Are you Lush or are you Aldi? Me, I’m Aldi all the way. So much so that when someone — usually my daughter — tries to drag me anywhere near one of Lush’s painfully ubiquitous high street cosmetics shops, I respond a bit like the Antichrist does in the ‘it’s just a church, Damien’ scene in The Omen, writhing and shrieking like I’m about to be dissolved in acid. (Which, funnily enough, is rather how my skin feels when I’ve treated myself to one of Lush’s fizzing bath bombs)
Not, it must be said, that there is anything remotely Antichrist-like about hating Lush. On the contrary, it is the perfectly natural response of any civilised, intelligent, moral human being. What’s wrong with Lush? Everything is wrong with Lush, but in a nutshell, it’s this: that it’s not so much a shop as a marketing trick; a candy-coloured, berry-scented, personally gift-wrapped exercise in organic, ethnically sourced, fair-trade turd-polishing.
If Lush were a circus, it would be touchy-feely, painfully right-on and thrill-free Cirque Du Soleil. If it were a movie, it would be something like that overstyled, hyper-whimsical Wes Anderson picture The Grand Budapest Hotel. If Lush were a Mr Benn episode, it would be the spaceman one where he goes to another planet and picks up lots of jewels only to discover on bringing them back to Festive Road that they’re all just rocks.
You go in and it’s all so seemingly enticing: the handwritten-esque labels done in the overexcitable decorative style of girls called Bekki who draw a circle over the ‘i’ instead of a dot; the gaudy chunks of rippled soap which look and smell more delicious than cake; the hovering assistants who want to be like your bestest friend ever and make you feel so thrilled and validated by your purchase that it’s like you’ve got a new boyfriend, a pony and an Anya Hindmarch bag rolled into one.
Look, I’m not knocking the elegantly cynical business model. Nor the sweet if hyper-enthusiastic customer service. But let’s not kid ourselves that there’s anything innocent or homespun or altruistic or counter-cultural about it. For all its support of right-on causes (Lush is aggressively anti-Israel, anti-foxhunting, anti-animal testing, pro-UK Uncut) Lush is really just another ugly vulture capitalist — buying very cheap ingredients and selling them very dear.
Now compare the Lush experience with the Aldi one, which is pretty much the exact opposite. Take Aldi’s 30-day-aged Aberdeen Angus sirloin steak, which sells for less than a fiver, and is as well-marbled, buttery and flavoursome as anything you’d find for twice the price in an upmarket butcher. Or its single-estate, Italian extra virgin olive oil, which invariably wins every competition going and retails for less than a fifth of the £20 it ought to cost. Or its fine wine selection, especially around Christmas, when you can pick up a very decent Puligny-Montrachet for a good tenner less than in Waitrose.
How can Aldi afford to do this? By keeping its product range short and sweet; by keeping its margins ultra-tight; by training its staff to behave differently from those ditzy girls in Lush. You wouldn’t call them rude, exactly. But they’re definitely brisk, processing your groceries with an alacrity which would appal those lovely, warm mumsy types and bright graduates up the road at Waitrose.
Shopping at Aldi takes a bit of getting used to, it’s true. At first, you might find yourself thinking: ‘So this is what it’s like to pick up your social security cheque.’ But though there’s definitely a bit of a wartime feel to the spartan atmosphere (not to mention in the presence of all those displaced refugees from Poland, Romania, etc; plus all those weird own-brand names you’ve never encountered before), there’s also a Blitz-spirit camaraderie and sense of purpose. You’re not there for the thrills or to linger in the aisles (let alone at the till, which you can’t because the bagging area has been made so small). You’re there to buy stuff you need, very cheap, and get out as quickly as possible.
Read the rest – where I show how almost everything in the world can be divided into whether it’s Lush or Aldi – here at The Spectator.