Aldi is a grocery store chain. Its logo of blue letters on an orange background and the accompanying stores can be found all over Germany, in some parts of Eastern Europe and the UK.
However, Aldi is more than just another food store. The true character of the German life-style and zeitgeist (often popularly reduced to the Munich Bier Festival, Schloss Neuschwanstein, the Rhine, and maybe a little Berlin) can be found in much more ordinary places. Aldi is one of them.
Aldi - The Store
The unique concept of Aldi is that they only sell 'no name products'. In contrast to most other stores, they do not put much effort into displaying their goods - usually they just open the boxes and leave it to the customers to empty them. It all adds up so that Aldi is the cheapest food store you can find.
You might think that the products must be of low quality, but this is not necessarily the case. Much of their range is manufactured by well-known food companies, who sell cheaply to Aldi in different packaging. Because Aldi buys in large quantities, the manufacturers can still make a good profit.
A shopping trip to Aldi usually entails picking up large amounts of foodstuff and then waiting for ages in a long line in front of the registers. Aldi cashiers are infamous for their mysterious system of ringing up prices.
Aldi as Marxism
Considering that the former East Germany1 failed to survive as a socialist society, it is perhaps slightly ironic that the capitalist system of West Germany generated Aldi as an institution that democratises consumer products. Aldi products are made available to the proletarian masses; luxury goods becoming the 'property of the people'. Sure, you still need money to pay, but considerably less than you had to pay to get the same merchandise in East Germany.
Among its other luxuries, Aldi sells champagne for New Year's Eve, salmon, and a wide variety of wines, sports gear, and even computers.
Aldi as Shared Memories
Aldi is probably one of the few experiences that is shared by a majority of Germans. In our modern times, to have such a 'shared experience' is quite rare because our modern times are characterised by individualisation, mobility, flexibility, differentiation and the downfall of large communities such as the churches, political parties, work unions, and even the demise of smaller communities like clubs and families. Perhaps it would be going too far to talk about an 'Aldi community', but memories link people together.
Many young German adults probably share the experience of camping with Aldi's Mexikanischer Feuertopf2, or childhood memories of the watery orange juice, or of their potato chips.
Some Aldi products get elevated beyond their basic value as food items to something with cult status. A tin of Mexikanischer Feuertopf can bring back memories and emotions which are not at all justifiable on the basis of the can's content.
Aldi as Postmodernism - The Consumer Fights Back
Indeed, memories are part of the reason why Aldi is frequented not only by the poor but also by the not-so-poor. It must be pure frustration for all the advertisers who put so much effort into attaching images of success and social status to their products, and then watch masses of people trooping to Aldi.
Of course, most people, including students, parents, pensioners, and immigrants go to Aldi because it is cheap, and there are numerous stereotypes about the average Aldi customer. Nevertheless, a book of recipes called Aldi dente and the self-confident proclamations of trendy people as Aldi customers, point to the fact that shopping there is seen by some as a sort of revolutionary act against the mainstream consumer culture, an act of freedom to choose and power to decide against an advertised ideal. In this respect, Aldi provides a wonderful playground for consumer anarchists.