As many of you know, Aldi - the German discount retailer - has been opening many new stores in the United States. Aldi operates a small footprint, discount store largely stocked with private label products. It sells a limited range of SKUs in those stores. The firm offers products at such low prices because it has perfected a model that drives costs incredibly low.
One cost reduction effort that I find quite interesting is the shopping cart strategy at Aldi. We all know that shopping carts are a messy problem at many supermarkets. Shoppers leave the carts all over the parking lot. The wind catches some carts and causes damages to parked automobiles. The stores has to pay someone to go retrieve carts all over the lot so as to make sure that shoppers will have available carts when they enter the store. How does Aldi deal with all these issues? It charges refundable 25 cent fee for a shopping cart. You pay 25 cents to get a cart before you shop, and you only get your money back when you return the cart at the end of your store visit. What's the impact of this very small fee? Here's where human psychology works wonders for the firm. Despite the very small amount of money, the overwhelming majority of shoppers returns their cart and gets their 25 cents back.
Why is the return rate so high? Perhaps we see this effect because the typical Aldi shopper is in search of value and very conscious of their spending. Most people think there is more to it though. There's just something about paying for a shopping cart that probably bothers people; they want that quarter back. Moreover, as one Aldi employee told me, perhaps people simply don't want to give the next shopper who comes a long a free cart, which would be the case if they left the cart by their car. Of course, I find that interesting. It would seem that otherwise very charitable people do not want to "give" others a free shopping cart rental. The specifics of this setting seem to make them far less altruistic! Of course, social psychologists have long argued that small changes in a situation or setting can drive behavioral changes; here we see that quite clearly.
By the way, what does Aldi get from this policy? They save the money associated with having to pay someone to go retrieve carts all day, and they have customers who don't get annoyed by dents and scratches on their cars from roaming shopping carts. Not bad at all! Just one more piece to their low-cost model...