Aldi for fashionistas
Glamorous advertising, scene 1: Aldi Men's Marl Zipped Hoody
As such, it has caught the imagination of the local media, including that bastion of the British middle-class, the Daily Mail.
In addition to buying food staples at the German discount giant, male shoppers can now trendy themselves up with stunningly priced Chino shorts, Oxford shirts, linen trousers, T-shirts, casual padded sandals, summer hats, and zipped hoodies. The rock-bottom prices certainly make competitors such as Marks & Spencer or next look decidedly uncool.
The range went in store on 19th July and was only available while stocks lasted. The tremendous success of this "Specialbuy" is shown by the way our mystery shoppers couldn't find one item in the English stores they visited at the beginning of last week.
But they also confirmed how the Aldi system tolerates clothing to be merchandised as the day progresses. Any shorts were only in bargain bins, and the display of its popular "Back to School" uniform range looked pretty lacklustre.
So is Aldi winning new customers with its special fashion offers only to turn them off and away once they get there?
Glamorous advertising, scene 2: Aldi Men's Oxford Shirt
The Aldi Süd subsidiary has clearly also mastered the art of creating a buzz in the stores via its exciting "Specialbuys", which have recently ranged from home textiles and DIY lines to motorcycle clothing. Only last summer, the discounter created a sensation by introducing affordable school uniforms that undercut the big multiples by 40 per cent.
The no-frills company with a traditionally utilitarian ethos has obviously had the nous to employ some very creative local PR companies to run its highly effective advertising campaigns. In a particularly clever marketing move, Aldi has also become the first-ever supermarket partner of the GB team for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
"If Aldi goes on at this rate," says Bryan Roberts, director of retail insights at Kantar Retail, "they will soon become more British than the Queen!"
The sum of these measures has helped to make Aldi Britain's sixth-largest supermarket with a market share of 5.6% (Kantar Worldpanel for the twelve weeks to July 19) and it remains the UK's fastest growing retailer.
Store reality check, scene 1: The everyday life of an Aldi UK bargain bin
Classically, fashion is a totally different game from food retailing with far higher gross margins in order to hedge the risk of each new collection. After all, people will always need milk, bread and butter, but they don't necessarily have to buy your red dresses and short skirts, when the colour of the season is blue and everyone has gone crazy about slacks.
In order to achieve their high margins, fashion retailers have generally a far greater sense of store ambience than their food counterparts and have invested accordingly. Chasing fast stock turns and volume, grocers have frequently turned to the merely functional in order to underline their price message.
But this hasn't stopped Asda pioneering the "George" fashion brand in its UK hypermarkets or Tesco developing its successful F&F label. "George proved that low-price fashion can work very effectively for a food and non-food grocer, if marketed and zoned in-store effectively as a credible department and brand in its own right," says Clive Woodger, chairman of the London-based store design and brand consultancy SCG International.
But Asda works with far more floor space than Aldi who isn't able to offer customers changing cubicles and has to rely instead on a very flexible returns policy.
The odds against discounters succeeding in fashion are generally higher anyway. Whereas a certain percentage of shoppers will accept a Spartan store ambience for demonstrably low prices, when it comes to food or even basic textiles, but fashion items, with their higher emotionality and stronger lifestyle connotations, are particularly difficult to sell in a discount environment.
So why then is Aldi so conspicuously successful? "As consumers increasingly focus on sustainability, those retail brands which offer product quality and longevity at an affordable price are demonstrating the ability to win market share of the clothing sector from the 'fast fashion' merchants. In the UK we have brands like Cotton Traders thriving on motorway service stations and garden centres, which have nothing to do with 'fashion', but everything to do with product performance and value," explains Webb.
Store reality check, scene 2: Aldi UK's popular school uniforms
If one had to fault Aldi at all, it would be to criticise a brilliantly simple system that delivers cleverly marketed goods in perfect order every morning, only to let them end in the kind of muddle documented in our photo.
At any rate, this store reality is certainly very far away from the glossy advertising leaflets for the Men's Summer offer kindly provided by London PR company clarion: pdf-1729.pdf
Surely this risks deterring the new middle-class customers drawn to Aldi by such effective advertising from coming again despite the fantastic prices? After all, this wouldn't be the first retailer in history with a great first act, when it comes to special offers etc., but a poor second one when customers encounter shelf realities.
What the experts say
German trade experts, however, smile knowingly when they hear such criticism. They point to the concept behind Aldi: extreme efficiency in all spheres from central buying via streamlined logistics to POS in order to offer the public brand-like quality at unbeatable prices.
They also remind one that Aldi customers are primarily there for the incredible price bargains and will accept a little chaos caused by other customers having a rummage. After all, constantly reordering the shelves to make them look neater and tidier would merely increase cost and potentially jeoparise Aldi's USP: low prices.
Who can argue with the expert, who can argue with Aldi's phenomenal growth? But their Calvinistic logic still sounds counter-intuitive somehow. Surely the way goods are merchandised on the shelves is important to customers at any time of the day and in whatever type of store they are?
In all walks of life visual presentation is key. A truly professional restaurateur, for instance, doesn't just throw a meal on a plate, but tries to dress the food in an attractive way because he or she knows that the eye eats as well as the mouth. If you go on a date or apply for a new job, you put your best clothes on.
Of course, the experts would answer that Aldi's Spartan ambience is deliberately planned in order to convey a no-frills, low-price message. But as Aldi has already proved with its Specialbuys that no-frills doesn't have to mean no thrills, why not also show the world that non-food areas don't have to look like a messy teenager's bedroom? Unless, of course, Aldi is deliberately trying to create a serendipitous Aladdin's cave effect, but surely here we are far away from a Costco warehouse club or even an off-price concept such as TK Maxx or TEDi?
Clothes maketh the man
And even if one accepts the premise that customers don't care about presentation when it comes to low-priced food, can the same principle really apply to fashion?
Aldi has always been a pragmatist who learns from trial & error. Its operations have therefore been honed for decades to admirable efficiency, and, doubtless, constantly increasing sales figures will confirm to its all-powerful central controllers that it is doing far more right than wrong.
But, given the company's obvious attempts to trade-up and woo the middle-class consumer, doesn't the jumbled in-store photo shown here indicate that the merchandising of more sensitive products, such as clothing, still needs some optimisation?
Or, put in the military terms retail logistics people seem to so admire, has not the Overall Strategic Objective of cost blinded head office to the important tactical consideration of servicing its non-food spaces adequately?
Related article in German: By Mike Dawson in Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 34, 21.08.2015
Podcast. Click arrow to listen to an audio version of the text: