By Sarah Rainey For The Daily Mail
Published: 17:00 EDT, 21 September 2022 | Updated: 17:08 EDT, 21 September 2022
Step inside Aldi and you may be intent on picking up cut-price butter, bargain baked beans and good-value veg.
But should you wander down the now infamous middle aisle, you — like millions of others — could find yourself distracted by brilliant deals on a motley, but surprisingly upmarket, range of products.
A pastel-coloured cake mixer for less than £50. A Le Creuset-style casserole dish for under £20. Not to mention a Wellington boot stand, and presents for everyone from your mum to your son for no more than a few pounds…
Desirable buys like these have made the middle aisle a magnet for the middle class, helping the German retailer become the UK’s fourth-biggest supermarket. Thirty-two years since it launched in the UK, Aldi has joined the ranks of Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda as one of the ‘Big Four’ retailers.
The aisle branded ‘Specialbuys’ — with its eclectic, ever-changing bargains, from ski jackets to riding boots, TVs to kitchenware — is where the supermarket truly undercuts its rivals.
So where do Aldi’s Specialbuys come from, and why can’t customers resist them? SARAH RAINEY bumps shoulders with the yummy mummies in the middle aisle to find out…
AN ALADDIN’S CAVE OF BRITISH BUYS
When Aldi’s first British store opened in Birmingham in April 1990, the middle aisle was simply an ‘Aladdin’s cave-type muddle’ says Paul Stainton, UK partner at the consultancy IPLC, who worked on Aldi’s buying team from 1989 to 2020.
‘It was anything we thought might sell, anything that was a bit quirky and would stand out on the shelves.’
It’s a far cry from today’s Specialbuys, which have well-heeled customers flocking to stores in the way they once did to a John Lewis or Selfridges sale.
Today, Paul says, the middle aisle ‘has become a much bigger beast’, while Aldi ditched its Germanic roots in favour of a British makeover. It trumpets a partnership with our Olympic and Paralympic teams, and Union Flags appear in its stores, alongside banners reading: ‘Championing Great British quality.’
To the untrained eye, items in the middle aisle may seem random, but each one — from a cut-price coffee machine to a £39.99 blow-up kayak (pictured)— fits a seasonal theme
Aldi’s most popular Specialbuy ever was an outdoor log burner (£59.99) that was from 2019 (pictured)
Other sought-after products include toys in the form of the chain’s mascot, Kevin the Carrot (pictured), which had another 75,000-strong virtual queue, inflatable hot tubs and outdoor rattan sofas
‘We trust local. If it’s made elsewhere and it’s cheap that makes people suspicious, whereas if it’s cheap and made here, it is seen as a bargain,’ says Dr Cathrine Jansson-Boyd, an associate professor in consumer psychology at Anglia Ruskin University.
The store was quick to adapt to British tastes, and the middle aisle is just as sensitive to customers’ desires. ‘It’s carefully thought-out, carefully constructed,’ says Paul.
‘Initially, we struggled to shift furniture — it was impossible for customers to get chests of drawers and garden tables into their cars. So we stopped selling that until we went online.’
This adaptability is a big reason for Aldi’s success, says Dr Amna Khan, a retail expert at Manchester Metropolitan University. ‘It fails fast,’ she says. ‘And if things don’t work, it moves on quickly.’
That’s why Specialbuys are never stocked for more than a few weeks — customers know they have to snap them up now, or miss out.
MUST-HAVES FIT FOR ALL SEASONS
To the untrained eye, items in the middle aisle may seem random, but each one — from a cut-price coffee machine to a £39.99 blow-up kayak — fits a seasonal theme.
Paul explains: ‘The themes are planned 12 to 18 months in advance. Back-to-school stock arrives in July, and Christmas will be coming out soon. Throughout the year you’ll see products relating to camping, skiing, BBQ season and New Year fitness regimes.’
Aldi’s version of the Big Green Egg barbecue has flown off the shelves in summer, and ahead of the new series of The Great British Bake Off, a Specialbuys baking range was launched, including a £49.99 stand mixer. Other recent items include a £19.99 slow cooker, which was released amid reports about rising energy bills.
