I am a little bit obsessed with the oft-neglected connection between German hard-discounter Aldi and U.S. lifestyle-grocery Trader Joe’s, mainly because most of the Americans who shop at Trader Joe’s would never be caught skulking in an Aldi—many of which are in lower-income, fringe areas in the U.S.—and a high proportion of Aldi’s customers probably don’t even know what Trader Joe’s is. It’s a not so secret vanity of mine to be one of what I imagine to be few people shopping at both stores routinely. I’m not sure what system I think I am beating; I just feel that “they” don’t want you to know that the food in both of these chains is of the same quality. (In Germany, Aldi apparently stocks Trader Joe’s branded goods on the shelves, something we will never see in the U.S.)
Though both Trader Joe’s and Aldi often get unreasonably crowded and entail long waits in line, they offer a stark opportunity to study class difference in America—the way the same stuff is branded differently to appeal across income brackets; the different kinds of behaviors customers display and the sort of amenities they expect. Aldi is notorious for offering no amenities whatsoever; the food is piled in cardboard boxes on pallets in the store, and you must pack your own groceries, Euro-style, with bags you have to pay for. Trader Joe’s has a weird shtick where the employees are dressed as if they were a ship’s crew, and they seem instructed to make cheerful small talk with customers. They offer Dixie cups of coffee and free samples of prepared food—the scramble for which can often become savage, with lots of anarchic pushing and shoving.
My sense is that Aldi treats grocery shopping the way it ought to be treated, as a grim and necessary duty carried out by responsible adults seeking the best prices and not seeking affirmation about what kind of people they are. The families trudging through Aldi, pushing the oversize cart that you must pay a 25-cent deposit for in the parking lot, are generally nonplussed by the goods on offer, a bizarre array of hapless pseudobrands like “Savoritz” and “Fit & Easy” and “Happy Farms.” The products confer no status, so affirmation for people buying stuff there can then theoretically come from more appropriate sources connected to practices more integral to our identity than shopping. Whereas at Trader Joe’s customers are patronized like children and flattered and cajoled as if they were helpless simps desperate to be told what will make them cool and clever. The food is marketed as if it all were potentially trendy and impressive. The general impression the experience seems designed to leave shoppers with is that they are superior to the ordinary grocery shopper because they are more alert to a veneer of signifiers overlaying the products and can keep up with and decode these signifiers efficiently. But I don’t want or expect to be congratulated for buying the “frozen organic foursome” or “Trader Joe’s Ultra-dark Bay Blend”—I just want my figs and coffee beans and to get the hell out of there.
This recent Fortune cover story by Beth Kowitt supplies some confirmation for my nutty views. Kowitt claims that Trader Joe’s is “an offbeat, fun discovery zone that elevates food shopping from a chore to a cultural experience”—a description that perfectly encapsulates everything wrong with the chain. (And if you don’t think it is a chore to be in TJ’s on, say, a weekend afternoon, you’re nuts. It’s like being at a public pool on the hottest afternoon of the year, only everybody is an entitled prig blathering on a cell phone.) Kowitt then systematically undermines that brand identity by exposing the way the illusion is constructed. She notes that TJ’s is owned by Aldi and that “big, well-known companies also make many of Trader Joe’s products” though they are packaged to seem localish in provenance. Vendors are sworn to secrecy about their relationship to Trader Joe’s, allowing the grocer to maintain total control over the brand. She explains how TJ’s shops for its customers by seeing which zip codes subscribe to foodie magazines and have high education levels—these indicators apparently mark the insecure but trend-setting customers they want to attract, people for whom food is not something you struggle to afford but something you struggle to master and awe others with.
None of this is all that shocking, but it just points to the ways in which class gets delineated through consumer practices, as it must in a consumer society that on the surface promises purchasing power for all and equal opportunity to goods. But the class matters at stake in places like Trader Joe’s appear to dissolve in an atmosphere of righteousness, of cool, of “quality” being bounced back and forth between customers and products, so that consumers don’t believe they are partaking in anything unegalitarian—they don’t see themselves as responsible for reproducing class inequity at all.