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15 May 2024

What’s in the Lidl middle aisle: bargains, or rip-offs?

The slightly unhinged discount products of the middle aisle are entertaining – but also part of a very clever sales pitch.

By Will Dunn

In the old days (and the very old days), a great hall was far too expensive to be used for a single purpose. The Roman basilica was used as a court, a temple and a place of business; in medieval cathedrals, which followed the same floorplan, markets were held in the nave.

Now the churches have fallen quiet and most of the old market halls have closed, but whatever instinct makes us seek value in the middle of a large building is still going strong. The discount supermarkets Lidl and Aldi have made this impulse the definitive part of their shopping experience via the bargain bins of the middle aisle, and it has helped them grow at terrific pace.

Hundreds of new Lidl and Aldi stores are planned for the UK. In south-east London, on the site of a Mecca Bingo, Lidl is building a store that has a shoppable footprint the size of Westminster Abbey.

The middle aisle is for many shoppers a place of surprise and delight, worth visiting just for the entertainment of its slightly unhinged bargains. But the apparent madness is part of a very clever sales pitch: strange items, piled haphazardly in bins, tell shoppers they are in a place where prices have been cut to the absolute minimum. In this context of extreme value, every item you don’t buy is a missed opportunity. Customers must explain to themselves why they would allow such incredible savings to slip through their fingers.

It was for this reason that I once spent several minutes in Aldi gently weighing a £9 sledgehammer in my palm, trying to think of some reason why I’d need it (there was none, and to the relief of my fellow shoppers I put it back).

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“Loss leaders” are everywhere in retail. Microsoft loses around $200 every time it sells an Xbox (and has been doing so for 22 years), but every Xbox sold means a new captive customer who will spend years buying games and services through the machine. Supermarkets have a history of selling cut-price staples (baked beans at 3p a can, or milk and eggs sold at a loss) in order to get people into the shop. The right loss-making special offer, such as an unbelievably cheap TV set, can cause a stampede that more than pays for itself.

In the middle aisle, however, all is not as it seems. The products are designed to look like short-term loss leaders, but there is no luck involved in stumbling across these bargains: they are shipped from giant warehouses to every store in Europe. More importantly, they are not actually bargains.

I selected 25 products, all costing over £10, from the middle aisles of Lidl and Aldi. I excluded Lidl’s range of “Parkside” tools, which are made by the German brand Einhell and may represent good value, but I’d need to test them to say for sure, and I’ve been asked not to use a belt sander in the office. For everything else – wetsuits, vacuum cleaners, swingball sets – a product that looked pretty much identical could be found for the same price or less online. (The one exception was a small pink bouncy castle in Lidl, which you should snap up if you’re in the market for such a product.) Certainly, this could be true of any product – the internet will always try to sell you a cheaper version – but with middle-aisle products, the only reason you’re considering buying them is that they’ve been presented to you as unusually cheap.

Then again, price is only one type of value. My top purchase of 2024 so far has been a clear plastic bird feeder, which I stuck to the kitchen window, and has provided a succession of magical encounters with robins, blue tits, sparrows and goldfinches. It cost less than £4. I also didn’t spend any time shopping online for it, so I saved time and effort thanks to the good work of Lidl’s buyers.

That, in my opinion, is the way to approach the middle aisle: not as an opportunity to save money on something you do need, but as a chance to save time looking for the things you don’t.  

[See also: The Great Stink: Britain’s pollution crisis]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink