It’s okay to be a generalist.
The quarter operated carts. The bagless checkout. The palet stack selection. The floor tiles, cash registers, and minimal signage.
The Germans have a word for it: Schlicht.
There’s a simplicity to Aldi. It’s so simple in fact, that it turns first-time shoppers away. Which is unfortunate, there’s a lot one can learn about life in that store.
The name Aldi is an acronym of Albrecht Discounts, with Albrecht being the surname of brothers Theo and Karl who transformed their mother’s thrifty shop into a multi-billion dollar empire.
At one point, Theo was kidnapped and held for ransom. They paid the conspirators and won a court battle to write it off as a business expense. But that’s a story for another day.
Our focus here is not on the incredibly low prices or savvy business techniques, instead, we will focus on the hodgepodge assortment of life lessons Aldi can teach us.
So if you have a spare quarter and a few reusable bags lying around, let’s explore how Aldi can change your life too.
1. Don’t Try to Be Anything More Than Who You Are
Aldi is not Whole Foods. They don’t offer varieties of organic, vegan, or gluten-free granola bars. Aldi is not Walmart. They don’t stock every shelf to the brim with every item imaginable.
Aldi doesn’t have an in-store deli and bakery. They don’t hand out samples. And they do not have coupons.
Aldi is Aldi, a plain, straight-forward grocery store. I respect they’ve accepted who they are and have stuck to their identity.
When I left my full-time career in 2017 and stepped into the world as a freelancer I made one huge mistake: I pretended to be somebody I was not.
I didn’t know what I was doing, so I pretended I knew. I didn’t have a real functioning business, so I pretended I did. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I was one of those people who filed a couple of papers to the state and proudly displayed ‘CEO’ in their Twitter bios.
My ego was fragile at the time. I wasn’t making money. I tried to be something more than myself. This is a lesson Aldi has taught me over and over:
It’s okay to accept who you are and not try to be anything more.
It’s taken me the past three years to accept I’m nothing more than a glorified stay-at-home dad who writes online and freelances from time to time for clients. I’m not a full-scale web design agency or an entrepreneur or CEO.
Unless CEO stands for Chief Entertainment Officer.
Sorry, I’m prone to bad dad jokes.
2. Fewer Choices Are Usually Better
Aldi has three types of chips: plain, barbecue, and sour cream and onion (a Wilson family favorite). When I feel like splurging on a bag of chips, my decision is instant. I don’t have to waste time calculating which texture, bag size, and flavor combination I need.
Aldi has one texture, one bag size, and three flavors. I go for the barbecue or sour cream and onion.
We humans don’t know it, but we prefer fewer choices. Psychologist Barry Schwartz argues in his book, The Paradox of Choice, that humans experience more anxiety when presented with more choices:
“Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.”
I’ve applied this concept to many aspects of my life.
With parenting, I usually let my kids choose between two movies rather than scrolling through the list of options. It teaches them decisiveness and saves me the frustration.
With freelancing, I give my clients fewer choices on projects. When designing a new website I list out a few features I can add. I tell them simple is better and we only implement one or two.
With writing, I try to limit my number of anecdotes in a piece. Instead of making my readers navigate a complicated narrative with multiple, unrelated themes, I stick to one (case in point, Aldi) and draw conclusions from that.
Schwartz is correct, we need choices in our life but not too many.
3. Design Experience to Achieve a Certain Result
Aldi faces the same dilemma as most grocery retailers: how to sell quality goods at low prices and still make a profit.
While big-box stores may run promotions or have their suppliers pay to be on their shelves (Target), Aldi took a simple approach.
To cut down on the number of staff needed to run the store, Aldi designed their customer shopping experience to be more self-service.
Take their shopping carts for example. Do you know why it needs a quarter to unlock? Without it, Aldi would need to hire someone to be a cart wrangler because people are lazy and would leave their carts in the parking lot. Instead, everyone returns their cart to the docking station because they want their quarter back.
Why do you have to bag your own groceries? Simple, they don’t need to hire baggers to perform a job you easily can do yourself.
If you also look closely, Aldi doesn’t have shelves. Most things are still in their original shipping boxes and pallets. Less time unpacking and restocking shelves means, you guessed it, less staff needed.
