Grocer stew thickens

Discount chain Aldi plans a fall debut in Tampa Bay.

By MARK ALBRIGHT, Times Staff Writer
Published February 1, 2008

The German grocery chain that redefined frugal food buying, Aldi set the stage Thursday for its September entry in the congested Florida market.

The chain broke ground for a $40-million distribution center in Haines City and mapped its first 25 stores in Central Florida, including the first seven in the Tampa Bay area.

"You can expect to see a lot more," said David Behm, Florida division vice president of the Batavia, Ill., chain. Aldi is the bigger corporate cousin of Trader Joe's, a more eclectic style of budget-priced food store that has moved as far into the Southeast as Atlanta.

While Trader Joe's is a West Coast phenomenon that in recent years brought more easy-to-make meals east into trendy, urban neighborhoods of New York and Washington, D.C., 900-store Aldi grew out of the Midwest as a no-frills option more for the meat-and-potatoes set.

Potted flowers are another signature item. Aldi's version of Trader Joe's $2 Charles Shaw Wine "Two Buck Chuck" to the cognoscente is Winking Owl priced at $2.49 a bottle.

Claiming prices about 15 percent below Wal-Mart or Target Supercenters, the chain is among the few to flourish right in the face of discount store supercenters. It's drugstore-sized stores stock 1 percent of the selection of a Wal-Mart in a tenth of the space.

"We want to be close to where most people shop," said Behm.

Aldi enters a Florida food market fighting to stabilize as Wal-Mart continues to challenge the traditional four big players and feisty natural/gourmet food retailers try to pick off more high-end shoppers.

Aldi most directly challenges Save-A-Lot, another limited-service, no-frills grocer owned by SuperValu Retail Inc., the nation's fifth-largest food retailer, that attracts less than 3 percent of bay area food dollars.

Expect only the basics at Aldi. There's no live lobster tank, or fresh seafood for that matter. There are packaged deli products, baked goods and meats, but no butcher or slicer for custom orders. The produce lineup is an old-school 50 items, so don't ask where they hid the star fruit.

While the 1,300 products (equal to the food selection at Costco) are one brand and usually come in one size, Aldi avoids the bulk volume sizes. It pledges everything is government-rated Grade A, Fancy, Choice or No. 1 quality.

There are other rules to keep costs down and jobs simple. Customers must deposit a quarter for a shopping cart. They get it back when they return it from the parking lot. Shoppers bag their own groceries. To trim costs and discourage waste, there is an incentive to bring your own bags. Paper bags cost a nickel each. Thick plastic ones that can be used over and over for a year or more cost a dime.

Aldi is short hand for AlbrechtDiscount. It's one of the two American wings of the Albrecht family empire that operates more than 5,000 supermarkets in 16 countries. Aldi's sales rose 5.6 percent to $4.7-million in 2007.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Tampa Bay food market share Retailer Share Publix 38.1 percent Wal-Mart 23 percent Sweetbay Supermarkets 12.93 percent Winn-Dixie 8.55 percent Albertsons 7.61 percent Save-A-Lot 2.34 percent Super Target 1.77 percent