How to bring efficiency and frugality to your grocery shopping

Before you say it, I know that a stack of PF blogs talk about cost-effective grocery shopping, so the topic certainly won’t be new to everyone. Even so, I think there is still value in bringing an Australian point of view to the table and also talking about how grocery shopping can be more efficient at the same time.

For those who know me, saving money on something and making it more efficient at the same time is like the holy grail, so you will understand if I get a bit carried away when explaining all of this.

1. Cost-effectiveness

In Australia the supermarket scene is dominated by some major players that have the bulk of the market, these being:

  • Woolworths 39.0%
  • Coles 33.5%
  • Aldi 10.3%
  • IGA 9.5%
  • Other 7.7%

Source: The Daily Mail (UK), 21 July 2014

Aldi has only been in Australia since 2001, and due to the lack of competition up until that point Woolworths and Coles did a great job of screwing everyone over on grocery prices. IGA still existed of course, however because they are independently-owned stores (IGA = Independent Grocers of Australia), they have never been competitive in terms of pricing with even Woolworths and Coles.

Aldi - the most frugal and efficient place to buy your groceries

Aldi – the most frugal and efficient place to buy your groceries

Now that Aldi are here in a huge number of locations and gaining greater acceptance, I think there is a real opportunity for anyone that is remotely cost-conscious to save a stack of cash on their groceries.

Since beginning to shop at Aldi in the last quarter of 2014, we have trimmed out grocery bill for a family of four (two adults plus a 5yo and a 3yo) down from approximately $900/month to approximately $540/month which is a saving of 40%. Not all of this is a result of choosing to shop at Aldi, and I will share some of my other tips later in this article.

2. Efficiency

Why is shopping at Aldi so efficient? Because it has been designed with German efficiency in mind!

Aldi is a German brand that actually stands for ALbrecht DIscount, and once you find this out you might realise how many other brands are actually German and use this funny quasi-acronym naming system. Another one is Adidas, which actually stands for Adolf (i.e. ADI) DASsler. So that dispels the myth that ADIDAS stands for “All Day I Dream About Sex” that someone told me in the third grade.

Anyway, so many things about Aldi seem strange at first, but they are really just about efficiency, including:

  • All of the store layouts are basically the same, with four main aisles and all foods laid out in essentially the same places (potentially flipped over depending on the location). You should therefore be able to find everything you need fairly quickly.
  • The four main aisles system reduces the “intersections” in the supermarket at the end of each aisle, which are the points where everyone slows down.
  • Aldi sell alcohol at their supermarkets, which is something that Coles and Woolworths just don’t do in Australia (they have separate bottle shops under different brands, often in different locations). So if you can buy your alcohol at the same time as you buy your groceries you are killing two birds with one stone. As with any product, the alcohol isn’t necessarily the same as you would buy elsewhere, so you would need to work out which products you actually like.
  • Having very long conveyor belts on the checkouts/registers allows more people to load all of their items up rather than standing around in line doing nothing.
  • By having shoppers bag their own items it speeds up the checkout process for everyone else.
  • Aldi will often supply products in slightly bigger sizes to save on packaging costs, with these savings then passed on to you. Not all items are like this though, so it’s not like you are forced to buy everything in hugely over-sized packages or anything like that.
  • The shelving layouts in Aldi are nothing like Coles and Woolworths. Products are basically stacked in big boxes (often the boxes that they are supplied in) so that they save on packaging costs. Supermarkets like Safeway and Coles have “night-fill” staff whose only job is to pack shelves at night when no one else is there. While I don’t know for sure if similar staff exist for Aldi, it would not surprise me if they didn’t, or if they did then there must be far fewer of them. I don’t personally care about how the product is presented on the shelves, so I am glad that I don’t have to pay more to have products stacked in a certain way like Coles and Woolworths.

    Aldi shelving - notice how they just put items up on the shelf in their original boxes to save on labour.

    Aldi shelving – notice how they just put items up on the shelf in their original boxes to save on labour.

