“The kefir is a big seller, and the halloumi is going well. Oh, and the quinoa is very popular, and people love the sweet potato fries and the raw fruit paleo bars,” says the man in the sharp blue suit as he walks me through a deserted and slightly grotty supermarket on Dublin’s Parnell Street.
Raw fruit paleo bars? Quinoa? As he talks I can’t help but wonder if I’ve taken a wrong turn and wandered into a hipster food hall of fame, instead of the shop where Aldi established its first beachhead in the Irish retail space 20 years ago this Monday.
John Curtin is the man in the sharp blue suit, and when Aldi came to town he had just started secondary school. He has grown up to become the company’s Irish buying director and one of the rising stars of its UK and Ireland operation.
I point to four different types of blueberries on the shelves in front of us, and suggest that it is strange for a retailer which prides itself on its slimline shopping experience to have so many options for a such a niche fruit. Curtin picks up the Specially Selected version and examines the packet closely.
“Ah you see, these are Stella Blues, ” he says.
I nod wisely like I know what he’s talking about, even though the only Stella I’m familiar with comes in a can and is – generally speaking – not viewed as a super food.
When it opened its doors it was greeted with a mix of excitement and suspicion and lots of confusion
It is not the first time Aldi has confused me. It was the first of the two German discounters to get to Ireland, beating its rival Lidl to the punch by almost a full year. When it opened its doors it was greeted with a mix of excitement and suspicion and lots of confusion.
More than 6,000 people descended on its two shops in Dublin and Cork on day one. No one was looking for paleo bars or quinoa back then. Even pronouncing the words would have been a task beyond most of us.
The Parnell Street shop was – and still is – small and low ceilinged and the brands were – and still are – unfamiliar and all over the shop. But the prices were promising.
A half a dozen eggs cost 39p compared to over 70p elsewhere. Chocolate biscuits, priced at over a pound in other supermarkets, cost 69p in Aldi, while a white sliced pan cost 35p compared to 60p everywhere else.
If people were surprised to see 14-inch televisions and triple CD players jostling for space alongside the groceries in the middle aisle, they didn’t let on, and happily tossed the swanky technology into their trollies along with the weird looking Weetabix knock-offs.
“Aldi begins assault on the Irish market” was the mildly threatening headline in the Examiner as day one dawned. “Discount supermarket to slash shopping bills” ran the more promising one in the Irish Independent.
“Low prices and high standards add up to divine shopping at Aldi,” said The Irish Times. The article, written by Denis Staunton – our current London correspondent who was then based in Berlin – pointed to a recent survey which had found most Germans preferred Aldi to religion, and he wrote, with admirable prescience, that if the German experience was anything to go by Aldi “could soon achieve cult status among Irish consumers”.
For Ellen Guild from Balbriggan in Co Dublin, Aldi already had that status. She was among the first people through the door on day one, and was happy to pose for the Irish Times photographer with a mountain of shopping which had just cost her £110.
Today, Guild still lives in Ballbriggan, and is still smitten by Aldi. The love affair started when she moved to Germany in 1980 where she lived for 16 years before coming home in 1996.
She was “delighted” when she heard it was opening in Ireland. “All the stuff I’d got used to was there so I just went crazy on that first day. I had my favourite grub back again,” she says. “Even the layout was identical to the German stores, so I was able to walk into the Dublin shop and go straight to my favourite juice and it was exactly where I expected it to be. I was over the moon.”
She was also over the moon to have the middle aisle madness – where trumpets can sit alongside flame throwers alongside unicorn onesies alongside angle grinders – back in her life.
“I’ve lost the run of myself at the middle aisle many times,” she admits. “And I’ve sold a lot of stuff bought in Aldi on eBay over the years, things I only got because of the price, and because I was afraid I’d miss out if I didn’t buy it.”
Aldi’s special buys have even made it into Tommy Tiernan’s stand-up routine
She is not alone. Both Aldi and Lidl are famous for the seemingly random selection of merchandise which comes in and out weekly. Aldi’s special buys have even made it into Tommy Tiernan’s stand-up routine, although not in a way that is likely to have delighted the Germans.
Talking about Irish people getting notions in the boom years, Tiernan once marvelled at the very idea of us all skiing.
“Was there anything more frightening to the posh people of Europe, up there on the Alps with their designer gear – old Dolce and Gabana and Prada and Gucci. And there we were head to toe ... Aldi, Aldi skiing gear. We were in the nip by the time we got to the bottom of the hill, the stuff disintegrated if you went faster than five miles an hour.”
To be fair, I once went skiing in the Alps kitted out head to toe in Aldi, and while it was cheap as chips it did keep me warm and dry and didn’t disintegrate. (Although – full disclosure – I’m not sure I ever went much faster than five kilometres an hour.)
