6 SEPTEMBER 2008, Page 29

Nice pork, pity about the pizza

Judi Bevan finds her local Lidl discount store full of bargains — but not Boden-clad middle-class shoppers Intrigued by reports that the middle classes are shopping at the German discount stores Aldi and Lidl — and even stuffing their purchases in Waitrose bags — I set off to track them down. My nearest Lidl is a couple of miles from my house at the northern end of Cricklewood Broadway — not exactly an area known for yummy-mummy sightings, and without a Starbucks or Caffè Nero for miles.

Yet the statistics say that sales at both Aldi and Lidl have been growing strongly since householders have been hit by higher petrol and utility bills. The latest figures from market research firm Taylor Nelson Sofres showed Aldi and Lidl increasing their market shares by 19.8 per cent and 12.3 per cent respectively. In Aldi’s case, this boosted its market share to a new record of 3 per cent — only one percentage point behind Waitrose — while Lidl has 2.3 per cent.

When measured against Tesco’s 31.6 per cent these incursions look small — but still they are credited with bringing Tesco’s growth in market share to a halt over the past quarter. Their success has spurred Tesco to embark on a secret project to see how it can compete more effectively against this no-frills, low-cost model. Tesco’s boss, Sir Terry Leahy, remember, believes that ‘only the paranoid survive’.

When the discounters first arrived in the early 1990s, Tesco’s response was to launch its ‘Value’ range while Sainsbury’s, Asda and Safeway all embarked on a price war. By the mid-Nineties the big groups believed they had seen off the foreign invaders: ‘We have really hurt the discounters,’ announced David Sainsbury, the then chairman of the family firm, at one annual meeting. But they refused to go away. The credit crunch, along with the demise of Kwik Save, has given them the opportunity to flex their muscles again. Aldi and Lidl both have around 400 stores in Britain, typically in unfashionable suburbs and scruffy inner-city enclaves where sites are cheaper. Both plan to open more.

At Lidl, I parked in the front-of-store car park and looked around for a Chelsea Tractor, an Audi or even a Golf. But I saw only aged small Fords and their Japanese equivalents. Inside the store, I braced myself for cheap and nasty, but my first impressions were more cheap and cheerful. The vomitcoloured flooring was a mistake, but bright strip lighting illuminated reasonably wide aisles and colourful signs boasted ‘That’s cheap’ about almost everything.

If the middle classes were cruising the aisles, they were heavily disguised. All I saw were young families — of rainbow ethnicity and with several children in tow — who were clearly on a tight budget. There were also some young East European singles, and elderly people, evidently of modest means; but no young professionals, no Boden-clad children and no affluent grey or even pink consumers with or without Waitrose bags.

The big four British supermarkets give you fruit and veg at the front of the store, but Lidl gives you mountains of multipacks of bottled water still sitting on their pallets. One of the ways Lidl and Aldi save money is to bring goods into the store as delivered, cutting down on shelf stacking. The other tactics are no baskets, only big trolleys, no free bags (9p for a strong Lidl bag) and cash or debit cards only. They also limit the number of lines to around 10,000, compared with 40,000 in an average supermarket — a mercy for those of us who get dazzled by 14 types of mushrooms. They employ minimal staff, who seem to view customers with a mixture of disdain and suspicion.

There was a surprisingly wide range of water on offer, including Vittel but no Badoit or San Pellegrino — well, this is a German store after all. Next came more multipack mountains of Coke, Fanta and Irn-Bru: cheaper than the big four but not by much. The large Rowan Hill Bakery wholemeal loaf at 72p came in significantly cheaper than Waitrose’s own brand at £1.19, although a comparable loaf from Sainsbury’s is 75p. But then I discovered some real bargains, surprisingly in the fruit and veg section. Lidl carries a very limited range of fresh produce but what it has is pretty good. I leapt on a perfectly good cucumber for 29p — reduced from 54p — compared with 69p at Waitrose and 80p at my friendly independent greengrocer. I also bought four Williams pears for £1.49 that not only looked beautiful with their red and golden skins but tasted exquisite, far better than any pear I have bought recently anywhere else.

Then, nestling next to vacuum-packed mussels in garlic and butter sauce, I found some Norwegian smoked salmon at £2.49 for 200 grams — startlingly cheaper than the £5.99 to £6.99 charged for Scottish smoked salmon in supermarkets — and a jar of pickled cucumbers a snip at 49p. The small fresh meat display looked very fresh and I bought three pork loin steaks for £2.39.

Within their limited numbers of lines, Lidl and Aldi attempt to cater for everyone and every eventuality, with bizarre results. Close to the frozen pizza and frozen TV roast dinners for £1.00 each were piles of incontinence pads, bags of peat-free compost and cut-price cans of WD-40 — my one impulse buy. Where Lidl disappoints is on established brands which it presumably buys in much smaller volumes than the big four. A pack of eight Bounty kitchen rolls was £5.49, only 30p cheaper than on Ocado, while the Simple Cleansing Wipes were actually 2p dearer. Even so, I staggered out of Lidl with two large bags of purchases for less than £32 — extraordinary value by my normal shopping standards.

And so to sample my haul. We started with the pizzas sold under the brand name Trattoria Alfredo. Billed on the jolly red and green packaging as stone-baked and topped with ‘prosciutto e funghi’, the list of ingredients was awesome. It included ‘smoke flavour ham’ which was sadly but a distant cousin of true prosciutto. My husband declared it ‘inoffensive’; I thought it pretty horrid even by supermarket pizza standards. The smoked salmon was OK to use in sandwiches, but too soft and oily to serve alone; as for the pickled cucumbers, I preferred them to our normal brand but my husband declared them to be ‘too dillish’.

Definitely the best buys were the pears closely followed by the pork steaks, which were succulent and tasty. And my bargain cucumber was as crisp as could be.

Shopping in Lidl beats the effort of slogging round a giant supermarket and there is a certain thrill about pouncing on a real bargain. But it would be hard to do a complete week’s shopping in one, and the locations of the stores make them inconvenient for many middle-class families. The really good news came at the check-out, where the queue moved quickly — the average spend being about a third that at Tesco. Even the rolling of the check-out boy’s eyes, when he had to stand up to scan the compost, was made worth it by the smallness of the bill.