  • Aldi are said to own 80% of the brands that they sell, and for the brands that they don’t own they are actually rated by those third-party suppliers as being far better to deal with than Coles or Woolworths. Being able to control the supply chain (if you can do it) just makes sense, and really does allow them to cut out costs associated with middle men.
  • I’m told that Aldi prefer not to have their supermarkets in shopping centres/malls like Coles and Woolworths so that they have greater control over their leases (which flows on to the cost of rent and outgoings, which then affect pricing). This means that there is less chance of you spending more on arguably unnecessary and unplanned purchases from neighbouring shops.
  • They use their own trolleys (do Americans call these shopping carts?) with the $1/$2 coin or the token thing so that you have an incentive to return them. And because they are usually at their own premises (rather than at a big mall) they don’t appear to have issues in getting their trolleys returned. This resulst in lower costs, which are then passed on to shoppers.

3. Planning

In order to achieve the greatest savings you also need to ensure that you put appropriate planning into your food shopping. This may sound onerous but it really isn’t, with some of the steps we take in our planning including:

  • Use the Out of Milk shopping app to “write” your own shopping list. I have this on my Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 tablet, which is then synced to my Galaxy S4 and my wife’s Galaxy S3. Because they are all on the same account, you can make a change on one device and it automatically updates on the other devices. Not only do we only buy what we need, but if I am at the supermarket shopping my wife can add an item on and it will appear on the list automatically.
  • You should aim to shop in accordance with a schedule rather than just as things run out. If you plan well enough you won’t need to go to the supermarket two or three times per week, and should really be able to get away with one trip per week. For example, I do the food shopping every Saturday morning, and we avoid trips during the week for things like bread by freezing bread and only defrosting one loaf at a time.
  • Having the person with the most discipline attend to the shopping. I like to think that this is me in our relationship (I think my wife would grudgingly agree), and I have no qualms in buying only what is on the list. After I took over the shopping from my wife for about a month, she finally wanted to go and have a look at Aldi and went on a shopping rampage buying so many things that weren’t on the list it wasn’t funny. Needless to say I will keep doing the shopping myself for the foreseeable future.

4. How to address the complainers

Lots of people like to complain about anything, and for non-Aldi shoppers they sure like to have a whinge about my favourite German-owned supermarket.

Before anyone else complains, here are some of the key complaints that I hear and how I respond to them:

  • Aldi don’t sell the widget that I like: Have you ever considered that the reason that you like your brand of widget is because it was the first one that you tried in the first place? Maybe if you had tried the Aldi brand first then it might have been the one that you actually liked. Most of the time I find that the Aldi brand isn’t necessarily not as good, it’s just different. So give it a try (and I mean try it a few times with an open mind to see if it actually grows on you) and I’m sure you will be happy with the large majority of their products.
  • Aldi don’t have a rewards program like Coles and Woolworths: That’s right, they don’t, because the rewards programs are bullshit – they are pumping up their prices overall so that they can pay for the rewards. Even without the reward programs you will be way better off shopping at Aldi, and it’s one less pointless thing you have to worry about.
  • I don’t like the layout of their stores: Yes, Aldi stores are laid out differently, usually having four main aisles. It may surprise you to know that Woolworths and Coles lay their stores out differently as well –  it’s just a change that you get used to. If you think about it a bit more you realise that it is actually more efficient – less turning at the end of each aisle so you can be in and out in record time.
  • I don’t like having to pack my own bags: You need to toughen up a bit – it’s really not that hard. Would it surprise you to know that practically all supermarkets in the UK require you to pack your own bags? It’s the way the world is moving, and once you have a system (i.e. chuck everything in the trolley then pack it into bags once you open the boot (that’s trunk for you Americans) of your car) it really isn’t an issue.
  • Their fruit and vegetables aren’t as good as Coles/Woolworths: It’s true that some of their fruit and vegetables may not be AAA quality like you buy at Coles/Woolworths, but you just need to pick the best ones out. Sometimes they don’t seem to be able to get enough of a certain fruit/vegetable at a decent price so the standard drops or they just don’t have any. But this is probably just a good indication that it wasn’t cost-effective anyway, so surely you can do without it for this week?
  • There isn’t as much choice for each product: Damn right there isn’t! That’s because they have deliberately found a good quality option for that product and there is no need to provide 10 other options for the same thing! The process is so fast this way and you don’t lose out on quality – you may just need to get used to a slightly different (not worse, but often better) taste on some products.

5. My tips to reform your previously ridiculous approach to grocery shopping

  • Use the “Out of Milk” shopping app (or any equivalent that you prefer) to prepare a list of groceries required before you shop. This is such an efficient approach, and I will do a more detailed review in a future post.

