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Architecture + Branding: Aldi’s American expansion plan shifts brand upscale with new prototype stores

1-Incremental to exponential growth

Initially growing in a slow methodical fashion since its American arrival in the mid-1970s, deep discounter Aldi had, for the most part, quietly established a network of stores concentrated in several beachhead states.

Founded by brothers Karl and Theo Albrecht in 1946, German-based grocer ALDI operates a total of approximately 9,000 stores located in the United States and several European countries (source: wikipedia). At the outset, in a fanatical effort to sell at the lowest possible price, merchandise selection was limited, slower-selling items would be systematically discontinued, no fresh produce was available, advertising was non-existent, store size was kept small, and the brothers pioneered the practise subtracting the maximum legal rebate of 3% before sale (source: wikipedia).

A dispute in 1960 would lead to the company being split into two groups, ALDI Nord (North – operating as ALDI MARKT) and ALDI Süd (South – operating as Aldi Süd), which continue to operate separately in defined trade areas (source: wikipedia). The Aldi name was introduced in 1962, and international expansion followed in the 1970s (source: wikipedia).

Methodically converting a subset of American shoppers to the no-frills approach along the way, the company added stores at a pace averaging 20 to 25 per year in the initial years, seeing that pace increase to roughly 50 per year by about mid-2000. In the later half of that same decade, Aldi embarked on an ambitious expansion plan that would see the number of new store openings approaching 80 per year in 2011 and 2012 (Source: NYTimes.com). The states of Texas, Florida, and New York, as well as the Northeast, are primarily targeted to absorb the bulk of the projected new Aldi stores.

Tampa Skyline with Convention Centre in foreground, Tampa, Florida

2-Breadth not depth

One of founding principles of Aldi’s approach to retailing has been limited selection, and ruthless shelf space competition. Although name brand products can be found, a high proportion of products sold at Aldi are Aldi branded products. Nonetheless, every single product sold must earn their space through continuous competition. Shelf space at a premium, product velocity is crucial.

A modern-day Aldi store offers over 1,400 regularly stocked items, including a limited selection of fresh produce and meat, refrigerated and frozen foods, as well as beers and wine (source: Aldi.us). By comparison, a typical supermarket may offer up to 30,000 items, and a Walmart Supercentre may stock well over 100,000 items. Thus, while most shoppers can complete the bulk of their food staples and essential items at an Aldi store, a shopping trip to a complementary merchant or traditional grocery store may be required to round out the weekly shopping list.

3-Efficient. Efficient. Efficient.

The disciplined approach to cost cutting and efficiency, from pallet displays, limited selection, limited service, bag fees, cart fees, packaging, and signage, is part of the Aldi brand philosophy. It permeates through operations, procedures, and design, and is physically evident in the store design and layout.

Although some stores are located in retail strip malls, Aldi stores are predominantly stand alone prototypical stores on distinct lots. These stores in particular best exemplify and reinforce the Aldi approach to cost cutting and wringing out efficiencies in every single part of the business channel.

Aldi, Erie Boulevard, East Syracuse, New York

The stores are low, squat and flat, with simple roof structures, ample yet not excessive ceiling heights, and minimal plenum. The utilitarian shape complete with compact height translates into a smaller built wall surface area as well as smaller volumes for air handling equipment which results in a reduction in heating and cooling costs.

The sides are also typically flat, unadorned, with little ornamentation. A simple banding element may be present, blending into the wall surface or perhaps completed in a contrasting colour or material to the adjacent field element.

Aldi, Park Street near Route 37, Ogdensburg, New York

The main customer entrance is located at the corner. The entrance is graced with a modest raised parapet marquee topped with a simple cap flashing. Minimal signage adorns the marquee. Straight columns frame the entrance appendage in an uncomplicated manner, with little flair or design drama.

Windows are clustered near the entrance, concentrated at a single corner of the building.

Aldi, Route 31 near Soule Road, Clay, New York

In areas with inclement weather, the entrance canopy may be closed, affording an area protected from the elements which also doubles as cart storage. In such cases, additional windows allow daylight to penetrate towards the main store glazing. Concrete curbs, visible at the base of the walls and columns, provide additional wall protection from carts as much as snow clearing equipment.

