Mastercheap: Would Aldi Make A Difference?

Since I announced the Mastercheap project and revealed my shopping list, there's been a steady stream of comments suggesting that I could have gotten myself a much better deal by shopping at Aldi. While there's no denying the chain's low pricing, for the purposes of this project Aldi doesn't scrub up any better than its rivals.

Picture by lilcrabbygal

For a brand that only started operations in Australia in 2001 and still hasn't left the east coast, Aldi has done a pretty good job of expanding -- it now operates more than 200 stores -- and impressing its low-priced brand image onto the country.

A big part of Aldi's budget strategy is minimising choice: for most products, you only get the option of its house brands. Like Woolworths and Coles, it also offers bargain-priced and premium house brand items, though not across all categories and almost invariably only in a single size. One consequence of that approach is that in many cases that means buying goods in bulk quantities, and that was something I noted in my initial post as not being a particularly useful choice when you're on a fixed budget with an empty pantry but want as much variety as possible.

Given how many people have suggested that I short-changed myself by shopping at Woolworths rather than Aldi, though, it's worth revisiting a couple of points. The first is to emphasise that when I did my initial thinking on this topic, a process that started about three months back, I went through the stores of every major supermarket brand -- Woolworths, Coles, Franklins, IGA and Aldi -- and noted down all the cheap options that they had.

The conclusion I drew about Aldi was that it offered the same cheap prices on many of the staples as its rivals. It wasn't any more expensive, but it wasn't any cheaper either. Careful price matching is obviously going on through all the supermarkets on their bargain ranges: if you want to buy a store-brand container of "table spread", it will cost you $1.09.

The other thing I noticed was outside those everybody-sells them options, Aldi didn't have as many unusual low-priced items in small sizes as some of its rivals. In large part, that was because it didn't have as many items, period. That meant it was certainly competitive, but it didn't offer a massively different range of choices, and didn't always have the sizes that made sense for my needs. Add to that the fact my nearest store is a 30 minute walk away, and there was no compelling reason to choose it as my shopping destination.

However, given the objections I've been hearing this week, this morning I went to an Aldi store and compared the specific pricing for what I've bought for Mastercheap with what Aldi had on offer. As I'd found before, for the vast majority of items on the list -- bread, eggs, milk, margarine, pasta, frozen vegetables -- Aldi had exactly the same options for exactly the same price.

There was just one notable item that was ridiculously cheaper: a box of 100 tea bags for $0.99. (Aldi also had a $2.29 box that matched the price I paid for tea earlier this week). I don't recall seeing this bargain during my initial research (and tea was one of the items I specifically checked), which could mean either it's a new addition or the store I visited was out of stock at the time.

At this budget level, an extra $1.30 would certainly be welcome (it'd get me a couple of pieces of fresh fruit, for example). However, that advantage would be somewhat offset by the couple of items I simply couldn't have purchased at Aldi at all -- the cake mix and the single meat pie -- and that would have been replaced by potentially pricier alternatives. As well, I'd have had to compensate for the couple that either cost a little more (jelly was $0.49 rather than $0.39) or that had notably less content (such as the 500ml pasta sauce), which would have forced me to spend a little more overall.

The bottom line is that I could have assembled a similar menu shopping at Aldi (or Coles or Franklins, though not by my own reckoning IGA) as the one I actually assembled at Woolworths. But I wouldn't have got massively more food or a hugely different overall calorie count or nutritional profile. Given that, sticking to a supermarket that's nearby was definitely the right call for me.

In the interests of cross-brand research, I've purchased the $0.99 tea bags, and at the end of the Mastercheap experiment I'll sample them, to see how those tea bags compare to their suddenly-not-so-bargain basement rivals. But for now, I'm focusing on tomorrow, when the budget menu actually kicks in.

Lifehacker's Mastercheap experiment sees editor Angus Kidman trying to survive with a weekly food budget of just $25.


Comments

    Interesting... Aldi well and truly has a reputation as being cheaper, but obviously it's not so simple.

    Yes its strange that even though you explained all the reasons behind where you were shopping and the "starting from scratch" stance in the opening post, people still decided to post repetitively suggestions to the contrary.

