So I’m at an Aldi’s with a friend. She drives me around sometimes and in return I buy her groceries and gasoline. It’s more complicated, but I’m less than a paragraph in and I’m already boring myself. My humdrum social life details shouldn’t matter to you, beyond what you need for this story’s purposes.
Let me paint the scene. If you haven’t been to an Aldi’s before it’s similar to any grocery store but with some slight differences here and there. Like for example you have to put a quarter into your shopping cart. Most grocery stores don’t do this. If you want your quarter back, you will take the shopping cart back to where you found it so you can chain your shopping cart with the other chained shopping carts and you get your quarter back. If you don’t want your quarter back, you can leave the cart out in the parking lot like most people do at regular grocery stores, but you’re 25 cents poorer and whoever does bother to take the cart back, they get your money. It works for Aldi’s. They don’t have to hire extra employees to run around the parking lot at dusk collecting abandoned shopping carts. Ingenious? Or fiendishly clever? Or is something far more sinister going on here?
Aldi’s also makes you pay for shopping bags, so this encourages you to save your shopping bags and bring them back next time, which I never do cuz I always forget but that’s the cost I pay for not planning ahead. So Aldi’s is like any other grocery store, but in small ways it’s conditioning us to be better shoppers. So I’m in a mentally altered state when I go into an Aldi’s. When I enter the store, the immediate first row contains snacks like crackers, cookies, pretzels and even try breakfast cereals and it’s all welcoming and inviting with brightly colored boxes and everything’s low in price and looks tasty and my brain is like, why are they putting all this stuff in my face when I walk in the door? Were there focus groups and expensive studies and scientific papers and complicated behavioral conditioning involved? Or do companies pay Aldi’s to showcase their products in the first aisle? I’m being manipulated, and I’m being so subtly manipulated, it’s almost not a bad thing, which has me even more uncomfortable about being manipulated.
Anyway, so this is the mindset I’m in when I’m walking around in an Aldi’s. I’m sure they mean well, but so did Eleanor Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate. She was a patriotic woman who loved her son and her country and she was doing what she felt was best. Aside from this, my mind is also debating with itself if I want potatoes this time, since the last time I bought potatoes they grew eye stalks and I never ate them so not getting potatoes this time. My brain’s like: What the hell is vodka doing in this pizza sauce? Should I buy one to find out? My brain is all over the place in this place.
And my ladyfriend went to get her stuff and comes back now and then to put something in the cart. I’m not paying attention to her half of the cart except to make sure not to put anything in her half of the cart. We make a point to separate her things cuz she wants hers bagged separately from mine. Even though I’m paying for everything. I don’t want my stuff at her place or her stuff at my place. We hammer it out in the shopping cart before we get to the checkout counter. Of course it all gets mixed up anyway. So what I’m about to describe happen could be my fault, and I was being absent minded as I am wont to do. However, it’s not my fault. I’m telling you, I have gotten to the bottom of what makes Aldi’s so Manchurian Candidate-ish.
So anyway, most of the time I’m with the cart, cuz it’s my quarter. My ladyfriend wanders away and saunters back. I do the same. Sometimes we’re both with the cart. Sometimes only one of us is at the cart. More than once, there were a couple moments where the shopping cart was unattended. Now 20/20 hindsight. As I was wandering around, I was noticing other couples arguing with each other and pointing at their carts. At the time it barely registered in my mind. In one instance they were too far away for me to understand them. In another instance they were close but spoke Spanish. I figured, well they must be couples in love and that’s what couples do. I’m just friends with my ladyfriend so I got nothing to worry about.
“What did you do with my Cranberry Almond Chicken Salad?” my ladyfriend asks.
“Huh?” I say, barely paying attention cuz I’m trying to read a Raisin Bran box to make sure it doesn’t have phosphates in it. A beat goes by and she doesn’t say anything so I turn to her. She’s pointing in the cart. Like the other couples had done.
“I had a Cranberry Almond Chicken Salad in here. Where did you put it?”
“I didn’t put it anywhere.. wait,” I walk away from the cart.
I had passed by the Cranberry Almond Chicken Salad display a few minutes before so I walked back and curiously, next to where there’s a dozen or so Cranberry Almond Chicken Salads, one container of Cranberry Almond Chicken Salad sits among the Chipotle flavored Chicken Salads which were right next door to the Cranberry Almond Chicken Salads. That’s not where it was a few minutes before. I hand that to my ladyfriend.
She turns it over to review the expiration date: “That’s mine,” she says as she puts it back in the cart, which she is now navigating about the store apparently even though it’s my quarter, “it’s the only Cranberry Almond Chicken Salad with this expiration date.”
“Well I didn’t touch it.”
“How’d you know where to find it?”
“I was just here.” I wave my hand vaguely at the other Cranberry Almond Chicken Salads now disappointed they’re not going home with me, “I was gonna get one but it has sodium phosphates.”
She rolled her eyes. She believes my phosphate allergy is all in my head. I can’t eat anything with phosphates in it. Phosphates make my tonsils swell. She and I have argued about this at length before now. We don’t want to get into it at the Aldi’s. They’re my tonsils. She doesn’t have to put up with them.
“Well.” She turns on the balls of her feet, “it was an honest mistake,” and she walks away.
I’m about to shout after her, I didn’t touch your stupid Cranberry Almond Chicken Salad! but it never gets out of my mouth cuz I overhear some woman talking to an employee in the next aisle.
“Excuse me Miss but there are unattended shopping carts all over this store with refrigerated items in them! Are you aware of this? You people should be more careful!”
And I turn around and the voice is from an aisle over so I walk around the aisle to try to figure out who this was but even though I saw an employee there, there were two or three little old ladies walking away or facing away from her. I couldn’t get a bead on which little old lady had been talking to the employee. I got distracted by Genoa Salami which happens to be the only meat I can find without phosphate. I swear this new diet is turning me into a vegetarian against my will.
So I’ve already forgotten. We both finish collecting items, went through the check out, bagged everything, took it to the car and I got my quarter back. It wasn’t until hours later when I’m eating my genoa salami sammich with flat spinach leaves and phosphate free cheese on twelve grain bread that it hits me: there was a little old lady in the Aldi’s going around taking refrigerated items out of unattended shopping carts when no one was looking and putting them back on the refrigerated shelves! Then this little old lady went to an employee and complained about it!
Aldi’s is not run by focus groups and expensive studies and scientific papers which condition me into being a better customer. It reacts to little old ladies’ complaints. I would not be surprised if in the next few months, Aldi’s will find some way to strongly encourage customers to get refrigerated and frozen items last, before they get to check out, so there’s less of a chance of their groceries going sour before they get them home. Or perhaps they’ll make the entire store colder so you’ll have to wear parkas but nothing in your shopping cart will go sour while you’re shopping. Or perhaps all the shopping carts will include an ice cooler to keep some groceries cold while you step away for a moment to painstakingly read the nutritional details on the back of loaves of bread trying to find one without phosphates.
Odds are these new innovations will somehow involve having to stick a quarter somewhere, but you’ll get it back when you’re done.
This has not been a paid endorsement for Aldi’s. I do not wish to encourage or discourage your patronage of Aldi’s in any way. I do feel a compulsion to add that Aldi’s is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful chain of grocery stores I’ve ever known in my life. Do what you want.