TAMPA — The aisles are wide, the lighting bright. The prices are low, and, thanks to a 25-cent return system, no carts are left astray in the parking lot.
Sounds like a typical Aldi grocery store. Except, it's actually a Save-A-Lot.
The new store at Armenia Avenue and W Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard that opened at the end of January doesn't look like the Save-A-Lot you're used to seeing: The color scheme is blue and gray with red accents. The freezers are big and the produce section has been expanded. Its new logo and decor are turning shoppers' heads.
You've probably heard about the Amazon Effect, the disruption of brick-and-mortar retail thanks to the rise of e-commerce. But could there be an Aldi Effect?
"Aldi has become a cool place to shop," said Lawrence Aylward, supermarket expert and editor of trade magazine Store Brand. "They're a real disruptor in the grocery game and by the time they're done expanding, they're going to be the third largest grocer in the nation."
Save-A-Lot has been quietly opening a fleet of new stores with shiny gray floors, showcase freezers, elevated shelving and bold signage. It still has the dry and packaged staples for which it’s known, but has grown its selection of fresh foods and added a money-back guarantee — all things Aldi has done over the last several years.
Aldi has announced a $5 billion plan to become the country's largest grocer after Kroger and behemoth Walmart by 2022. It has unrolled makeover after makeover while it opens new stores in suburban, middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. It has a no-frills approach to groceries. Yet it sells organic produce, kombucha and vegan cheese, shattering the bargain store stereotype, growing its private-label goods and forcing other grocers, even Walmart and Publix, to take notice.
It wasn't that long ago that Save-A-Lot and Aldi were looked at as one-in-the-same deep-discount grocers. But in the last six years, the gap between what they sell and their store count has widened. Since 2008, Aldi has doubled in size. Its 2018 sales outpaced Trader Joe's, another German company with its own beloved store brands, at nearly $14.7 billion, according to data compiled by market researcher and publication Progressive Grocer.
Save-A-Lot has gone through changes of its own. First, it was sold to Onex Corp. two years ago. But it is only recently that shoppers started seeing something different about the look and feel of the Missouri chain. There's about 1,200 Save-A-Lot stores across the country. About 150 of them are in Florida, its biggest market.
When Progressive Grocer ranked the top 50 grocery stores in 2010 by sales, Aldi was No. 22. SuperValu, a grocery conglomerate that was Save-A-Lot's parent company, came in at No. 4. In the 2018 ranking, Aldi jumped a spot from the year prior to No. 9 and Save-A-Lot, now on its own with Onex, ranked 29.
Save-A-Lot is known for opening in underserved communities and food deserts, where there was historically limited access to fresh foods. Its latest Florida and New Jersey stores have gone in areas where they're nearer to grocery competitors.
"It is clear Save-A-Lot is making the effort to pivot without alienating their existing customers, curating an enhanced store experience in their new locations," said Mark Thompson, owner of real estate tracking website GroceryAnchored.com.
The West Tampa Save-A-Lot was buzzing when it opened Jan. 31. It's the second in the region to unveil the new look inside a former Walgreens. A Port Richey location opened in December.
Store manager Luis Martinez stood near the entryway. He had quarters on hand for anyone confused by the new cart system, which mimics Aldi's: Put 25 cents into a lock to release a shopping cart, and get the quarter back when you return it to the bay. It saves stores money by eliminating the need for a cart attendant.
Mingshen Wu, a semi-retired math professor at the University of Tampa, was eager to get inside. The new shop is just three minutes from his house. He planned to make it his regular shopping spot. It's clean, easy to navigate and he likes the deals.
"I tried to stop by a week ago," Wu said, chuckling. "They told me they weren't open yet."
A modern wood lighting fixture hung over the produce display, which was spilling with 49-cent avocados. Wu's wife pulled a 4-pound bag of oranges for $1.99 into her cart.
"The total decor has undergone a complete change," said the chain's Florida district manager Jim DeMola. "We're featuring produce, fresh-cut meat and expanded frozen foods."
In the last two years, Save-A-Lot has hired a new CEO, shifted its headquarter a few miles to Earth City, Mo., launched its rebranding and dropped the prices for hundreds of its staple items. DeMola said remodels at existing stores will begin later this year, in either the second or third quarter.
At the same time, Save-A-Lot is growing its custom offerings — something Aldi long ago mastered with 90 percent of its items all its own brand.
It's something Aylward, whose magazine focuses on private labels, said a lot of leading grocers are emulating. Store brands usually have better margins for the retailers creating them, too.
"The private label industry is really on the upswing thanks to retailers like Aldi and Trader Joe's," said Aylward. "I think they've really impacted the industry in a positive way."
Publix, Walmart and Kroger have all expanded their private labels and Aylward said Aldi's success winning customers' trust with non-national brands has made shoppers more likely to try other private label products. Aldi's organic and gluten-free product lines are also what Aylward said has moved Aldi's image from "deep-discount" brand to "value store."
"Value is quality and it's price — not just price," he said. "Fifteen years ago when I first started shopping at Aldi … I wasn't blown away. I think I'm speaking for most Aldi customers when I say that now, it's a totally different story."
Save-A-Lot, he said, still falls into that "deep-discount" category.
But if the new bay-area store is an indication, the chain is trying to make a move.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct number of Save-A-Lot locations.
Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] Follow @sara_dinatale.