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From inflatable kayaks to the budget wood-burning stove… why Aldi’s mid-aisle is a magnet for the middle class

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Walk into Aldi and you might be in for some cut-price butter, baked beans and value-for-money vegetables.

But if you wander down the now-infamous mid-aisle, you – like millions of others – might find yourself distracted by brilliant deals on a motley, but surprisingly high-end, product line.

A pastel colored cake mixer for under £50. A Le Creuset-style casserole under £20. Not to mention a Wellington boot rack and gifts for everyone, from your mother to your son for no more than a few euros…

Desirable purchases like these have made the aisle a magnet for the middle class, helping the German retailer to become the fourth largest supermarket in the UK. Thirty-two years after its UK launch, Aldi has joined the ranks of Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda as one of the ‘big four’ retailers.

The “Specialbuys” branded aisle – with its eclectic and ever-changing bargains, from ski jackets to riding boots, TVs to cooking utensils – is where the supermarket really undercuts its rivals.

So where did Aldi’s Specialbuys come from, and why can’t customers resist them? SARAH RAINEY rubs shoulders with the delicious mummies of the middle aisle to discover…

AN ALADDIN’S CAVE FROM BRITISH PURCHASES

When Aldi’s first UK store opened in Birmingham in April 1990, the middle aisle was just an ‘Aladdin’s cave-type mess’, says Paul Stainton, UK partner at consultancy IPLC , who worked in Aldi’s buying team from 1989 to 2020.

“It was everything we thought we could sell, anything that was a little quirky and would stand out on the shelves.”

It’s a far cry from today’s Specialbuys, which have well-heeled customers flocking to the stores as they once did for a John Lewis or Selfridges sale.

Today, says Paul, the middle aisle “has become a much bigger beast”, as Aldi has abandoned its Germanic roots in favor of a British makeover. It trumpets a partnership with our Olympic and Paralympic teams, and Union flags appear in its stores, alongside banners reading: ‘Championing Great British quality’.

To the untrained eye the items in the middle aisle may seem random, but each one - from a discount coffee machine to a £39.99 inflatable kayak (pictured) - has a theme seasonal

To the untrained eye the items in the center aisle may seem random, but each – from a discount coffee machine to a £39.99 inflatable kayak (pictured) – fits a seasonal theme

Aldi's most popular Specialbuy was an outdoor log burner (£59.99) from 2019 (pictured)

Aldi’s most popular Specialbuy was an outdoor log burner (£59.99) from 2019 (pictured)

Other sought-after products include toys in the form of the channel's mascot Kevin the carrot (pictured), who had another virtual queue of 75,000 people, inflatable hot tubs and outdoor rattan sofas .

Other sought-after products include toys in the form of the channel’s mascot Kevin the carrot (pictured), who had another virtual queue of 75,000 people, inflatable hot tubs and outdoor rattan sofas .

“We trust the locals. If it’s made somewhere else and it’s cheap, it makes people suspicious, whereas if it’s cheap and made here, it’s seen as a bargain,” says Professor Dr Cathrine Jansson-Boyd. in consumer psychology from Anglia Ruskin University.

The store has quickly adapted to British tastes and the center aisle is equally responsive to customer desires. “It’s carefully thought out, carefully constructed,” says Paul.

“At first we had trouble moving furniture – it was impossible for customers to fit chests of drawers and garden tables into their cars. So we stopped selling that until we went online.

This adaptability is a key reason for Aldi’s success, says Manchester Metropolitan University retail expert Dr Amna Khan. “It fails fast,” she says. “And if it doesn’t work, it moves fast.”

That’s why Specialbuys are never stocked for more than a few weeks – customers know they have to buy them now or miss out.

ESSENTIALS FOR ALL SEASONS

To the untrained eye, the items in the center aisle may seem random, but each – from a discount coffee machine to a £39.99 inflatable kayak – fits a seasonal theme.

Paul explains: “The themes are planned 12 to 18 months in advance. Back to school stock is coming in July and Christmas is coming soon. Throughout the year, you’ll see products related to camping, skiing, BBQ season, and New Year’s fitness diets.

Aldi’s version of the Big Green Egg barbecue flew off the shelves in the summer, and ahead of the new series of The Great British Bake Off, a Specialbuys cooking range has launched, including a £49.99 stand mixer. Other recent items include a £19.99 slow cooker, which was released amid reports of rising energy bills.

