Lansner: Bargain grocers Aldi and Grocery Outlet are not for everybody

It feels almost like an annual ritual: Somebody’s coming to shake up Southern California’s grocery industry.

The latest potential disruptors – Aldi and Grocery Outlet – each have their own interesting bent on discount groceries in a smaller store set-up. Both chains have plans for significant investment, rolling out stores across the region. Both seem ready for the lengthy battle required to win an enduring share of the local grocery spending.

Of course, that was once said of Fresh & Easy and Haggen, a pair of ill-conceived grocery ventures that flamed out in spectacular fashion.

Aldi, a sister chain to trend-breaking Trader Joe’s, enjoyed great success back East. Last week, Aldi brought its house-brand heavy concept to Orange County. Grocery Outlet, a primarily West Coast merchant that specializes in providing one-time bargains – closeouts or limited-run products – has been in Orange County for four months.

Will either concept stick? I find it hard to fairly test-drive a new grocery store because there’s excitement with any new merchant.

The wide-eyed shopper in me always likes to experiment with my purchasing habits. It’s especially true at discounters where your “mistake” isn’t a budget killer! So “new” is appealing, simply by its nature.

But the skeptical journalist wonders how long will the eye-catching discount deals last – because profits eventually have to be made. And equally important is how long will the energy of store staffs stay high.

The Buena Park Aldi I visited last week had far more character than I recall of others I visited years ago back East. That said, it’s still pretty spartan shopping, though fairly traditional in its presentation of groceries. Though, the quarter-for-a-shopping-cart routine (and you can get your quarter back, too!) might get tiresome.

Price-comparison shopping is often a curious experience if you’re like me and have few must-have brands or foods. I can be swayed by an interesting flavor or style … or a DEEP discount! But my internal price-math calculator saw plenty of prices at Aldi that were at, or below, sales prices at many competitors.

For example, Aldi’s packaged foods looked to be a dime or quarter cheaper than regularly priced comparable house brands elsewhere. Meat and dairy was attractively priced, too. Of course, the traditional chains do offer deeply discounted specials – as long as you’re in the mood for what their marketing department is pushing that day.

And my personal key metric – the price of K-Cup coffee capsules? Aldi had their house brand under my never-pay-more-than-40-cents-per threshold.

Grocery Outlet is a different experience. Then ones I’ve visited recently have a very bargain-in-your-face look and feel.

If you’re into snacking, they push gobs of discounted treats – like a variety of novel flavors of chips or jerky. Lots of products are being sold just before their printed expiration dates, like the shelf’s worth of peanut butter I acquired. (I’m not the type to worry about “best by” dates!)

But Grocery Outlet shopper must get used to the “treasure hunt” nature of the selection – many intriguing deals are here today, gone tomorrow. So fabulous pricing on name-brand K-Cups on one visit was disappointing on the next trip.

Well, unless you like your coffee in pumpkin-spice flavor!

And that’s the rub I think many people have with discounters. If you have the spare change to spend – and I know not everybody does – the discounter’s limited or quirky selection can be, at best, a distraction. The cost of an extra trip to cross everything off the shopping list may not be worth the dimes or quarters saved.

Overall, neither of these new chains totally grabbed me. Of course, if Aldi or Grocery Outlet did come to South County where I live, I’d certainly stop by. Let the record show that I’ve been known to frequent the nearby 99 Cent Only stores that offer enough groceries to satisfy my penny-pinching urges – including K-Cups.

The established chains always have inertia working in their favor. I mean, how far will you drive for a big bargain, especially when you’d likely have to pass a Costco?

So to me, Aldi and Grocery Outlet are simply another chapter in the natural evolution of the grocery business that hasn’t been the same since who-knows-when.

Almost anyone with a cash register wants a slice of this grocery pie, especially in a huge, growing region like Southern California. Big-box discounters like Wal-Mart and Target have made major stabs. Drug stores have grocery aisles. Gosh, even office-supplier Staples offers a few items. And don’t forget the wave of ethnic grocers that have taken market share, too.

Why the rush to be a grocer? It’s a rare slice of retailing that is largely immune from online merchants. At least, to date. And the need of shoppers to replenish their supplies of perishable items gives merchants plenty of opportunities to wow the consumer.

Until somebody – maybe Amazon? – perfects click-and-ship grocery delivery, we will be driving to get the milk and eggs and everything else that stocks a pantry. And until that game-changing event occurs, new players will try to get a slice of your grocery budget while the established players will protect their turf by constant updating the shopping experiences they offer.

And I’ll always be searching for my K-Cup bargains.

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