I am waiting outside an Aldi in south London at 6.45am. Through the window, I eye my prize. He glints at me from a basket placed tantalisingly close to the entrance. Kevin the Carrot, the limited-edition soft toy released by Aldi once a year, is part of the discount supermarket’s Christmas promotion. Such is the demand for Aldi’s Kevin drop that the toys routinely sell on eBay for triple the retail price. This year, Kevin is golden, his belly straining against the metallic fabric like a wrestler’s bespandexed torso.
I text Jayne McGibbon Peberdy, a 39-year-old law student and Kevin collector. She has been waiting outside her local Aldi in Greenock since 4.30am. She sends me a photo of a steaming vacuum flask. In 2019, Peberdy witnessed a stampede for Kevins. “The following year, they had to get the police to the shop, because a grown man tried to steal a Kevin out of the hands of a four-year-old,” she says.
My heart skitters like a baby deer on roller-skates. Behind the glass, Kevin glitters from his squishy throne. One hour 45 minutes until opening time.
Kevin day comes but once a year, but the UK’s love for the middle aisle at Aldi – and its rival Lidl – is year-round. Young and old, rich and poor, those with children and those without: all come in search of so-called special buys – unexpected items to enliven the weekly shop, on sale for a limited time, often as part of themed weeks. Kevin the Carrot. A badger knitting kit. A Lord of the Rings towel. An inflatable hot tub.
“We want to make sure we’ve got a little bit of something for everybody,” says Louise Weise, the promotions director at Lidl GB. Blockbuster middle-aisle products of recent years include thermal underwear – “It flew out. It was amazing. We sold 300,000 units in a week” – fluffy hoodies and air fryers. “The team was telling me about air fryers before anyone knew about air fryers,” Weise says.
But how did such items end up in Britain’s supermarkets? “Aldi pioneered the middle aisle,” says Paul Stainton, a former buying director at the German company. “The whole idea was to bring in general merchandise to attract customers with ‘when it’s gone, it’s gone’ propositions and, while they were there, to hopefully get them interested in the everyday core range.”
Stainton worked for Aldi from 1989 until 2020. The supermarket launched in the UK in 1990, Lidl four years later. “We started off by selling any general merchandise you could get hold of,” he remembers. “Strip mops were sitting next to 14in colour TVs.” Over time, the offering grew. In the mid-00s, ski-wear was particularly popular. In 2017, a £399 inflatable hot tub “flew out”, Stainton remembers. Back-to-school promotions are a huge hit, for obvious reasons; Lidl’s uniform bundle costs just £5.
Aldi and Lidl’s middle-aisle teams are slick operations. Weise manages a team of about 50 buyers, responsible for identifying future trends. “We were the first people to market an affordable paddleboard,” says Weise. The buyers negotiate directly with manufacturers. Because Lidl and Aldi have nearly 2,000 stores in the UK between them (and operate in dozens of countries), they are able to place enormous orders, meaning they get the best prices from suppliers.
But it is not only about trying to secure the lowest price possible. “In the 1990s, we’d buy the cheapest drill we could,” says Stainton. “But as we started getting more experienced buyers, and more strategy, we started to increase the quality of what we were selling.”
Weise says that Lidl inspects its factories to ensure that workers aren’t being exploited: “This is something that anybody working in non-food retail needs to be so mindful of. Supply chains are extremely important to us.” Aldi refers me to its company policy, which prohibits forced labour, discrimination and harassment, mandates compliance with local laws and protects workers’ rights to unionise.
But both retailers sail close to the wind when it comes to intellectual property laws. In the middle aisle, you will often find “dupes” – or what others might call knock-offs. Aldi sells a £19.99 Every Ways pan that is nearly identical to the £130 Always Pan from Our Place, which can be used to fry, boil, steam and bake and is popular among those tight on kitchen space. “When you have one of the largest corporations in the world deliberately duping a product that is the innovation of a woman-of-colour-founded business, I think that creates harm and makes it harder for the next entrepreneur to create innovation,” says Our Place’s co-founder Shiza Shahid.
Shahid and her husband spent two years designing their multipurpose pan before launching the company, using their savings. I ask whether she has considered suing Aldi. “There’s a fundamental power imbalance here,” she says. “For us, our best defence is our innovation.”
When I put Shahid’s criticisms to Aldi, Julie Ashfield, the managing director of buying, responds: “We go to great lengths to ensure that all our exclusive Aldi brand products adhere to strict copyright guidelines. While the quality of our products matches that of more expensive brands, their designs and prices do not.” But Shahid says that, unlike Aldi’s, her pan has a nesting spatula and steamer basket, plus a proprietary non-toxic coating. It is also oven-safe to a higher temperature, she says. “I think this is capitalism at its worst, not best. Capitalism at its best would foster innovation,” says Shahid.
As for Lidl, Weise says: “We are very careful. We look out for market trends and we look to deliver our own quality and make sure that the integrity of our quality is there and we’re landing that with our customers.”
If Aldi and Lidl are competing fiercely with small businesses, they are also competing fiercely with each other. Stainton tells me that Aldi and Lidl buyers jockey over the dates of their themed weeks. Take wooden toys, which went on sale last month. Aldi went first: its standout product was a wooden toy kitchen, priced at £34.99, which sold out immediately. The week after, Lidl’s £49.99 toy kitchen went on sale – and sold out. I visited two Lidl stores on the day of its release in the hope of buying one for my son, to no avail; it was already being resold on platforms such as Vinted for double the price.
