Lidl celebrates grand openings, bringing taste of Europe to US


Cynthia Dunlap was looking for bargains and she wasn’t disappointed.

The 58-year-old from Norfolk, Virginia, travelled just a few kilometres to check out a new Lidl store that opened Thursday in the nearby city of Virginia Beach. At the checkout she raved about the 89-cent pineapple and the doughnuts – three for 1 dollar.

“I came to look for sales and – just seeing what they had,” said Dunlap, who lived in Heidelberg, Germany from 1998-2001. She said she was also looking for things “reminiscent” of a time that she missed.

She and hundreds of other shoppers swarming the store found a smattering of such items. The Bavarian pretzels baked in-store using dough flown over from Germany were authentic. There also was bratwurst and German beer. Other European specialities included French wine and Belgian chocolate.

But overall the German discount grocer appeared not to play up any connection to Europe. If evident anywhere, it was in the store’s international section, which was well-stocked with Italian specialties for the grand opening. It will change regularly to feature items from other countries, including non-European ones, Lidl officials said.

Lidl also announced earlier this month a deal with Heidi Klum making it the exclusive retailer of a line of clothing the German-born supermodel and U.S. television personality is developing. They are due to arrive in stores by the end of the year.

The stores are in fact decidedly non-European in a few subtle ways. U.S. Lidl shoppers don’t need a coin deposit for their carts and there is no bottle return. However they will be charged a few cents for shopping bags if they don’t bring their own.

Brendan Proctor, head of Lidl in the U.S., said the company relied heavily on focus groups as it developed its concept for its U.S. stores, taking pains to try to deliver things U.S. customers want like cold beer and wine, which isn’t available in its European stores.

Some of the feedback from people in focus groups who were shown photos of older European stores indicated Americans viewed them as dowdy. Proctor said to make sure that was not the case with the new U.S. stores their design includes sloping glazed-glass windows along the front to make it “a little bit different and little bit modern, but recognizable as a grocery store.”

A number of shoppers at the store on Thursday were familiar with the German discount store’s model because they had shopped at Lidl competitor and fellow German discount grocer Aldi, which arrived in the US decades ago.

It already has 1,300 stores and just prior to Lidl’s grand opening, announced it would add 900 more in the U.S. by 2022 as part of 3.4-billion-dollar capital investment program.

While shoppers at the grand opening in Virginia Beach were upbeat, some lamented that it is not American and worried that it could spell bad news for regional grocers.

“I like American stores,” said a 60-year-old man from nearby Chesapeake, Virginia who declined to give his name. “I’m hoping they will last.”

Standing in the parking lot with a large cleaning appliance in his shopping cart, the man said the store’s roots in Europe had stirred some negative feelings in the community, especially with the “buy-American” mood that has accompanied the Trump administration.

But he admitted he liked the atmosphere in the new Lidl and the wide aisles. The bakery and home goods section are improvements over the offerings at Aldi, he added.