Disappointingly there is nothing unhinged on offer when Curtin walks me down the aisle. Just a random selection of clothes and kitchen utensils. I point to nests of colour coded chopping boards for less than €11 and say they look just like Joseph Joseph colour coded chopping boards, which cost more than €30. Curtin looks blankly at me.
While much has changed at Aldi since two brothers, Karl and Theodor Albrecht, opened their first supermarket in Germany in 1946 (it did not become Aldi – which is short for Albrecht Diskont – until 1962), the retailer’s basic philosophy has been immutable.
The shops were – and still are – small by supermarket standards
The Albrecht brothers watched sales closely, and quickly swept products which did not sell well off the shelves – irrespective of how many sweeteners and discounts they were offered by suppliers. That still happens today. If shoppers don’t want it, it’s gone. The shops were – and still are – small by supermarket standards – an Aldi sells less than 2,000 products compared with well over 10,000 in a large Tesco. And all other costs including frills and staff numbers are tightly reined in.
In 1960 the brothers effectively split the world in half following a row over whether or not they should sell cigarettes. They did not – incidentally – become Aldi and Lidl as many people think. While the two companies are very similar, they are completely unconnected.
It is telling that the Brothers Albrecht dispute was not over the health implications of selling tobacco, but the financial ones, with Karl opposed because he feared cigarettes would attract shop lifters. Once the dust settled on the row, one brother ran Aldi Nord – which operates in this country and other countries in Northern Europe while the other looked after Aldi Sud which operates in more southerly regions.
As we walk, Curtain throws numbers at me. Its market share is 12.6 per cent. Eighty-five per cent of Irish people have shopped in Aldi over the last year. It has the highest percentage of shoppers under 45, and the highest percentage of big basket shoppers.
Aldi also claims – frequently – to have the lowest prices. This claim is just a little contentious, rarely more so than when it commissioned a price survey last year to bolster its boasts.
Sure enough, its survey found that it was cheaper than its rivals in the supermarket sweeps. Dunnes, Tesco, SuperValu were furious, but their rage was in the ha’penny place compared with Lidl’s.
While the survey indicated a wafer-thin margin of 49 cent in the cost of a basket of 62 own-brand products bought in the two German discounters, Lidl dismissed it for having “numerous discrepancies”, and said it was the cheapest supermarket in Ireland. It even threatened legal action. Aldi didn’t give a rashers. And there was no legal action.
In the early days, both Aldi and Lidl struggled to attract Irish suppliers, but as both became known for their straight dealing and reliability – if they said they would pay a certain price on a certain day then they would – more came on board.
Today, Aldi has more than 200 Irish companies making products for it. All its fresh meats and most of its fresh products come from here, and over half of what it sells is Irish.
Today, his buffalo mozzarella business is booming and much of that, he says, is down to Aldi.
“Without Aldi we wouldn’t be here, it is as simple as that,” he says. “We started selling to them in April 2015, and it completely changed our business.”
His farm has grown to more than 450 buffalo, and he makes 2500 kg of cheese a week. Much of it ends up on Aldi’s shelves, and in recent times it has helped him develop new ranges, including feta and halloumi.
When asked if he ever imagined when he was farming cattle in 1999 that one day he would be selling tonnes of buffalo mozzaralla to Aldi, he laughs. “Absolutely not. It’s crazy, you couldn’t make it up. But they have been very good to deal with, very straight and no messing.”
Curtin nods in approval when I mention Lynch’s name. “I think it took a while for everyone to understand what Aldi was,” Curtin says. “You must remember how invested Irish people were in their brands.”
We loved our brands alright.
When Aldi opened, less than 10 per cent of the typical Irish shopping trolley was made up of own brand goods. Last year, for the first time, it was more than 50 per cent.
“For such a long time yellow pack [the own brand name used by Quinnsworth in the 1980s] was a term of abuse. It still is, but both Lidl and Aldi totally changed how we perceive own-brand products, and gave us the confidence to switch,” says Gerard O’Neill, chairman of research company Amárach.
Switching was the smart move – one of the retail trade’s biggest secrets is that most own-brand products are made by well-known-brands and are virtually identical, save for the price.
The company has its Irish headquarters in Naas, just across the road from a large Lidl. It is a low-key, low-rise place made up of a small office complex and more than 3,000sq m of warehouse space, where stock is dispatched each day to stores across the Republic.
Several times a week, senior staff gather in a kitchen office to break bread, and all sorts of other foods.
They are not doing it for fun.
The store obsessively pitches itself against its rivals and pulls no punches at the blind taste tests. If their products come up short, they want to know why. Product lines will be tweaked based on the tests, or sometimes dropped, or new suppliers chosen.
