I can still remember a row of shops in Footscray, where I lived as a kid in the late 50s, early 60s, that had a milk bar, green grocer, butcher, fish and chip shop, newsagent etc. Everything that the family needed was walking distance away and I can’t remember a single supermarket back in those days. I do remember the Footscray markets where we often went to get stuff that wasn’t available in our local Australian shops. The Footscray markets back in those days was predominantly run by Italian migrants, before the Greeks took over and then the Vietnamese, who still appeared to have a strong presence. But a fire in Dec 2016 gutted the market, though as with everything, it now looks like becoming housing. I can’t even remember the first supermarket that arrived in our area or where, but over the decades, the big two supermarkets Coles and Woolworths (nee Safeway) and then 711, slowly destroyed every single corner shop, be it a milk bar, green grocer or butcher in Melbourne.
For decades Australians have been held hostage to the big two supermarket chains, with their high prices, often crap quality (especially vegetables), poor choices and did I mention high prices. Little wonder that Australian supermarkets have been the most profitable businesses compared to any other supermarket chain in the world (based on percentage returns). That’s basically because there has been no competition (IGA doesn’t really count) and both have treated Australian shoppers with contempt. What’s worse is that neither had supported Australian producers, preferring to increasingly source supplies from overseas, usually frozen and then refrozen for stores shelves. Whether it’s bread, fruit, meat, most often its never been fresh. Little wonder that those vegetables, especially tomatoes, that you bought on Monday were already beginning to rot well before the end of the week, and fingers crossed if the potatoes were still good by the weekend. And the big two ran roughshod over their local suppliers all the time if reports are to be believed.
However, that all changed in 2001. That’s the year that Aldi arrived in Australia and I don’t think the big two fully realised what was about to happen. Ever since Aldi first came to Australia and we got one in our suburb in Melbourne, I’ve been a pretty keen Aldi supporter. If nothing else, Aldi’s arrival brought to heel the price gauging that was going on with the big two supermarkets (and to some extent IGA where it existed). Not only was there price gouging, but you couldn’t go from one store to another and buy the same products for the same prices; prices were determined by some ritual involving what both could screw from customers, with nothing to do with the actual wealth of the area. Aldi rolled a grenade under the doors of both Coles and Woolworths and woke up a few fat and over-contented executives. The rest is history and Aldi continues to grow and continues to be more than a thorn in the side of the big two judging by the yearly complaints from their competitors (even Dick Smith manages to keep up with his absurd thoughts – it’s never his fault).
Aldi hasn’t had it easy in Australia by any means, often fighting opposition to stores by those who are threatened by competition, and that can include customers. An example is that of the Leongatha Vic Aldi store. In 2013, when Aldi applied for a permit to build a new store in Leongatha, a handful of people submitted a series of complaints that stalled the start of the project for over six months. The complaints varied from ‘sacred trees’ being destroyed, to traffic becoming untenable because of truck movements. The trees suddenly became sacred and where the Aldi store was proposed, was right next door to an IGA that had truck traffic all the time with very poor access. The only other supermarket in Leongatha was a Woolworths, so my suspicions were that the handful of protesters had some vested interests in both IGA and Woolworths, rather than the interests of the community at heart. Eventually the planning permits went through and a very welcome, to many, Aldi store opened up and has been doing a roaring trade ever since.
Has it affected IGA and Woolworths? I doubt it, as the IGA and Woolworths carparks are always full. And like many people around Australia, there are those that simply refuse to walk into an Aldi store having the misconception that everything in the store is crap. We do just about all of our grocery shopping in Aldi and only visit Woolworths for a few products that can’t be sourced from Aldi and some products that I find to be crap Aldi. In the meat department, the only thing I have never found to be good are the lamb products and sausages (excluding lamb chops) and packet pasta (the quick to make stuff you put in a pot with milk and simmer until ready). I don’t know what it is about the lamb, we’ve tried them all and to me they all taste awful, especially since I enjoy my lamb. The sausages are so full of fat that my BBQ has sometimes caught fire because the plate has overflowed. The pasta, which is something I make when I really need a quick meal addition and which is one of the few packet meals I eat and enjoy, is utterly tasteless. That’s the reason why I shop at Woolworths from time to time, the name brand pasta is so much better, as are the sausages (lamb not so much). But that aside, Aldi products such as cheese and wine have numerous won awards, much to the chagrin of other providers.
Of course there are also the weekly tool etc sales that are on and I’ve bought a lot of their stuff over the years. Most of it has been pretty good, with only a few needed to be returned, and the return policy is always good. We’ve had one of their six burner BBQs as well as kettle BBQ (Weber clone) and both have worked flawlessly. The BBQ has been going for over 10 years, outlasting every BBQ that I’ve owned, including a pretty expensive Beefeater one. I still regularly use their tools and kitchen implements such as electric drills, slow cookers and others I may have mentioned previously in other stories about cooking. Though it’s fair to say that I’ve perhaps had more product returns in the last few years than ever in the early years. I think the quality can be somewhat hit with some tools lately, and definitely don’t buy any drill bits or saw blades nowadays, as their sources has somehow managed to make these out of cheese. But the regular tool sales also has an impact on other stores like Bunnings, who wait for the catalogues and then reduce their equivalent product prices for the duration of the sale.
Truth be told, I am a bit of a fan of Aldi. I like the fact that everything is consistent and everything is located logically (though I hate the way the Leongatha store has been recently rearranged – all cold products should be at the end of the shopping line, not the beginning), unlike Coles and Woolworths where the intent is to force you go through every aisle so that you (or your kids) will impulse shop. Aldi’s theory is to get you through the store quickly and it works and which is why the range isn’t as bewildering as Coles and Woolworths. My only real hate are those people who never take a trolley and fill arms or bags with goods and then cause long delays at the checkout while they slowly bag their products at the counter, which is designed to move the products from the scanner into the trolley quickly, not cater to dumb shoppers. I guess the Germans never thought Australia would have so many dumb shoppers.