    Great post, I have to agree that Aldi does not have much of a choice which makes it very hard to shop with them (also if you want the healthy option forget it e.g light versions), they sometimes have a few good specials however every time I go there to get it they are sold out and then try to ask a staff member to help and they just tell if it is not there then we are out, anyway at least it does appear to be keeping Woolies and Coles a bit more honest, I really like that they have copied Aldi by having unit pricing , I think it makes it so much easier to pick between different brands when you can see that brand A = 1.10 per 100g vs B = 1.20 per 100g.

    Really looking forward to seeing your results.

      Unit pricing isn't down to Aldi -- it's down to it being a legal requirement. http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2009/07/how-unit-pricing-will-help-you-save-on-shopping/

        Yes. However, ALDI introduced it way before it was made alegal requirement

    Another compelling reason for shopping at Woolies if you are a single guy or girl is that you'll stand a better chance of being meeting more attractive members of the opposite sex. We've all seen the shoppers who frequent Aldi.

    nice.. after this article, i'm loving 'mastercheap' more & more.. keep up the good work..

    I guess i was thinking aldi because every time I shope there I also manage to squeeze in some extra candy treats into my shopping budget.. we all know how we crave that sweet sweet candy sugar rush on those late nite gaming sessions..

    I'm suprised that aldi wasn't any cheaper than the usual grocery chains.

    The whole No Name phenomenon is a way for the major supermarkets to sell goods cheaply to people on low incomes, but essentially sell the same stuff to higher income customers for a much higher price. That's why they package it in monochrome wraps. The poor will buy it because they need it and the middle classes will often pay more not to be seen with "pauper's food" in their grocery basket. Aldi has cleverly slipped into the market by offering the same home brand goods in colourful containers. I shop at Aldi because my wife doesn't want any of that No Name rubbish in the house, but happily accepts Aldi. That said, the quality of Aldi goods is consistently high, in my experience. Where they often get the jump on the others is with their fresh fruit and vegetables. If Angus had shopped at Aldi last week, he could have got both fresh bananas and potatoes for 99c per kilo - excellent low-budget nutrition.

      I work for a food manufacturer and can say that the brand name item does have better quality ingredients and is a better product... It's by no means the same product packed into colourful packaging!

      The supermarkets squeeze manufacturers terribly on price, it's pretty much blackmail!
      The underlying tone is:
      "Supply us with this product at this price or we wont stock your brand"
      On some lines we run at a loss!

      Generic Brand items are also far more likely to have ingredients from China (especially), and with that comes the increased risk of issues that regularly arise in food goods coming out of China.

        On that score, 2 of the items I purchased come directly from China, and 5 include 'local and imported ingredients', so might include Chinese elements.

    The only thing I find about Aldi is that their own brand is usually of much better quality than other homebrands. I can shop there, pay the same price as if i've just brought home brand, and have good quality food. If the shopping budget wasn't so restrictive it would be the cheaper better option in the long run, not in the week by week, survival method, unless you wanted to live on pasta and sauce for the week.

      Absolutely! I find you have to spend a lot of money at Coles or Woolies to get good quality. Aldi's budget brands are usually very good, with their organic milk, chocolate and nappies being my favourite examples.
      Plus Aldi sometimes sell chainsaws and other tools. Love my Aldi Internet Radio too!

    Yeah, I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes too. Good onya, Angus.

    How about CostCo? Lets say (as a poor student) your parents gave you a membership, it would be interesting to see a cost and shopping comparison

      Given Costco only have a single location in Australia in Melbourne and that's not particularly convenient without a car (I've walked it from Southern Cross, but wouldn't want to do it with a load of shopping), it didn't earn (or deserve) a detailed comparison. (There'll be a Sydney store in Auburn in 2011)

      But based on prior observation, the bulk problem which is a slight issue at Aldi would be a massive issue at Costco. It sells nothing in compact quantities. I suspect I could spend $25 and buy a giant box of cereal and an enormous UHT milk and a mega-pizza or two to eat for the week, but I'd not be able to get close to the variety available at a regular supermarket. If I was shopping for a month, it might be a theoretical prospect, but not for a week on this budget.

        I used to shop at my local Costco in the UK and you need to have a long-term focus and a will of steel to do well there.
        We once bought enough toilet rolls to last a year -- I'm not kidding, it was about 5 square metres worth. A mate of mine kept going in for groceries and occasionally replaced a major household appliance because the prices were amazing.

