Little grocers are big business right now. Thanks to their small footprint, they can fit in more places than a big box store. What’s more, they’re often easier to get into, through, and out of. Sure, they may not have fifty varieties of mustard, but as far as staples go, they’ll usually have you covered.
What follows is our subjective ranking of the major small grocery chains in the United States. We focused on dedicated grocers, which means that dollar stores like Dollar General, which offer a few staple products, aren’t included.
Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments below. (Just remember to keep to our Community Guidelines.)
6. Ruler Foods / Food 4 Less
Headquarters: Seymour, Indiana
Stores in the United States: 50+ (Ruler Foods), 110+ (Food 4 Less)
What We Like: Ruler Foods and Food 4 Less are owned by supermarket giant Kroger, and they bring the best of their bigger sibling to their smaller stores. Most of the stores consist of Kroger house brands, but there is a sprinkling of some name brands, too. The prices are competitive, especially at Ruler Foods, which uses an Aldi-like system of using a quarter to rent your cart and makes you bag your groceries.
What We Don’t Like: Unless you live in the Midwest or Southern California, you’ve probably never walked into one of these. A lack of locations is a drawback. Also, despite being part of the Kroger portfolio with Kroger branded products, they don’t take Kroger coupons, and we found our Ruler Foods store experience to be only adequate. There isn’t a lot to make these stores stand out in this crowded field.
Headquarters: Neckarsulm, Germany (international), Arlington, VA (United States)
Stores in the United States: 150+
What We Like: The Aldi nemesis certainly has a lot going for it. A powerhouse parent company with a long history in the grocery business, Lidl has put together a successful international operation. The store has its own private labels and a few bells and whistles — like free samples, a color-coded wine rating system, and coupons — that give it its own unique vibe. Also, while you do have to bag your groceries at Lidl, you don’t need a quarter for your cart.
What We Don’t Like: Lidl’s expansion into the U.S. has been marred by problems, from issues related to getting stores up and running to accusations of corporate espionage. If you happen to live near a Lidl, you might like what you see. Right now, though, most people don’t live near a Lidl, and that doesn’t seem like it’s going to change anytime soon. We might move it up higher on the list once it gets a better foothold, but for now Lidl still feels like it’s figuring its U.S. strategy out.
4. Save A Lot
Headquarters: St. Louis, MO
Stores in the United States: 900+
What We Like: Save A Lot stocks a pretty good supply of name brand products, and at decent prices. If you want brands, Save A Lot does them well. And there are a lot of Save A Lot locations, more than Trader Joe’s, Ruler Foods, and Lidl combined. (Bonus: Save A Lot bags your groceries.)
What We Don’t Like: As much as we want to like Save A Lot, our repeated experiences there haven’t always been the greatest. We’ve had issues with product quality (most notably in the seafood section) and the overall experience doesn’t really stand out above other stores farther down on this list. We aren’t opposed to going to Save A Lot, but in a crowded market, it isn’t our favorite.
3. Walmart Neighborhood Market
Headquarters: Bentonville, AR
Stores in the United States: 600+
What We Like: Love it or hate it — and people have both opinions about Walmart — the company knows its business. Neighborhood Markets take many of the most effective parts of the Walmart experience and compress them into a small format store. Walmart brands are decent and affordable, and Neighborhood Markets offer a good blend of name brand and generic offerings.
What We Don’t Like: The Walmart checkout experience isn’t exactly inspired. While the grocer has made progress in recent years with options like self-checkout and curbside service, the fact remains that it’s still a work in progress. The customer experience is decent enough, but, as before, there is a lot of competition in the grocery space.
2. Trader Joe’s
Headquarters: Monrovia, CA
Stores in the United States: 500+
What We Like: If there is such a thing as elevating grocery shopping to art form, Trader Joe’s does it. The grocer’s Fearless Flyer is unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else, and the same holds true for some of the unique products you’ll find in the store itself. But you can find the staples, too, and at prices better than you might expect. Product quality is mostly solid, and nearly all of it is house brands. The shopping experience is a breeze, too, thanks to a checkout experience that is fast and maybe the most friendly you’ll ever find in a store. Plus, they bag your groceries and you don’t have to rent your cart with a quarter. There’s a reason why some outlets see TJ’s as the best grocer in America.
What We Don’t Like: Trader Joe’s isn’t for everyone. The selection is limited, and because the store stocks a few truly unusual products, if all you want is simple and familiar, you may have trouble finding it in some instances. TJ’s also doesn’t have all that many locations in the United States; most are in affluent urban or suburban areas, near where its primary customer base lives. You sometimes have to work harder to get to one than you’d like.
Headquarters: Essen, Germany (international), Batavia, IL (United States)
Stores in the United States: 2,000+
What We Like: Yes, we primarily write about Aldi, so we’re a little biased, but we also think there’s a legitimate case to be be made here. If Trader Joe’s has made an art out of the grocery shopping experience, Aldi has nailed the science. The stores are built for efficiency, thanks to an effective system of quarter carts, bagging your own groceries, and a checkout system that writes the book on speed. Aldi products somehow manage to be both mostly of good quality and also competitively cheap, and the famed middle aisle makes each shopping trip a unique experience. We’ve found Aldi workers to be hard-working and competent, and customer service to be of high quality. No grocer has quite the cult following Aldi does, and it’s well-earned. What’s more, Aldi continues to expand, and will soon become the third-largest grocer in the United States.
What We Don’t Like: Aldi has a lot going for it, but it doesn’t match the customer experience of TJ’s or the availability of certain frills you might get at a Walmart Neighborhood Market. The self-service nature of Aldi’s quarter system and bagging approach take a little getting used to. And there are times Aldi non-food limited buys fail to deliver. Also of note: despite having the largest number of stores of any grocer on this list, there are still wide swaths of the U.S. where Aldi lacks a presence.
Thoughts? Agreements? Disagreements? Let us know in the comments. Just remember to keep to our Community Guidelines.