It was an awkward moment.
At the cash register, the clerk placed my cashews, ice pops, deodorant and laundry detergent into a shopping cart, which I thought was very nice of her. After all, I had clumsily grabbed the items without bothering to find a cart. However, once I paid and started to wheel the cart away, she said, “Sir, you can’t use the cart.” (Apparently, that’s just where the cashier places the items.)
I gathered my items in an uncomfortable hug and scanned the store for a shopping bag. Noting my confusion, the clerk said, “Sir, there are no bags.” I shrugged my shoulders and headed to the car. While I simultaneously tried to balance my load and fish the car keys out of my pocket, the can of cashews fell onto the street and rolled away.
This was my first experience at the discount retailer Aldi. The German chain, which offers “Simply Smarter Shopping,” recently opened its first store near my house. Needing a few odds and ends, and cashews, I decided to try it out.
In a way, I was hoping it would be a larger version of the “no frills” aisle I grew up with at Pathmark. Here every item was simply labeled exactly what it was: “BEER,” “ICED TEA” or “POTTED MEAT FOOD PRODUCT.” No need for fancy brand names.
Nearly all color was banished from this aisle. Packaging was white with black print. It was a sensory-deprivation retail experience à la “Altered States.”
I have fond memories of the no-frills iced tea, thinking it tasted better than just about anything. Only years later I’d realize it was delicious because my friend’s mom used eight scoops of tea mix, instead of the recommended four scoops, every time she made a pitcher.
However, it’s safe to say my childhood home was not a no-frills household. It was stocked full of Jell-O pudding pops, Chef Boyardee mini raviolis, peach Hi-C and Wonder Bread. It was an explosion of color, logos and branding. And it worked. I love brands. You’ll never convince me there is a better tasting orange juice than Tropicana, even if it were the same liquid in a different bottle.
To this day, I always warily eye the CVS store brand of acetaminophen that my wife buys when I have a headache. I am convinced it’s less effective because the bottle does not have the brand name of Tylenol, Excedrin or even Bayer.
That’s why for me to purchase Tandil detergent instead of Tide, and other faux brands, at Aldi is telling. But my habits, like a lot of people’s, have changed. I’m a lot more flexible and frugal.
Costco trips have become a family event, where we buy giant cans of tuna fish, boxes of Altoids and the occasional bulky plastic package of tube socks. Three hundred dollars later, we wheel our oversized cart full of deals to the car.
In addition, successful couponing has become something of a matter of pride. A neighbor recently bragged about his trampoline purchase. “I found a $100 coupon online!” (Seems dangerous somehow, doesn’t it?) There’s even a show called “Extreme Couponing” dedicated to those who are determined to save as much as possible on every purchase.
In fact, “considered purchases” now require a visit online to see if there is a deal. This also holds true of something as simple as a visit to theme parks or the local produce farm. There is always someone, somewhere, offering a deal. That’s why sites like RetailMeNot.com, which offers online codes for discounts, deals and promotions, have taken off.
Chain stores, meanwhile, have gotten completely out of hand. At this point, it is inexcusable to shop at Macy’s without a coupon for 20 percent off or $25 off. Macy’s is successfully renting me by using deep discounts and a continual flurry of offers online and off.
I’m certain I will always look for coupons now, even though this behavior was once alien to me.
Even haggling has come into vogue. Last week, my washing machine went on the fritz and flooded my entire basement, spurring me to purchase a new washer (after I cleaned up the mess). I drove to a local appliance retailer only to find that the less expensive model I was looking to purchase was out of stock. Rather than lose me, the store offered me the model that was $150 more for the same price. The sight of me walking out the door to go to Best Buy was apparently too much to bear.
Okay, what have I learned since the economy went sour? Off-brand products aren’t half bad, couponing is very good and haggling can be great. Once things turn around, am I going to revert to my old habits? Not likely.
I think of my grandmother in Ohio who grew up during the Great Depression and eating whatever her father killed for dinner. I have fond memories of playing made-up games with wooden clothespins and wooden checkers, like “pigs in the pen.” (The clothespins were the fence, and the checkers were the pigs.) We used our imaginations and whatever she had. There were no Fisher-Price toys in her home.
It’s a safe assumption that the recession has made us thriftier — just like the Depression taught our grandparents to be. Many of us are hesitant to throw things away (you know, like food.) The threshold in terms of paying to fix something versus buying it new has changed. Moreover, we’ve had to learn how to budget because once-easy-to-attain credit sources have dried up.
So a trip to Aldi with its oddly unfinished décor and veiled threats of an “unbeatable” double guarantee has become a part of life. And a dented, stray can of cashews is a part of the experience. Next time, I just need to remember to bring my own shopping bags. Live and learn.
Kenneth Hein is director of North American marketing for gyro
Follow him @KennethHein