Johana Szokie is one of two dozen ardent Aldi fans who have called me for two years to learn when their favorite little grocer finally makes landfall in the Tampa Bay area.
"The prices are cheaper than anybody and the food is good," said the Holiday retiree.
She'll drive to Clearwater this week to fill her pantry from Aldi's thin 1,400-item selection of such items as Casa Mamita Organic Blue Tortilla Chips, La Mas Rica beans and $2.79-a-gallon milk.
That's a buck below the going rate for milk here. And that's not a sale price.
The first wave of nine local Aldis opens Thursday, a number expected to top 20 by 2010 as this cult favorite spreads across Central Florida and gives direct rival Save-A-Lot migraines.
The steady U.S. growth of 850-store Aldi, with revenues that grew 13 percent in 2007 to $3.6-billion, is testimony to the efficiency of what's called limited-assortment grocers that sell only the basics in bare-bones stores. It's part of a new retail trend gathering steam: industry interest in grocery stores the size of drugstores. Supermarket and discount chains are racing to invent their own versions of Aldi and its family owned sibling — budget gourmet Trader Joe's, which is scouting Florida.
"People are tired of shopping supercenters, negotiating big parking lots and waiting in long checkout lines," said David Behm, who heads Aldi's Florida Division. "We're priced 16 percent below Wal-Mart."
Aldi's quirks set a frugal tone. You bag your own groceries. Carts cost a quarter you get back upon returning the cart. Reusable plastic bags are 6 cents, paper a dime and a $1.99 eco-bag holds three bags full.
About 95 percent of the products are Aldi brands. So no coupons or BOGO deals. Goods are sold from open cartons. Meats and produce are pre-packed.
"We save a ton on expenses by keeping it simple," said Matt Craddick, director of operations.
Aldi is more practical than cheap. Cashiers are seated to reduce carpal tunnel problems. Bar codes are printed all over packages to speed scanning. To limit bending injuries, stockers use hydraulic lifts.
As a result, Aldi can run a store with 12 people, a tenth of Publix. But it pays more: cashiers start at $10 an hour plus health, dental and vision coverage.
It's part of a global grocery empire held by the Albrecht family of Germany. Run by Karl Albrecht, Aldi took some cues from Trader Joe's, which is run by brother Theo.
The concrete-gray stores now sport colorful graphics. The fare features inexpensive wines and a changing choice of frozen entrees.
Limited-assortment grocers control less than 5 percent of food sales. But the rush to small stores came in response to deep-pocketed Tesco, Wal-Mart's biggest discount store rival in the United Kingdom, which has promised to paper the United States with its little Fresh & Easy Markets. With 72 locations on the West Coast, Tesco is coming to the Eastern Seaboard.
Tesco's arrival triggered small store tests from Safeway, Supervalu (which owns Save-A-Lot), Whole Foods and Wal-Mart, which debuts its Marketside stores next month.
Among the copycats, however, not even Tesco turns a profit.
Mark Albright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8252.