Repeated studies have shown that Aldi and Lidl are among the most trusted of the retailers in Ireland
Curtin is heavily involved in the process. “I don’t really eat much at those sessions,” he admits. “It’s not really that enjoyable after a while, and you are so focused on what you are doing, but it is important that we blind taste test all our products at least twice a year and compare them with the competition and decide on suppliers. It does mean that in the middle of the summer we’re having Christmas puddings and mince pies with the sweat dripping off us.”
O’Neill recalls that when the discounters arrived in Ireland, they were “not taken very seriously by the incumbents.” He pauses. “They are certainly being taken very seriously now, mind you.”
With a combined market share of almost 25 per cent, that’s unsurprising.
He adds that both Aldi and Lidl “really caught the wave as the recession started, and it has to be said that both had a very good recession.”
Curtin agrees to a point. “The recession did bring people into the shop that may not have considered us, but they have stayed with us as the economy has grown so we don’t have distressed shoppers, we have people here who are savvy. We saw people coming to us during the hard times, but they are staying with us now even though they might not be on as tight budget as they once were.”
Repeated studies have shown that Aldi and Lidl are among the most trusted of the retailers in Ireland. “I think they have built up a level of trust because they do exactly what they say on the tin – they have low prices and extremely good value products,” O’Neill says, adding that they have also played the sponsorship card well, supporting local sports and community events.
“That has really helped to build trust, as has the amount of Irish produce they stock. I often think that if a martian was to land in Ireland, they would be convinced that both Lidl and Aldi were entirely Irish shops.”
What of the criticism that Aldi and Lidl are reshaping Irish towns and closing down small enterprises? Curtin highlights the jobs the supermarkets create, and says Aldi is among the best paying retail operations in Ireland.
“I think you can definitely say that the Germans put manners on the incumbents,” says O’Neill. “They stopped the price gouging and the rip-offs consumers had had to deal with before they came, and they continued to play that role during the recession when they actually drove down prices. I think they have kept the lid on prices as the economy has recovered. I would suspect the other multiples don’t have quite the same profit margins today that they had in the 1990s.”
Middle aisle madness
We asked readers on Twitter about their best middle aisle purchases. Out of the hundreds of responses, here are some of our favourites.
Got a hot tub in Lidl, it was amazing. Used it for 365 days straight in West Kerry. It died recently but will buy another next time it’s in! - Cian O’Driscoll
First time I ever went into an Aldi, I came out with a pair of ski gloves. I had never skied before, and have never skied since. I’d love to know what I was thinking. - Jon Leigh
Went in looking for engine oil, came out with a printer and a doormat. - Barbara Elliot
Milk, carrots, potatoes, toilet paper ... and a trumpet. - Sean Vaughan
A paper guillotine. I maintain that someday, in the near or distant future, I will have “just the thing!” - Claire Kenny
Maybe not a mad thing to buy, but the combination of a chainsaw and a bottle of wine on a Thursday night at 9.55pm felt strange to me. - Susan Parkes
Tarpaulin. I don’t have a tent or a garden. I just thought a bit sturdy green waterproof sheet may come in handy sometime. I went in for a packet of ham. - Rachel Schoene
A car bin (which I promptly christened Jeremy Carbin). I never opened it and now it’s part of the rubbish in my car. - Peter McGuire
I bought a bottle of “Caravan cleaner”, but I don’t own a caravan! Still sitting on a shelf in my garage. - Fionnuala McGrath
Went in for apples, came out with a leaf blower with a really short cord that had no hope of reaching anything. I bought a ukulele there, a vacuum sealer, a table, a hedge cutter, bongos ... - Deirdre Clifford
The way we were: six ways life has changed since the discounters came to town
1. While the Web did exist in 1999, it was a new technology and nowhere near as omnipresent as it is now. Then it completely changed the way we communicated, shopped, learned, read, governed and thought.
2. When video cassette recorders became mainstream in the 1980s, they were expensive and enormous. By the late 1990s they were cheap as chips and competing with more slimmed down but still expensive DVD players for our cash. They are both gone to the big video library in the sky, having being replaced by streaming services – both legal and not so legal.
3. In 1999 people still loved stereo systems. They came with record players, a tape deck, radios and CD players. And enormous speakers. First the turntable and the cassette player disappeared, then the speakers shrunk. Then the CD players disappeared and music went from being a physical thing to lots of ones and zeros.
4. Landline phones were all the rage in 1999 and mobiles were something of a rarity, with the ones that did exist being as big as a brick and almost as stupid.
5. It is hard to believe it but there was actually a time when you had to remember the birthdays of friends and family because there was no social media platforms to remind you. Finding out what had become of exes and people you hated in school required the resources of a private detective, and shouting at people you’d never met because they had slightly different views to you was both tricky and kind of mental.
6. Cataloguing your life in pictures – moving and still – was expensive and difficult. You had to take pictures and then leave them in to be developed? There was mystery, there was excitement. There were rubbish pictures.