To achieve a result (lower operating cost) Aldi purposely designed their stores to alter their customer shopping behaviors.
The same concept applies to our individual lives. If you want to change your behaviors, design your environment to affect those behaviors.
I set my coffee maker the night before so I wake up early. I’m practically addicted to the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafting through my apartment. It’s enough to get me out of bed and at my desk to write by 6:30 AM.
I keep my Kindle on my side table to read a few extra pages every night. I deleted social media apps on my phone to reduce my screen time.
If you want to change your habits, find the small things you could change in your environment to alter your behavior.
- Go to sleep in your work out clothes
- Buy a Roomba
- Keep your meds next to your toothbrush
- Don’t keep unhealthy snacks in the house
- Label your leftovers
4. It’s Okay to Be a Generalist
Aldi doesn’t do one thing extremely well. Instead, they’re known for doing many things pretty well. If I’m craving a hot buffet, I’ll go to Whole Foods. If I need strong bread flour, I’ll go to Safeway. But if I need my general grocery staples, Aldi is my go-to.
There are two ways to make it in this world, as a specialist or as a generalist. They both come with their own perks and downfalls. Becoming a specialist is risky and takes great effort, but the upside is huge. Becoming a generalist is less risky and it’s harder to stand out, but the upside is stable.
I think the best path is somewhere in the middle. Specializing in a few skills but good at a lot of secondary skills. This is Aldi. Low prices, simple shopping experience, a somewhat okay selection. It works, people show up week after week. Those people tell other people. And so forth.
Personally, this is how I structure my freelancing business. I mainly specialize in building eLearning and membership websites, but I also offer a variety of skills tied to running a successful membership website (email newsletters, copywriting, content creation, etc.).
I stand out because I solve a very specific pain point and other general pain points too.
5. Promotions Are Expensive. Someone Else Still Pays for Them
Aldi doesn’t run promotions. No Bogo sales. No “For a Limited Time” signs. No coupons.
The closest thing you’ll see as a sale is in their weekly circular which shows the specials for the current week (which are nothing more than temporary price drops).
The reason Aldi doesn’t run aggressive sales is that they are expensive to run. Think about it, if you buy one thing and get one thing free, someone has to pay for the free thing. In the end, it’s the customer who still pays.
What has this taught me about life? It’s taught me that there’s a cost to everything, even if that thing is “free”.
6. Pass It On
After years of shopping at Aldi, I’ve witnessed a strange ritual myself and other shoppers do. Every once in a while, after you’ve finished loading your groceries into your car and trek back across the parking lot to dock your cart, you’ll run into someone who’s going in to shop. To save you a trip, they hand you a quarter and take the cart themselves. It’s a fair exchange and a win for both of you.
Sometimes, if I’m feeling generous, I’ll let them just have the cart, especially if someone gave me the cart in the first place. It’s a small gesture, a $0.25 donation if you want to put a price on it, but it carries with it the potential of generating a cascade of generous acts.
It’s not much, but for me, it’s a reminder of our own potential as humans. One smile. One big tip. One act of kindness can change someone’s day and make the world a slightly more enjoyable place.
I like that.
7. We Might Have Different Packaging, but We’re All the Same on the Inside
Growing up, I didn’t like Aldi. Aldi was the poor people store. Or at least so I thought. While my friends all enjoyed superior name-brand cereals, my family was left with the knock-off imitations that obviously tasted worse. I was jealous of my friends.
I can assure you, after extensive testing and budgeting as an adult, I have found no difference between Toucan Sam’s Fruit Loops and Aldi parrot’s Fruit Rounds. The only difference is one is $3.99 and the other $1.29.
The packaging is different, but the inside is the same. I think you can figure where I’m going with that.
Go, Save Money and Be Better
If you’ve never shopped at Aldi before you might have heard rumors of a complicated self-service experience, bland selections, and poor produce.
True, Aldi’s celery is hit or miss, but don’t let that dissuade you from receiving life lesson bombs from the humble Germain retail giant.
When I step into an Aldi I’m reminded of my favorite H.J. Heinz quote:
To do a common thing uncommonly well brings success.
I don’t know if Heinz was talking about business or life, but I think Aldi has applied it well to both facets. And they’re savage enough to stock their own ketchup (which is quite good by the way).