FROM HARRODS TO THE HIGH STREET
ONE source of inspiration for the Specialbuys aisle is what other — very high-end — retailers are doing. ‘Before Christmas, we’d head to Harrods to see what table decorations or gifts it was stocking,’ Paul says. ‘We’d ask ourselves: “Could we source that and sell it for a third of the price?” ’
Suppliers are also expected to pitch ideas to Aldi’s team of 30 dedicated middle-aisle buyers.
The challenge, Paul adds, is predicting how many of the new products it will sell — and how quickly. And Aldi doesn’t always get this right. In 2020, for example, it offered a Lego Star Wars set for £100 less than the average retail price. Thousands of shoppers queued for hours, only to find there was just one set in each branch.
SELLOUTS CREATE A SOCIAL MEDIA BUZZ
To get the word out about its middle-aisle goodies, Aldi uses social media and adverts. Its online presence is impressive, with one million Instagram followers.
It sees a flurry of activity on Thursdays and Sundays, when new products are released. Several items have gone viral, including a hanging egg chair, which sold out in minutes. At one point, the online queue for the £189.99 item exceeded 75,000 people.
Several items have gone viral, including a hanging egg chair (pictured), which sold out in minutes. At one point, the online queue for the £189.99 item exceeded 75,000 people
Aldi’s most popular Specialbuy ever was an outdoor log burner (£59.99) from 2019. Other sought-after products include toys in the form of the chain’s mascot, Kevin the Carrot (another 75,000-strong virtual queue), inflatable hot tubs and outdoor rattan sofas.
Aldi has become known for its cut-price designer ‘dupes’ — that is, products which look, feel and function like expensive ones, for a fraction of the price.
Its popular Lacura Caviar Illumination day cream (£6.99) is uncannily similar to La Prairie’s Skin Caviar cream (£439), while its £29.99 cast-iron casserole dish looks just like a £185 Le Creuset.
Larger items aren’t exempt from Aldi mimicry, either, with shoppers snapping up a £109.99 velvet armchair (pictured) that appeared to be inspired by a £495 chair from Oliver Bonas.
Aldi shoppers also loved the £49.99 tripod floor lamp (pictured), which is said to be a dupe of a £210 lamp from Made.com
There’s a £6.99 perfume, called Lacura Ladies’ 5th Element, which shoppers swear smells like Chanel No 5 (£65); a £3.49 lime, basil and mandarin candle that’s almost identical to a £55 Jo Malone candle; and a £2.19 Paradise handwash that’s been compared to The White Company’s £13 Seychelles one.
Larger items aren’t exempt from Aldi mimicry, either, with shoppers snapping up a £49.99 tripod floor lamp (said to be a dupe of a £210 lamp from Made.com) and a £109.99 velvet armchair that appeared to be inspired by a £495 chair from Oliver Bonas.
Aldi gets away with what might look like copying because it says there is no chance customers might be misled or mistaken in thinking that its budget offerings are the real deal.
This doesn’t always work, however: in 2019, celebrity make-up artist Charlotte Tilbury won a legal battle against Aldi for selling £6.99 dupes of her bronzing palette, which retails for £49.
TRICKS TO MAKE YOU SPLASH THE CASH
Once customers are through the door, the aim is to get them to stay and spend. The first trick is a ‘decompression zone’: a sharp turn after the entrance, designed to slow shoppers down. Rather than dashing in for one or two items, they’re made to look around.
LED spotlights are placed on premium products, arranged at eye level, because if you’re in a rush you’re most likely to grab items that are easy to spot.
The supermarket has also worked on its shopping experience, tailoring its stores towards the middle class by increasing staff visibility and encouraging them to interact with shoppers.
‘Middle-class shoppers don’t shop there secretly any more, as they did when it first opened,’ says Dr Khan. ‘The Specialbuys aren’t always bargains, but they’re arranged like a sale, so we perceive them to be cheaper.’
Dr Jansson-Boyd adds: ‘The middle aisle is a bit like a treasure hunt — we like that because it makes shopping more exciting.’
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