Arrival of Aldi has Opportunity, Drawbacks

A new semester has started at Oberlin College and with it has arrived a new addition to the Oberlin community. ALDI — with its strange deposit-based shopping carts and bulk produce — has set up shop right across the road from the Walmart in Oberlin. But does Oberlin need another big-box store?

The trend of big-box stores worming their way into small towns has made it increasingly difficult for local businesses to stay afloat. Their tendency toward mass production and outsourcing labor to other countries allows them to keep their prices and wages low. General merchandise big-box stores are particularly detrimental to small businesses because they carry such a wide variety of products, whereas small businesses, such as hardware stores, bakeries, and stationery suppliers, generally serve a more niche clientele. To the stereotypically overworked and underpaid American, big-box stores have become an accepted and necessary evil, despite their reputation for lower-quality products and poor labor practices.

The practice of big-box stores entering small towns and driving out local businesses is a recognizable phenomenon, one so common that we have seen it become its very own rom-com genre. The plot is typically anti-corporation despite the majority of these movies being produced by Hallmark — once a greeting card company that has since expanded its multimillion-dollar enterprise into more and more markets. The existence of this media trope points to an interesting yet enduring American behavior — our readiness to condemn corporations and the corporate world as a whole while continuing to support them in our everyday lives.

Walmart fills such a role in Oberlin students’ lives. Self-proclaimed progressives, they are the first to denounce Walmart’s casual exploitation of workers and reputation for cheaply made products. Despite Walmart’s poor consumer reception – in a 2021 survey conducted through the American Customer Satisfaction Index, customers ranked it dead last – Oberlin students continue to shop there because of its cheap and accessible goods. ALDI, on the other hand, provides a seemingly ethical alternative. It exists as a wholesome, wholesale food retailer with reasonable prices and fresh food. It secured the number one spot in Greenpeace’s 2019 ranking of supermarkets based on their plastic reduction efforts, and the number two spot in 2021. It boasts produce sourced from local farmers and livable wages for both suppliers and employees.

Despite this, ALDI is still a big-box store. Its very existence represents the dissolution of other community-owned businesses, if not in Oberlin, then in other cities around the country and around the globe. However, it is not a general merchandise store, but a supermarket. It specializes in goods within a specific range. Unlike Walmart, it doesn’t cater to every market — hardware, books, consumer electronics, grocery, home goods. When an ALDI moves into an area, it doesn’t compete with every small business in town, only local food retailers.

Aside from the IGA, which is a part of a larger organization, there are few local food suppliers in Oberlin for ALDI to challenge. In fact, ALDI fills a very specific need in the Oberlin community: fresh produce. Except for Stevenson Dining Hall’s brown bananas and Azariah’s Café’s sweaty fruit cups, there are few places on campus or in town where fresh produce is readily and reliably available. Which begs the question — does an ALDI in Oberlin really cause any harm?

In recent years, there has been an uptick in small businesses and larger corporations that fill the same niche working together against ‘bigger evils.’ This relationship can be seen in local bookstores’ relationship with Barnes & Noble. Barnes & Noble was originally regarded by small bookstores and their patrons as the corporate enemy. However, as Amazon and other online retailers have risen to prominence within recent years, this antagonistic relationship has changed into something more akin to allyship. Barnes & Noble’s near-bankruptcy just a couple years ago was seen as indication of brick-and-mortar booksellers’ inevitable decline. Its resurgence after the pandemic has been a symbol of hope for local bookstores, which would’ve once seen Barnes & Noble’s success as detrimental to their own.

ALDI’s presence in Oberlin may function in a similar way — it might be an unexpected ally of the Oberlin small business. Previously, Walmart served as a one-stop shop for everything a college student might need. Oberlin students’ Walmart food runs place them in close proximity to other supplies they might need – pens and notebooks and clothes and snacks that they might otherwise buy at Ben Franklin or Ginko’s Gallery or Ratsy’s. If instead, students go to ALDI for their produce, where they don’t have such easy access to these other products, they may be more likely to shop at Oberlin local businesses.

Small businesses are having a harder time meeting the growing demand for a larger variety of products at lower prices. The existence of specialty big-box stores may be their saving grace. Rather than working against one another, these two types of businesses can work together to prevent the monopolizing effect of Walmarts and Amazons. Whether Oberlin’s new ALDI will funnel business away from Walmart and towards Oberlin small businesses remains to be seen.