Aldi: refreshing lack of cigarettes on sale

Didcot's new Aldi under construction last year

Didcot’s new Aldi under construction last year

Until last year, I knew little about the Aldi supermarket chain. Surely it was one of those stores selling strange, unheard-of, cheap brands of goods stacked up on the floor, at rock bottom prices?

However, in July 2014, the newspapers featured obituaries of Karl Albrecht, the co-founder of Aldi and reportedly Germany’s richest man, who had died at the age of 94. These gave a brief history and explanation of the chain’s business model. Aldi was founded by Karl and his brother Theo, the name standing for Albrecht Discount. The aim was to sell goods at the lowest prices, but that didn’t mean they were poor quality. The brothers negotiated deals to buy items in bulk from suppliers, which were sold in simple stores, often from the cardboard boxes they were supplied in. They carried far fewer items: one type of each, as it were, meaning the stores could be smaller and the profit per square metre higher.

In the 1960s, the brothers fell out over the issue of whether to sell tobacco products in-store. As a result, the chain was split into two: Aldi North, run by Theo, which sold cigarettes; and Aldi South, owned by Karl, which did not. When they expanded overseas from Germany, they divided the countries of the world up between them, and it is Karl’s Aldi South that runs the Aldi stores in the UK. (The two chains share a global website which has a map showing which countries each covers.)

As a result, Aldi stores in the UK do not sell cigarettes, unlike most of the conventional, big supermarket chains. There’s something seedy about the tobacco counter in a supermarket, usually up a corner somewhere near the main entrance. It’s slightly better now the law requires them to have shutters hiding the product, but even so, supermarkets generally have a family feel to them, and it seems inappropriate to have tobacco products on sale there. It’s hard to understand why they continue with it. Surely the retailer can’t make much money from selling cigarettes? For small newsagents and corner shops, it’s clear that they depend a lot on impulse sales, and let’s face it, anyone who smokes is unlikely to have strong willpower when it comes to other items by the till, however overpriced. But it’s hard to imagine the availability of a tobacco counter being the deciding factor as to whether someone does their weekly shop at a particular supermarket.

Given that many of the big supermarkets have reported falling sales recetly, perhaps they need to take some lessons from the discount chains such as Aldi. I hope they will also take Aldi’s lead and banish cigarette sales from their stores for good. In the meantime, I suggest giving Aldi a try. It’s not for everyone, and for most people won’t replace the big supermarkets entirely, but you will probably save some money, and I feel any company founded on the principle of not selling tobacco in its stores has to be given some credit when deciding where to shop.

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