs don't always taste as good as the real deal. Second, Aldi doesn't accept manufacturers' coupons or offer a loyalty program. That means you can find certain brand-name products at other retailers at comparable prices to Aldi's knockoffs once you factor in sales, coupons and loyalty perks. We also found some surprising price increases since we last dove into the best and worst things to buy at the deep-discounter. Take a look at what to buy -- and what to avoid -- at Aldi.
Aldi rotates seasonal items in and out depending on the time of year. In early spring, it's all about Easter. Aldi spotlights seasonal deals under its "Aldi Finds" banner. For example, nab a Huntington Home tin Easter Basket for $1.99 and pad it with Huntington Home Easter egg and grass assortments ($1.99). Then, fill the basket with Hasbro spring Play-Doh in $3.99 packs, a Bee Happy Easter animal plush ($3.99) and a Bendon Magic Ink coloring pad featuring those pups from the red hot "Paw Patrol" ($3.99).
If your family is sticking to some Easter dining traditions, the price may be right for you at Aldi. For example, an Appleton Farms spiral-sliced half ham was selling for $1.69 a pound in portions averaging $16-$18. Walmart was selling its house brand Sam's Choice spiral cut hams for $2.20 per pound.
Under the Baker's Corner store brand, Aldi was selling a 32-ounce bag of brown sugar for $1.29 (down in package size by nearly an ounce compared to last year); a four-pound bag of pure cane sugar for $1.99 (up 30 cents); and a five-pound bag of all-purpose flour for $1.15, pennies cheaper than a year ago. By comparison, Giant sometimes charged double the price (or more) for comparable brand-name baking products: $1.99 for a 32-ounce bag of Domino light brown sugar (that was selling for $2.69 a year ago); $2.79 for a four-pound bag of Domino pure cane sugar; and $3.19 for a five-pound bag of Pillsbury Best all-purpose flour. Aldi's 16.9-ounce award-winning Carlini extra-virgin olive oil was selling for $2.99 versus $9.59 for the same size bottle of Bertolli EVOO at Giant.
"Flour, sugar, oils are all great quality and priced very well," says Tracie Fobes, a money-saving expert at PennyPinchinMom.com. "The only time when the regular store may be a better deal [than Aldi] is around holidays when they often have rock-bottom prices on baking products."
You can snag a 20-ounce loaf of Aldi's L'oven Fresh white bread for just 85 cents. That same size loaf of bread at Walmart sells for 88 cents, under the Great Value store brand. Giant was offering a 22-ounce loaf of its store brand white bread for $1.89.
Don't want to spend your bread on white bread? Aldi offers a variety of German breads selling for $2.29 for 17.6-ounce loaves.
You'll find national brands of cheese at Aldi alongside store-brand cheeses. A 12-ounce, 16-slice package of Kraft American white cheese was selling at Aldi for $3.67. Giant stocks the same Kraft cheese but charges $4.29.
"Aldi offers a wide variety of quality cheese products and prices that can blow away your local grocery store," says Fobes. "In one example, we found Baby Bel cheese for $3 at Aldi, and it was more than $7 at our local grocery store for the exact same product."
In addition, Cindy Livesey, founder of the bargain-hunting website LivingRichWithCoupons.com, recommends Aldi's cream cheeses and shredded cheeses.
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."
Sweet treats come and go. In December we found German holiday specialties including Winternacht solid and hollow chocolates, chocolate Santa figurines, Merci European chocolate, Witor's pralines, Choceur chocolate coins, Ferrero Rocher chocolates, Rolo candies, Winternacht marzipan logs and Duca Reserva panettone.
For the Easter season, Aldi offers everything from Egg Hunt Kisses ($2.15 for 11 ounces) and Whoppers Robin Eggs ($2.49 for 10-ounces) to Easter Bunny Pez dispensers ($1.49 with packets of Pez) and Reese's Peanut Butter eggs ($3.29 for six pieces).
Even better: Choceur Chocolate Surprise Eggs filled with European assorted chocolates ($4.99 for 12.35 ounces) and Moser Roth fine German chocolates, including its Finest Easter Egg varieties, $2.99 for 4.3 ounces.
Yep, ketchup. Aldi's signature Burman's tomato ketchup was selling for $1.19 for a 38-ounce bottle. Walmart was selling a 32-ounce bottle of its own Great Value ketchup for $1.32.
And not only is Aldi's store-brand ketchup significantly cheaper than national brands, it "tastes as good as, if not better than, the big-name bottles," says Fobes.
