01.12.2005 08:00 - Aldi Young Dudes
One thing that I've often remarked is that Germany seems very much like Britain in the 1970's - directionless Government, overpowering Unions, early closing on Saturdays, smoking allowed everywhere, and crap supermarkets. The supermarkets, in particular, are strange beyond belief to anyone used to life in the UK in the latter decade of the 20th Century.
Firstly, you will note, upon entering the supermarket of your choice, the complete absence of familar brands, with the possible exception of maybe Nescafé and Knorr. There seems to be a strange firewall which starts at the French, Belgian and Dutch borders, beyond which British products may not pass. Those that do (such as HP sauce, which recently became available in Edeka) are expensive. The second thing you will notice is the casual rudeness of the staff. Then you will notice how cramped the supermarkets are- the room between aisles is barely enough for two trollies to pass each other, or if they could pass each other, because Germans don't hold truck with this silly notion of restocking the shelves at night, when the place is empty. They restock right there and then, blocking the ridiculously-small aisles with a great big hydraulic lifter.
In Cologne, large hypermarket-type stores such as Asda rarely exist. Most supermarkets are small, cramped shops like "Plus" or "Minimarkt". "Edeka", the german equivalent of the CoOp, is usually slightly bigger. The CoOp, a cow-orker tells me, used to exist in Germany but went bankrupt and pulled out. Some of the bigger supermarkets actually take up two floors, with an escalator which takes you and your trolley up and down between the floors.
The two biggest supermarkets (Big as in number of stores, because the actual stores are quite small), however, are Aldi and Lidl. These are cut-price no-brand-name stores which sell at a huge discount, and which are spreading like a disease throughout Europe. They used to be looked down upon by most Germans, but since the economic squeeze caught up with them, the tables have turned, and everyone's shopping at Aldi. The strange thing about Lidl and Aldi is that whereever an Aldi springs up (and they are springing up at a horrifying rate), a Lidl appears about two doors down the street shortly afterwards. It's as though Lidl has a team of spies on the lookout for new Aldi developments.
What I take particular delight in, though, is Aldi's training of their staff to be as rude as possible. Aldi, you see, has these long conveyor belt tills that take up enormous amounts of room, but they don't have the usual bit behind the till with the swingable partition, so that people can pack their stuff. Instead, there is a bay for your trolley, so that the checkout girl can swipe your purchases onto the trolley with one lazy flick of the arm. Except, if you haven't used a trolley, it all breaks down. You're supposed to take a trolley if you're going to have more than a few small items, because otherwise, their counter becomes jammed full with stuff until you remove it. So if you haven't used a trolley, they will tell you in no uncertain terms that you should have.
Another thing is that the electronic cash revolution has totally passed them by, until recently. Unlike a typical Safeways, where there is one till which is cash only, seven items or less, all tills in Aldi were, until recently, cash only. No credit cards. In a stunning development, Aldi has recently installed card-readers at all its tills, probably because they've realised that when they started selling computers and big TVs, people do not want to come down to the store with 1499 Euro in cash. It makes no difference, because 95% of the time, only one till is open.
All German supermarkets suffer from never having enough tills open. Unlike UK supermarkets, where they've realised that putting people through the tills as quick as possible results in a higher turnover, in Germany you can go into a huge supermarket with ten tills, and find only one of them is open. The queue will get ever-longer, extending back into the store, stopping other people from shopping, until finally one of the staff, tutting with the indignity of it all, will go and begrudgingly open another till. There then follows a mad dash as the people on the back of the queue, who are on their lunch break and only popped in to buy one or two things, and beginning to question whether they will come out of this whole thing alive let alone get back to work in time, race forward attempting to get to the front of the queue, only to be mown down by those possessing heavily-laden trollies. The casualties are stunning.