FROM HARRODS TO THE HIGH STREET

ONE inspiration for the Specialbuys aisle is what other retailers are doing – very high end. “Before Christmas, we would go to Harrods to see what table decorations or gifts there were,” Paul says. “We were like, ‘Can we get this and sell it for a third of the price? » ‘

Suppliers are also expected to pitch their ideas to Aldi’s team of 30 dedicated mid-aisle buyers.

The challenge, adds Paul, is predicting how many new products it will sell – and how quickly. And Aldi doesn’t always understand that. In 2020, for example, it offered a Lego Star Wars set for £100 less than the average retail price. Thousands of shoppers lined up for hours, only to find that there was only one set at each branch.

SELLOUTS CREATE A BUZZ ON SOCIAL MEDIA

To publicize its mid-aisle goodies, Aldi uses social media and ads. His online presence is impressive, with one million Instagram followers.

He sees a flurry of activity on Thursdays and Sundays, when new products are launched. Several items went viral, including a hanging egg chair, which sold out within minutes. At one point the online queue for the £189.99 item exceeded 75,000 people.

Several items went viral, including a hanging egg chair (pictured), which sold out within minutes  At one point the online queue for the £189.99 item exceeded 75,000 people

Several items went viral, including a hanging egg chair (pictured), which sold out within minutes At one point the online queue for the £189.99 item exceeded 75,000 people

Aldi’s most popular Specialbuy was an outdoor log burner (£59.99) from 2019. Other sought-after products include toys in the form of the chain’s mascot Kevin the carrot (another line virtual queue of 75,000 people), inflatable hot tubs and outdoor rattan sofas.

IRRESISTIBLE DESIGN DUPES

Aldi has become known for its designer discount “dupes”, meaning products that look, feel and perform like expensive goods, for a fraction of the price.

Its popular Lacura Caviar Illumination Day Cream (£6.99) is eerily similar to La Prairie’s Skin Caviar Cream (£439), while its £29.99 Cast Iron Casserole resembles a £185 Le Creuset.

Larger items aren't free from Aldi mimicry either, with shoppers snapping up a £109.99 velor armchair (pictured) that appeared to be inspired by a £495 chair by Oliver Bonas

Larger items aren’t free from Aldi mimicry either, with shoppers snapping up a £109.99 velor armchair (pictured) that appeared to be inspired by a £495 chair by Oliver Bonas

Aldi shoppers also loved the £49.99 tripod floor lamp (pictured), which is said to be a dupe of a £210 lamp from Made.com

Aldi shoppers also loved the £49.99 tripod floor lamp (pictured), which is said to be a dupe of a £210 lamp from Made.com

There’s a £6.99 perfume, called Lacura Ladies’ 5th Element, which shoppers swear smells like Chanel No 5 (£65); a £3.49 lime, basil and tangerine candle nearly identical to a £55 Jo Malone candle; and a £2.19 Paradise hand wash that has been compared to the £13 Seychelles one from The White Company.

Larger items aren’t exempt from Aldi’s mimicry either, with shoppers picking up a £49.99 tripod floor lamp (which would be a dupe of a £210 lamp from Made.com) and a velvet armchair at £109.99 which appeared to be inspired by a £495 chair by Oliver Bonas.

Aldi is getting away with what might look like a copycat because it says there’s no way customers will be misled or fooled into thinking its budget offerings are the real deal.

However, it doesn’t always work: in 2019, celebrity makeup artist Charlotte Tilbury won a legal battle against Aldi for selling £6.99 dupes of her bronzer palette, which sells for £49.

TIPS TO MAKE YOU SPLASH THE CASH

Once customers walk through the door, the goal is to entice them to stay and spend. The first tip is a “decompression zone”: a sharp bend after entry, designed to slow shoppers down. Rather than rushing for one or two items, they’re made for looking around.

LED spotlights are placed on high-end products, arranged at eye level, because if you’re in a rush, you’re more likely to grab easy-to-spot items.

The supermarket also worked on its shopping experience, adapting its stores to the middle class by increasing the visibility of staff and encouraging them to interact with shoppers.

“Middle-class shoppers no longer shop there in secret, as they did when it first opened,” says Dr Khan. “Specialbuys aren’t always great deals, but they’re organized as a sale, so we perceive them as cheaper.”

Dr Jansson-Boyd adds: “The middle aisle is a bit like a scavenger hunt, we like it because it makes shopping more exciting.

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