When shoppers visit Aldi for the first time, there are a few things that tend to stand out. You use a quarter to get your cart. The store is smaller than your average grocer. Some of the items are permanent while others are rotating. You have to bring your own bags, or pilfer the cardboard boxes in the disposal bins.
And then there is the checkout line.
Here’s a pretty typical scenario: you’re standing in line at Aldi, waiting to check out. There’s one lane open, and the line is getting kind of long. You’re standing there, looking at all the full carts in front of you, mentally calculating how many minutes it will take for each person to make their way through.
And then you hear a buzzer. You’re not sure quite what it is; in fact, maybe you don’t pay it much mind, because you’re lost in thought waiting in line, or you’re texting your kid, or you’re staring at something on an endcap trying to decide if you want to buy it.
But then, suddenly, two Aldi employees appear. You have no idea where they came from. They might have crawled out of the ground, or apparated from thin air. (More likely, they emerged from working the floor or from the office.) All you know is that, suddenly, they’re manning their stations, and they’re saying, “I can take the next person in line right here.”
People flow toward these new outlets, and as you draw closer you hear beeping. Lots of beeping. And you see a steady movement of the conveyor belt as groceries begin to disappear off the conveyor. You have a moment to look at the small things packed in the checkout line, but not too long, because soon enough your turn is up.
The Aldi employee before you is sitting down, unlike in most stores, but that belies just how intense the work in front of them is. They start scanning your stuff and putting it in the cart used by the person before you, and if you pay close attention (not that you have time to) you might detect a specific cadence to the beeping. It’s steady but fast.
If you have any dreams of bagging your items right there, they’re probably quickly dashed, because this cashier isn’t slowing down for anyone. More likely, you patiently wait as the worker briskly scans your groceries, and in short order you’re left with a full cart in front of you and an empty one behind. You pay for your groceries, pull your now-empty cart up in front of the cashier, and pull the full one off, with the dust barely settling on your transaction before the beeping-accompanied flow of groceries resumes for the customer behind you. You head over to the bagging area, sort everything out, and head out the door, watching the Aldi employees plying their checkout trade as you do. The beeping is like background noise now.
What’s the Secret?
Aldi has one of the fastest checkout experiences of any grocery store on the planet. That’s not exaggeration: in a recent study, Aldi ranked just behind Amazon — a company whose checkout process is entirely run by machines — for checkout speed. Aldi workers are honest-to-goodness fast, and there are a few things the store does to help make that happen.
1. The store rotates workers in during high-volume periods.
Aldi workers are trained to do everything in the store, from stocking to cleaning. They’re also trained to check out. When you hear that buzzer, it means that the line has gotten too long … and that reinforcements are on the way. Once that happens, expect to see new Aldi cashiers manning the stations within the next minute or so. When the lines shorten, those cashiers will peel back off into their previous work.
2. The scanning system is optimized for speed.
Aldi cleverly puts barcodes on multiple sides of many private label packages, meaning the employee doesn’t have to spend time rotating the product to find the barcode — they can just grab it and swipe. Depending on the size and shape of the product, most private label products have 2-4 barcodes on them, with 3-4 being the norm on most rectangular or square packages. A cereal box, for example, has four.
Some websites claim that the scanning system is programmed not to allow more than one item to scan per second to prevent double-scanning, but workers we’ve talked to have indicated they’re not sure that’s true. Regardless, veteran cashiers develop an instinct for listening to tones and are generally good at avoiding time-consuming double-scans.
3. Workers are trained for shortcuts.
Workers are trained to know the item codes for many of their products, allowing them to key the item by hand rather than scan it. Some workers have told us that, with certain items, they can actually hand key the item faster than they can scan it, so when they find themselves holding, say, milk or eggs, they might just key the code as they drop it in the cart.
4. Workers aren’t strictly evaluated for speed, but they are reminded about it.
Workers we’ve spoken to have told us that they’ve never truly feared losing their jobs over being too slow … but they are pushed to go fast, and they are privy to statistics showing them just how fast they are. This subtle pressure, especially from seeing numbers listed by their name, helps to push them to keep up the speed.
Is the Speed Bad?
Some people think so. In any discussion of Aldi speed there are bound to be a few people who dislike it. They may cite things like the care the cashier shows for their more fragile products or frustration that they can’t bag their groceries right there. I can’t speak to each and every circumstance, but I can say that 1) no Aldi employee has ever damaged an item I’ve placed on the checkout aisle and 2) I don’t mind the speed. For me, getting through checkout and going on with my life is important, and I appreciate how Aldi does just that … unlike some other stores I know.