Long wearing, durable, abuse resistant materials are used at the building exterior. The use of brick also communicates a sense of solidity, heft, and permanence to the stores. Seemingly contradictory at the outset, utilizing construction materials of a higher quality, durability, and at times cost, is nonetheless wholly consistent with the long-term view espoused by Aldi’s with regards to many of its components and buildings systems, preferring to invest prudently while also reducing waste and operational downtime.

The colours are muted, with prominent earth tones such as beige and brown.

4-How about a proper introduction

For shoppers already versed in the ways of Aldi, it may be unnecessary to roll out a new prototype store, as the current one still serves the intended purpose. The Great Recession which took hold in 2008 resulted in many more introductions for those uninitiated with Aldi, as many Americans began to trade down by necessity or circumstance.

This economic reality combined with Aldi’s increasingly ambitious expansion plans in the United States resulted in a confluence which coincided with the introduction of a new prototype store that would enhance the Aldi brand.

Erroneously derided for selling lower quality goods by many non-shoppers, the opportunity could be seized to alter the brand message for the unversed. The new prototype stores would expand on the existing store design elements, and offer more flair, style, and presence, items which were purposely lacking in the previous design.

The new stores benefit from some additional height, along with a marginally bigger footprint, yet remain rather simple geometric box shape.

The sides begin to receive some relief, breaking up the long expanses with some articulation and pilaster elements. The materials suffer from some welcome interruptions, minimizing the slab sided look, and adding a sense of rhythm to the side walls.

Aldi, Cornelia Street near Cogan Avenue, Plattsburgh, New York

The main customer entrance remains located at the corner, yet now benefits from a higher volume, framed with glass and filled with natural light. The main entrance becomes a more focal point, more prominent, and definitely more welcoming. Even the cap flashing is more pronounced, projecting slightly, capping the high parapet and providing a play of light and shadows. Simple signage remains at the marquee, complemented by stylish block lettering that seemingly floats above the cantilevered roof. Column projections, nested at the main corner of the building, extent to become part of the marquee. A thin and elegant cantilevered roof, with requisite though not necessarily functional cable ties, provides shade and cover at the entrance.

Aldi, Cornelia Street near Cogan Avenue, Plattsburgh, New York

Clerestory windows punctuate the side walls, with more ample glass present at the main entrance. A belt line, achieved through a change of material, can be seen below the windows, accentuating and defining the transition from the opaque to clear materials. 

Aldi, Cornelia Street near Cogan Avenue, Plattsburgh, New York

Materials, such as brick and split face CMU, which are rich and durable, continue to be prominent in the exterior design. The colour palette is more expansive and varied, with the addition of more natural and clear finishes to the traditional earth tones.

5-Efficient meet Drama. Drama meet Efficient.

As Aldi expands exponentially, bringing its efficiency message into virgin territory to a whole new generation of Americans, it has latched onto the notion of methodically investing in the most visible prominent brand asset, its architectural identity summed up in the Aldi retail store design.

Applying the new prototype to existing stores is delicate proposition, yet the redesign seems to be ideally suited to retrofitting existing stores. Although hampered by many preset hard points and limitations, even small subtle changes can provide revolutionary results.

Aldi, Route 11 near Interstate 81, North Syracuse, New York

As the majority of the design drama is concentrated at the main entry, skilled updating to the basic box shape can begin to draw out elements that help align the older stores with the new prototype.

Substituting the heavy marquee over the entrance with a svelte roof perimeter profile begins to lighten some of the bulk that defined the older store, and almost instantly opens up the entrance. Adding a high volume element, even devoid of the contributing daylight, adds a sense of lightness to the design.

Aldi, Route 11 near Interstate 81, North Syracuse, New York

The new prototype Aldi store attempts to reset the brand image to a higher level, with better materials and a more upscale design, adding onto the established traditions without a churn and burn approach. Along with adding new stores and refreshing the existing stores, Aldi faithful should find reason to breathe a sigh of relief as the familiar stores will continue to advocate the core brand values of simplicity and efficiency, only now, served with an extra helping of drama.

All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.


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