“It’s insane,” says Jess Samra, 26, a civil servant from Sutton Coldfield. “I didn’t think it would be this much drama.” Last month, she bought a trolley full of wooden toys from her local Aldi for her daughter. After posting about it on TikTok, she was inundated with vitriol. “Pure greed,” wrote one commenter. She feels the criticism is unfair and should be directed at the resellers. “I understand people’s anger,” says Samra. “It’s not right for people to resell them. It’s for parents who want to buy them for their children.”
It is scarcity that is driving Samra’s critics to despair. If customers don’t buy special products when they first see them, they will probably be gone the next time they visit the shop.
Why not sell the more popular products for a longer period? “Every customer who leaves disappointed is a missed opportunity for me,” says Weise. “I feel it really personally. The reality is, we’re forecasting a lot of things in advance. What we don’t want to do – what we hate – is any kind of waste.” If products sell out quickly, Weise’s team will place larger orders the year after. “We just want to make sure we aren’t overwhelmed with stock,” she says.
This lean approach has made Aldi and Lidl behemoths. They pride themselves on undercutting the major supermarket chains on price; the middle aisle is where they claw back savings. “General merchandise margins can be well over double the margins you can earn on food,” says Stainton. He estimates that the middle aisle accounts for between 15% and 20% of Aldi’s sales.
“For many years, retailers followed the approach of satisfying consumers, which meant just offering the products they were expecting on their shopping list,” says Thomas Rudolph, a professor of marketing at the University of St Gallen. Now, “if you look at the typical purchasing situation in Aldi, consumers have a shopping list and are trawling the store, finding the products.
“After they finish their shopping list, the reward phase starts: ‘Now I’ve saved so much money, let me get some inspiration and find something that makes me happy.’ That’s what happens in the middle aisle.”
Emma Starrs, 47, who works in PR and lives in Bury, agrees. “Shopping can be boring. It jazzes up a grocery shop.” Starrs’ favourite middle-aisle purchase? Her sausage-dog wire planter, bought for £5.99 from Aldi this year. “Imagine a plant pot, but with chicken-wire mesh shaped into a sausage dog, with a hole in the back.” She uses it to grow heather.
This unpredictability is at the heart of the middle aisle’s appeal. “We’re impulsive purchasers, aren’t we?” says Stainton. “I really think the British customer loves to mooch.” The middle aisle is a break from routine, an opportunity to buy items that whisper the promise of a better, optimised self – one who turns out fresh loaves (bread baker, £50, Lidl) or runs marathons (trainers, £14.99, Aldi).
Shoppers are required to be impulsive: buy now or for ever lament the one that got away. Marie Lynn Davies, 68, a retired teacher from Buckingham, often thinks about the chopping board with pull-out drawers she didn’t buy from Aldi. “It was a bit more than I wanted to pay,” she says. “But now I regret it. I look for it every time I’m there.”
Others, of course, do take the plunge – then regret it. “I thought it was a good deal,” says George Lancaster, 33, a project manager from Bradford. “I still stand by the fact it was a good deal.”
Lancaster is referring to the kayak he bought from Aldi in 2021 for £39.99. He had only gone in for a few bits. He struggles to explain why he bought it: “I guess I was a typical Yorkshireman and thought: ‘That’s a good deal.’” Two years on, Lancaster’s kayak gathers dust in his garage. He has taken it on three holidays, but never used it. “Someday I will,” he says.
In the middle of a climate emergency and a cost of living crisis, should we really be encouraging consumers to make frivolous purchases? Weise ducks the question. “What we will not compromise on is the quality of the products we’re offering,” she says. “These are products that are designed to be used again and again.” It is true that these items tend to hold up. Davies used a £16.99 halogen oven from Aldi every day for seven years, until it finally broke.
That oven inspired such devotion that Davies is now the administrator of a popular Aldi Facebook group. Of late, it has become more fraught than usual, which Davies attributes in part to the cost of living crisis: “People can’t afford to go to places like Toys ‘R’ Us, but they can pick up some decent presents for their kids when they’re doing their weekly shopping – and they don’t have to use petrol going anywhere else.” It is this, she says, that fuels the anger Samra experienced. “They haven’t got much money and want something decent for their kids – and can’t get it, because someone is selling it for a profit. It’s galling for them.”
We are speaking before Kevin day, which this year fell on 17 November. “When Kevin the Carrot came out in 2021, oh God, the arguments!” says Davies. “‘Fancy buying so many!’ ‘Could you leave some for someone else?’” When the Aldi Christmas advert is released, Kevin the Carrot Facebook groups – there are several – light up like a brandy-soaked pudding. “Monday is here; countdown to Kevin carrot crush Thursday,” wrote one poster. A store manager pleaded with people not to lose their heads: “You would be surprised how much abuse we get on Kevin day.”
Which is how I come to find myself outside Aldi in the frigid gloom of a November morning. Peberdy has advised me to wrap up warm and watch out for queue-jumpers: “They edge in the front of the queue with a trolley.” By 7.30am, I am still alone. I text Peberdy; she tells me there are 30 people in her queue. “I’m ready to run,” she says. At 7.50am, three other shoppers arrive. My heartbeat quickens. Could they be the queue‑jumpers Peberdy warned me about? I position myself stoutly in front of the entrance.
The doors swish open at 8am. I launch myself through, not bothering to pick up a basket – I have calculated this would add five seconds – and secure my gilded prize. Golden Kevin is mine! For good measure, I grab a £19.99 human-size Kevin.
Satisfied, I glance around, expecting to see other shoppers ransacking the Kevin display. But they are browsing the fresh produce. Could it be that Kevin mania is draining away? Perhaps. But one thing is certain. The UK’s love for the middle aisle shows no sign of slowing down.