Milk prices have shot up in our Aldi price comparisons compared to a year ago. Recently, Aldi was selling a gallon of its Friendly Farms brand whole milk for $2.48 (it was $1.49 last year). Still, that price was slightly less than the $2.53 that Walmart was charging for a gallon of its Great Value brand whole milk. At Giant, a comparable gallon of whole milk went for $3.29, up from $2.79 last year.
Note that these prices are for conventional milk. Organic milk costs more. As for taste? We couldn't detect any difference between the milk brands.
Aldi was selling a 12.5-ounce jar of 100% pure maple syrup for $5.99 under its Specially Selected store brand. That's not cheap, though less expensive than a year ago. You can buy a bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup for a fraction of that price.
So why did Aldi's syrup make our list? Quality. The lone ingredient listed for Specially Selected 100% Pure Maple Syrup: pure maple syrup. There's no added sugar or color. By contrast, the main ingredients for Aunt Jemima are corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, water, cellulose gum and caramel color -- and it's made using genetic engineering, according to the label. Livesey, of LivingRichWithCoupons.com, is a fan of Aldi syrup, not only for the taste but also for the smaller bottle size. Unless you're Buddy the Elf, you probably don't consume a lot.
Aldi sells its line of Stonemill spices for 95 cents per container (down from 99 cents last year), including a 2.7-ounce container of garlic powder and a 2.12-ounce container of paprika. That's a significant savings over national brands. A 3.12-ounce container of McCormick garlic power, for example, was selling for $3.99 at Giant (that's down in price by 20 cents a year ago, but also down from last year's container size of 3.4 ounces).
One caveat when it comes to Aldi spices: "Great prices but limited assortment," says Livesey.
"They have an amazing assortment of wines that taste absolutely wonderful -- and you'll love the prices," Fobes says of Aldi. "I am a big fan of the Winking Owl moscato -- one of my favorites."
Winking Owl is Aldi's answer to the "Two Buck Chuck" wines produced by Charles Shaw that originally sold at Trader Joe's for just $2 a bottle. Today, Aldi's store-brand Winking Owl varieties, including chardonnay, pinot grigio, shiraz, zinfandel, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, sell for $2.89. And they're not bad. You can watch one of the many reviews of Winking Owl wines on YouTube if you don't believe us.
Walmart now has its own line of private label wines called Winemakers Selection and selling for about $11 per bottle. The brand is in approximately 1,100 Walmart stores nationwide, though we didn't find any in the wine aisle of the two Northern Virginia stores we shopped.
You'd expect a German grocer to carry European-brewed beers. Aldi doesn't disappoint.
The beer selection, like most of the products carried by Aldi, isn't deep: A few well-selected brands in six-packs. But for the most part, Aldi shines in this department. Its six-packs of Broegel Bock Beer go for $6.99, not bad for an imported beer. Brewed in Belgium, this bock scores a 3.8 on a scale of 5 as rated by Beer Advocate.
Also on tap in select Aldi stores is Licher Weizen, a wheat beer selling for $6.49 a six pack. And for six bucks, pick up six-packs of Wernesgruner Pilsner, a German lager imported to the U.S. just for Aldi. This pilsner, from a brewery founded in 1436, is tagged a "buy it" by the Chicago Tribune, which called it "full bodied, with a pleasant muscular bite and crisp bitter edge" and noted it was preferable to Heineken or Stella. It's also less expensive.
The Trib's beer guru also liked Aldi's Kinroo Blue ($6.49), another exclusive aimed at Blue Moon fans. It's a Belgium wit "boasting fairly rich and silky texture, with orange peel notes that lurch into orange sherbet overtones."
Aldi doesn't just excel at knockoffs of U.S. grocery products. Aldi also carves a niche with imported German products you won't find at your American supermarket chains. We previously noted the German chocolates, beer and bread (marketed under Aldi's proprietary Deutsche Kuche label). Don't overlook the flavored spaetzles, German-style pickles, apple strudel and unique snacks that waver off the dreary chips and pretzels route.
The fun part of finding these products is the discovery. Unlike most U.S. groceries, Aldi doesn't relegate its German imports to one section of one aisle. You'll find them scattered throughout the store, from the bakery to the freezer cases.
You won't find a full-service deli in Aldi stores, which are self-serve. But you will find Aldi's new Park Street Deli line of packaged, refrigerated products. There's a wide range of fresh (and for the most part, healthy) items: kosher dill pickle spears or half sour whole pickles ($3.79 for 32 ounces); Park Street Greek feta or provolini antipasto salads ($2.99 for 7 ounces); and guacamole ($3.49 for 16 ounces).