        In both examples we ended up spending more. The mate who came out with a new TV needed stronger willpower.
        The bulk-buying of toilet roll was more expensive at the time but over the course of a year definitely saved a few bob.

        In summary: go to Costco to buy non-perishables in bulk and store them in your shed or roofspace until needed.

    Angus are you going to weigh your self before you start and when you finish. to give us the difference.

      No, I'm not, for two reasons: firstly because I think regularly weighing yourself to detect minor changes is pointless and potentially dangerous -- if there's an observable weight loss that results in clothes not fitting, I'd notice that, but doubt it will happen in a week. Secondly because I've planned menus that deliver the appropriate level of kilojoules each day, there's no reason to assume I will lose a lot of weight.

    It really depends on what you buy. In my experience the canned goods and apocalypse stock up type items are about 15c cheaper at Aldi, but other than that there isn't much to be saved at all.

    Do you reckon you'll have any food left over by the end of the week? Or will you be making pie out of tea leaves and cornflakes for dinner on Friday?

      The canned goods that I compared were priced exactly the same.

      All I figure on having left by the end of the week is quite a few teabags, some mustard and a little margarine. Everything else will have been consumed. That said, I'll have a full set of meals -- there's not going to be a 'damn, what can I make with what I have left?' moment.

    Ask a friend or acquaintance for a Coles or Woolies discount card - 5% off on this type of budget will actually make a difference for once!

      That would certainly be a sensible strategy for anyone in this position, though the purist in me wants to create a budget that anyone could adhere to (without relying on specials, insider discounts, coupons etc.)

      It's a breach of staff terms to give/loan their staff discount card to anyone. At the least they can have them taken away from them (and I have seen it happen). Worst case scenario they can lose their job because of it. Not worth the 5% in my opinion.

    I agree that Aldi's success is budget priced items in attractive packaging but i also agree that they are often better quality then home brand type stuff.
    I shop at Aldi for just a few things - nice tasty cheese for a good dollar cheaper, nice yoghurt although I've realised its not as nice as Yoplait which is often of special for just 21c more, cheap nut bars and muffin bars, really nice cheap cereal and the best thing, the fruit and veges are super cheap and fairly good quality. Oh and I cant forget the organic dark chocolate!

      Unless I've missed something, the cheapest products at Aldi _are_ Home Brand-type stuff. With certain product lines, it's very evident that one supplier covers the entire supermarket sector. Definitely varies product to product, but I suspect there's less variation here than many people think.

    Yep they offer some pretty good prices. They work us pretty hard though. The low-staff means we get less breaks (mostly 30 minutes for a 9 hour shift). I must say most of the products are very good now. They're in the process of introducing heaps of new lines from my understanding. Plus they're aiming for 500 stores and expansion into other states very soon. However they need to work on their treatment of staff. They seem to be good at hiring migrant workers who do not question the way they are treated...

    Try checking prices at a Woolies or Coles that isn't near an Aldi store.

    When Aldi open, they tend to drop their prices to match. This happened at my local store.

    Aldi are still cheaper on some things though, and their bananas tend to be ripe.

      I don't believe this as a general principle. I've seen the same prices at Woolies where there's no Aldi in the vicinity as at ones where there is one nearby. Individual stores don't get much (if any) say in what their prices are.

    I disagree.

    On staple foods such as milk, rice and flour its negligable. However, on certain items ALDI is much cheaper.

    e.g Mackrell Fish $1.29 vs 2.09 or Herring canned $1.99 v $3.59 at coles. Both of ALDI's being Made in Germany. Also their specialty breads like Sourdough, Turkish rolls are always fresher and much cheaper then my local Coles. When coles has some breads on special then it is the same as Aldi's regular price. e.g Aldi Rye Vienna bread-$2.99 equilevent at coles $4.29

    One amazing product i bought at Aldi recently was a maple and pecan nut clusters cereal (new product) just wowww sourced from Belgium i think

      The claim that I was examining was that a bare-bones budget would be cheaper, not that certain products wouldn't be cheaper. These examples don't address that at all.

    Meh. Aldi is over-rated. What you can buy from there cheaply, tastes like recycled garbage.

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