    Out of Milk - a great app for making sure you buy exactly what you need (and nothing else).

    Out of Milk – a great app for making sure you buy exactly what you need (and nothing else).

  • Only purchase items that are on the shopping list – don’t fall into the trap of just picking up items as you see them in the supermarket.
  • Shop at Aldi for 99% of your groceries and for the items that you cannot get at Aldi, seriously consider whether you really do need those items. If you keep going back to Coles/Woolworths for those other few items chances are that you might start buying other things there. The best results will be achieved by making Aldi the only supermarket that you use.
  • Aim to go to the supermarket using a regular schedule (e.g. every Saturday morning), as less trips to the supermarket mean less money spent.
  • Have the most disciplined person in the relationship do the actual shopping, and keep in mind that this may not necessarily be Mum.
  • Pay on EFTPOS (or your country’s equivalent), not credit card, to avoid any surcharge as any reward points won’t be worth the additional cost.
  • Get one of those keyring tokens that you can put in a shopping trolley so that you never have to search for a coin to get a trolley.
  • Just throw all of your groceries straight into the trolley after they have been scanned at the checkout, and when you get back to your car (or your bike with a biker trailer if that’s what you use) you can unpack them into the shopping bags.
  • Respect the efficiency of Aldi – get in and out quickly, be conscious of your surroundings and  hold other people up. You can always tell a newbie at Aldi as they screw around for ages at the checkouts.
  • While Aldi sell all sorts of non-grocery-related junk (e.g. electronics, BBQs, etc), I simply bypass this section of the store every week. All of this crap is usually listed in the weekly catalogue, and while they offer you the catalogue every time you go through the checkout/register, I always say no as have no interest in any of that other junk. Plus the catalogue is in paper form, which is one of my pet hates, so why would you want to take one anyway?

So there you have it – how to save heaps of cash on groceries and make the shopping way more efficient. I’m just amazed that more people haven’t made the switch already!

My challenge to you is to make the change and start saving cash today. You won’t regret it – you just need to keep an open mind to get through the change period and you will wonder what you have been doing all of these years shopping at one of the big duopoly supermarkets!


7 thoughts on “How to bring efficiency and frugality to your grocery shopping

  1. Nice to meet another Aldi fan! Aldi is also my favourite supermarket. It has the products that we like and really fresh produce. I don’t know about the Aldi’s in AUS, but I’m not thrilled with the Aldis here wrapping the veggies in plastic. That’s the big downer for me. But otherwise, yay to Aldi!

  2. Yeah, they wrap some of their fruit and veg in plastic here too but a lot of it isn’t wrapped though. I don’t know why they bother sometimes – the packaging doesn’t really protect the produce and you’re just going to throw it out straight away anyway!

  3. Oh I’ve just found this blog and am now binge reading all the posts!! One thing I’d be curious to know is if you buy your meat at Aldi and what’s the quality like? That’s a big thing holding me back as I don’t like unethically sourced meat and try to buy free range where possible.

    • Hi, I’m glad you’re liking the blog so far. Yes, we buy all of our meat at Aldi and have found it to be very good quality. We have actually been told that many of the suppliers actually give their best cuts to Aldi and then pass the rest on to the other supermarkets, and we don’t have any trouble believing that as the meat has been very good. I don’t know where they stand in relation to free range (although they label things pretty well with that sort of thing) but I would just check it out.

  4. Excellent article! But I have one objection: the non-food articles at Aldi are not crap- at least not here in Germany. Especially their sportswear and children’s clothing is very popular so you need to stand in line before the store opens! I have a laptop from Aldi, bought a PC there in high-school- both excellent value for price. I even have some kitchen gadgets Mom bought there in the 90s (I could tell you the exact date, she keeps all receipts).

    • Yeah, you’re probably right about the stuff in the non-food articles. I have been changing my opinion on those items in recent times after hearing feedback from friends and family about their televisions and ski gear. I even have a client at work that bought a Medion computer from there and they are very happy with it.

      While some of it is probably decent stuff, I still prefer to avoid the temptation of that section – I just stick to what I have on the shopping list! If I were to need a new computer/TV/ski gear/whatever else then I would be sure to have a look at Aldi though!

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