Getting raves from CookingLight was Park Street Deli hummus cups, portioned servings in packages of six mini-cups for $2.99.
If you're looking at straight-up everyday prices on cereal, Aldi's private-label Millville cereal is hard to beat. Millville's Raisin Bran, a knockoff of Kellogg's Raisin Bran, sells for $1.99 for a 18.7-ounce box. Walmart sells a comparable box of Kellogg's Raisin Bran for $2.65 for 27.1 ounces. But $2.65 is the everyday price. Most grocers run frequent sales on cereal. Plus, cereal manufacturers are generous with their percent-off and dollar-amount-off coupons. Check coupon websites or sign up with manufacturers on social media.
"You can often find better deals on name-brand cereals at your local store when combining coupons and sales," says Fobes.
Of course Aldi wants to corner the market on soda. It's a huge, profitable sector of the supermarket business, and Aldi is skilled at mimicking brand lines and labels.
Aldi even carries a wide lineup of Coca-Cola products at reasonable prices. But proceed with caution in this area of the store: the knockoffs aren't great tasting. And if you're leaning toward the brand-name Coke products, you'll likely do better, especially in the warmer months, at conventional supermarkets. Soda is heavily discounted and manufacturer coupons are typically flush in the summer.
Buying deodorant at Aldi didn't pass our sniff test. Selection was thin, and, going against the grain of the Aldi model, there were only national brands available. And you can often score a better price on those national brands at a drugstore by combining manufacturers' coupons with loyalty deals (think: CVS's ExtraCare program or Walgreens' Balance Rewards program, both free to join).
"You can do much better at your local drugstores with a promotion and coupon than buying [deodorant] at Aldi," says Livesey.
Say no to store-brand napkins and paper towels from Aldi, says Livesey. Paper products from Aldi's Boulder line can feel flimsier than national brands, and sales and coupons can make national brands including Bounty competitive in price. Even without a sale, we found comparable rolls of paper towels selling for the same price at Target and Aldi.
"Paper products are not always less expensive [at Aldi]," agrees Fobes. "You may find a better deal and quality at the big-box stores."
Don't get yourself in a lather over buying shampoo at Aldi. Like deodorant, selection is limited to a few national brands. You could do better with sales and coupons at your local drugstore.
Alternatively, pick up shampoo in bulk for less at big-box retailers including Target and Walmart, or at a warehouse club such as Costco or BJ's. Big bottles of name brands including Pantene or Head & Shoulders can be found for $10 or less.
Our savings experts are on the fence about buying meats at Aldi. "When they have a meat on a promotion it's a good price, but their overall prices on meat are higher [than some competitors]," says Livesey. Unlike Trader Joe's, which never puts items on sale, Aldi does offer weekly specials on select products.
Fobes agrees: "Aldi is great when you need chicken and it is not on sale at your local store," she says. "However, time it properly and you will find better deals at your grocery store."
When it comes to produce, we'll admit that Aldi has made progress. Not long ago, fruits and vegetables were sold unrefrigerated straight from the boxes they were shipped in. That's still true in some older stores, but in new and newly remodeled stores produce that benefits from cool storage, including leafy greens, is now sold from refrigerated cases.
However, some Aldi shoppers still avoid buying produce. Our recent experiences support their reluctance. On one visit to Aldi we saw damaged loose apples and packages of organic tomatoes that were already soft. Seemingly good lemons we purchased turned brown after a day.
"While [produce] is priced lower than regular stores, sometimes it is already ripe or going past ripe at the time of purchase," says Fobes. "Carefully look over each produce item before you buy, and then consume it soon so it does not go bad."
Some Aldi cheerleaders really dig the salty snacks sold under Aldi's various store brands, with packaging that is stunningly similar to those of national brands, right down to color schemes and typefaces. Chips fans hail the Clancy's kettle chips, dead ringers for the Cape Cod potato chips stocked in supermarkets. The price is right, too. An 8.5-ounce bag of Clancy's chips sells for $1.39, versus $2.88 for a 14-ounce bag of Cape Cod chips at Walmart (and $3.79 at Giant).
Intrigued, we took the bait and picked up a bag of Aldi's nacho cheese flavored tortilla chips (targeting Doritos fans), which was selling for 89 cents for an 11-ounce bag. We compared it to a slightly under-10-ounce bag of Doritos nacho cheese chips, selling for $2.98 at Wal-Mart. The verdict in our personal taste test: Aldi mimicked the packaging, but not the product. The nacho-nothing chips weren't worth the $2.09 savings to us. Hey, when the chips are down, you gotta pony up.