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Lidl vs Aldi: Competition is awesome in Hazlet

Signs of things to come along Route 35 in Hazlet, where Lidl and Aldi stores are expected to open in direct competition on opposite sides of the highway later this month.According to the lone Aldi cashier that rang through my purchases yesterday in Union, that store will be opening at 8 a.m. starting Monday. 

Maybe this is a first time ever, holiday-related change in store hours from the regular 9 a.m. opening?

Nah, it's because of competition from the other German supermarket chain that opened in the area earlier this week. No word yet on whether hours will change at Aldi stores not in close proximity to a Lidl store.

It's probably only a matter of time before there's a Lidl store not far from almost every Aldi store. Both store chains are expanding their presence in the U.S. Aldi has been here longer and has more locations, but Lidl is opening its new stores rather quickly. 

The next New Jersey Lidl store is scheduled to open Nov. 28 on Route 35 in Hazlet, and Aldi is planning to move from its older Hazlet store, also on Route 35, to a newer store just across the highway. Finishing touches were being added to that store, in part of a shuttered Pathmark. According to a cashier at the Hazlet store, Aldi will be opening its new Hazlet store on Nov. 27, upstaging Lidl's highway signage-publicized opening by a day. 

The Union Aldi, off Morris Avenue at 1020 Commerce Ave., was surprisingly slow for the Friday before Thanksgiving.

As if to add insult to a familiar older store growing pale in comparison to a fresh-faced newcomer, the Union store's produce bins were mostly empty. The shipment of fruits and vegetables had not made it to the store that day, I was told.

At the Union Lidl that same evening,  there were at least four, maybe five registers open, and at the end of each there was a Lidl staffer in a cheerful yellow "Rethink Grocery" t-shirt. They were all at high courtesy and carefully tucking groceries in brown paper bags.

I was informed here that the paper bags will be free until month's end. After that, they will cost .10 cents each.

I was also at Union Lidl for its 8 a.m. grand opening on Wednesday morning, and shoppers were lined up, snaking around TSA-style barriers waiting to get in. That day, I bagged my own purchases at one end of a two-forked conveyer.

The beauty of competition

I suspect that the free-bagging staffers were called in to handle delays associated with a large number of customers not yet on board with the bag-buying or bag-bringing program that will also mean bagging your own purchases. At least two female employees who were ringing up or bagging purchases, wore the hair covers that indicate that they had also worked that day as store bakers. Fresh baked goods, including pastries, cookies, pretzels, bagels and loaves, are a huge customer draw at Lidl stores, and the store is said to cross-train most of its staffers to play multiple roles as needed.    

In this supermarket battle, the strategies are fluid and frequently changing. At Union Aldi, competition means that at least one price has already come down.  The previously discussed two-ply toilet tissue was .59 cents when I bought it in last week's comparison shopping mission. Yesterday it was at .49 cents in Union, matching the Lidl price. (Lidl's tissue is thinner, coarser and doesn't say, as Aldi's does, that its recycled paper content is "whitened without chemicals containing chlorine." Another plus: Guests using your Aldi tissue might not be able to identify you as a penny-pincher... ) 

The effects of competition are wonderful, but I wonder how Lidl will fare along the Route 22 corridor where there's a ShopRite in a neighboring retail center and a Walmart across the highway. Aldi is a short drive away, and there are so many other area discount stores that include frozen or packaged food in their retail mix, including Christmas Tree Shop and Dollar Tree. I'm not sure if Five Below carries food.

What sets both Aldi and Lidl apart from other discounters is their European roots and the possibility of the exceptional discovery. The Union store, however, did not bring the same level of excitement I had at the Eatontown store. All the Eatontown store's wooden toys that made me wish I had a little kid in my life were not in stock in Union. In Union, the focus in non-food products seemed to be on housewares.  The Eatontown inventory included clothing, mostly cold weather gear for adults and children. German model Heidi Klum  partered with Lidl last year for a clothing and shoes line that at the Eatontown store included cute sequined mini dresses, velvet tops and assorted jackets.) There were also tools and, to my taste, a more appealing selection of Christmas decorations in Eatontown. But for now, both stores are attracting shoppers eager to check out a new place and maybe save some cash on the Turkey-Day spread.   

While Aldi's later opening time, skeleton staffing and .25-cent refundable shopping cart rental fee are all  sometimes annoying, all these inconveniences help keep their prices low. (The latter annoyance also keeps Aldi parking lots free of carts that can bang into your car.) As Lidl tries to beat Aldi on these annoyances, it will obviously cost more to do so.

Comparing prices

Spicy jalapeno chicken sausage in 12-ounce packages from Trader Joe's and Lidl. The Lidl variety is $1 less, but doesn't hold up in flavor. In addition to the unbelievably low-priced toilet tissue, I purchased a 12-ounce pack of Lidl's skinless chicken sausage, which appears to have been developed in numerous flavor varieties similar to those offered at Trader Joe's (operated by the same uber wealthy German family that runs Aldi stores).

I got the "spicy jalapeno" flavor to rate it against my beloved "spicy jalapeno" chicken sausage from Trader Joe's.

At $2.99 for a 12-ounce package, the Lidl sausage costs a full dollar less. I will happily spend that extra dollar to buy my regular brand at $3.99.

The Lidl sausage has an off-putting hot dog-like quality and the milder seasoning mix did not appeal to me. The products have nearly identical ingredients, but the Lidl sausage has 80 calories per link, compared to 100 for Trader Joe's. There's significantly less fat at 2.5 grams compared to 6 grams for Trader Joe's. The Lidl sausage has 100 more milligrams of sodium, at 500 mg, and more protein at 13 grams, compared to 11 for Trader Joe's. Both have a "clean" ingredients list without nitrates, nitrites or artificial preservatives.   

Sparkling pumpkin spice cider is wonderful fall beverage that Aldi stocked last year. Photo thanks to The thing I don't like about Trader Joe's is the same thing I don't like about Aldi, and it will likely be the same for Lidl. Too often you fall in love with a product that you will never see again. For months, I tried unsuccessfully to recreate a delicious, discontinued Trader Joe's tomato chutney. This year, I am left wishing for Aldi's sparkling spiced pumpkin cider, which was a holidays-perfect spiced apple cider and ginger drink in an attractive clamp-top brown bottle.

At Lidl's Union grand opening, I bought the German sourdough loaf (it's like a cross between sourdough and seedless rye) and a spinach, red onion and mushroom tarte flambee. This French-style flatbread pizza (made in Italy) was on sale for $2.79. It was one of those rare products that looked exactly like the package photo when it was cooked. It was great, and I doubted I would find more two days later. But I had  hoped to.

The sold-out tarte, also available in a goat cheese and olives flavor, was among the range of imported items under Lidl's Preferred Selection label. Maybe it will return someday.  

Despite such disappointments, I'll still shop at all these stores and others. I love food markets and, my rather eccentric approach to grocery shopping involves both high-end and lower-end stores. I shop at numerous stores to see what each does to remain viable in an increasingly challenging retail landscape with growing online competition.  Good luck to Lidl, Aldi and all the rest of them. For us shoppers who still enjoy the seeing, touching and sniffing that comes with picking our own produce and other fresh foods at bricks and mortar stores, choice is a beautiful thing. 

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