Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Contributor Post: Current and Former Krogers in North Carolina


Well, here's a first: two posts in the same number of days the blog's first contributor post! You may have seen commenter 11110 mention below a post before that he had a Kroger project of his own in the works. This week he notified me (via his new flickr account) that the project is now complete, and ready for sharing!


As you can see from the screengrab above, his project is a Google MyMaps feature titled "Current and Former Krogers (NC)." If you click this link (or the screengrab directly), you may access the map and explore its pinpoints. Here is 11110's description of the map:

Most of the stores open in NC on or after the establishment of the Carolinas Division. Some stores still missing.

Red- Current stores
Blue- Former Stores
Yellow- Stores taken over by Bi-Lo in 1988

11110 likened Kroger's situation in North Carolina (not counting Harris Teeter stores, which they did not take ownership of until 2013/14) to that of Albertsons in Florida, for those of you familiar with that story. (If not, check out the Albertsons Florida Blog!) He also linked me to a Groceteria.com post that mentions some of Kroger's storied history in North Carolina. Below is an excerpt...

Kroger was once a much bigger force in NC. The chain had a strong presence in the Triad (Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point) from the late 1940s to 1999, when the Triad stores were more or less swapped (an oversimplification) with Harris-Teeter for some Virginia locations. They built most of their own stores but also acquired some Family Mart units from A&P in the mid-1980s. The Triad stores built near the end were quite large; Harris-Teeter (not exactly known for compact stores itself) actually subdivided some of them.

Kroger moved somewhat aggressively into Charlotte in the late 1970s but departed in 1988, selling their stores to Bi-Lo, as has been documented elsewhere on the board.

In the Triangle, I know Kroger was in Durham at least as early as the late 1960s or early 1970s (maybe earlier), but they apparently did not have a major presence in Raleigh until they...started building some of their own stores around the ['80s and '90s].

There were formerly stores in Wilmington NC/Myrtle Beach SC, at least during the 1980s and 1990s, but I'm not sure about the whole history there nor about any former presence in Greenville/Spartanburg or Charleston SC.

A second member (both quoted are based in NC) offers some additional information:

Kroger's first move south was the purchase of the Jamison Stores in Roanoke, VA in the 1927-29 era, I believe 1928. They purchased 92 stores, including stores in Winston-Salem, Durham and Mt Airy, NC and in the Bluefield area of West Virginia, and in Johnson City, TN. The Jamison stores were converted to Kroger at that time, and Kroger signs went up in Winston-Salem and Durham (cannot confirm the conversion in Mt Airy), as well as stores to the other extremes in Johnson City, Bluefield, Danville and Lynchburg. Kroger is still strong in the southern Virginia valley, and in the Lynchburg-Danville market. In NC, Kroger lasted in Durham for a couple of years, left, and came back in about 1956-57. They operated continuously in W-S until the Harris Teeter trade a few years ago. Elsewhere in NC, they were latecomers to Raleigh, and could be found in Triangle extreme edges such as a store in Wilson that dated from the 1990s and closed about 5 years ago. They appeared in Wilmington in the 1980s, lasted thru the 1990s, and their single store there is a Harris Teeter today. Kroger expanded from their W-S to Greensboro and Burlington in the 1950s. They were briefly in metro Charlotte during the 1980s-90s, as far north and west as Hickory. There have never been any stores in NC west of the US 321 corridor.

The full conversation (titled "When/how did Kroger 'conquer' the South?") can be found here. Back to the map itself: unfortunately, Google's MyMaps feature at this time does not appear to include access to addresses or Street Views. 11110 mentioned to me that some of the stores have been demolished and others remodeled beyond recognition, so if he or any one of you has the time to compile a list and/or set of links, I will gladly update this post so everyone may explore freely!

Of course, it's worth noting that North Carolina is not, in fact, within the Mid-South Retail Blog coverage area :P  No matter; the MSRB welcomes contributor posts either way! Figured this would be as good a time as any to plug that again, in case you're new here and have something to share. Naturally, Mid-South retail and/or anything Kroger related would be preferred given the blog's focus, but I would never turn away anything kindly sent in. Simply email stories and/or pictures you may have, along with enough background for readers to understand the context whether in the form of a fully written post (this is preferable, if you would!) or for me to comprise a post from if need be, to midsouthretailblog (at) gmail (dot) com. Or if you want, you can just contact me there and have a retail-related conversation, like has also happened over the past week with one of the blog's readers. Contributions and/or conversations are always welcome! :)

UPDATE, 8-16-16: I received an email from another contributor responding to the earlier Groceteria excerpt asking about Kroger's past and present operations in South Carolina. Here's that information:

Kroger in the past
  • Anderson
  • Charleston
  • Florence
  • Goose Creek
  • Greenville (as Welcome)
  • Florence
  • Lexington
  • Mount Pleasant
  • Sumter

Kroger in the present
  • Aiken
  • Bluffton (Kroger and soon-to-be Kroger Marketplace GA-678)
  • Florence
  • Columbia (as Kroger and Kroger Marketplace)
  • Hilton Head Island
  • Irmo
  • North Augusta
  • North Myrtle Beach
  • Myrtle Beach
  • Surfside Beach

South Carolina was [previously] covered by the Atlanta Division (Anderson, Aiken, North Augusta) and the Charlotte Division.  All Kroger stores in South Carolina [now] are in the Atlanta Division. Additionally, Harris Teeter is re-entering Greenville with two stores.

Thanks to 11110 for sharing his creation with us, and again, don't forget to check it out here! In the meantime, I ask that you also check out yesterday's MSRB feature post here, if you haven't yet... and have fun exploring the retail world wherever you are!

Retail Retell

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Aftermath of Seessel's


Sounds like trouble, doesn’t it? In addition to the headline – which definitely doesn’t do the situation any favors – reading further reveals that this is the second time the Memphis-based chain is changing hands in a little more than a year.

Things weren’t always like this.

For years, Seessel’s ran with widespread community support; with a history dating back to 1858, the family-owned operation was the leading independent grocery store chain in the Memphis area as the year 2000 neared. It also had the second largest market share of any grocery store in the Memphis area by that time, and catered to upscale and gourmet customers, but with an unmatched loyalty from the majority of locals.

1923 Model-T used by Seessel's, seen 2014 in the Pink Palace Museum. Courtesy flickr

The great-great-grandsons of the original founder sold the company in 1987, but bought it back a year later due to poor management. Then, in December 1996, the Seessel’s ten-store portfolio was sold to Bruno’s for $62 million.

This sounds like a story of acute attentiveness: Art and Jerry Seessel, no longer interested in running the family grocery business, sold the chain, but, realizing it could fail, bought it back so that they could sell it to a more fit buyer, one better positioned to rise to the task of running Seessel’s. Unfortunately, while the first part may be true, the second proved opposite. Bruno’s bought the chain while concurrently dealing with an accumulation of debt. Inevitably, Bruno’s found itself needing to shed the new stores not long after buying them – in January 1998, in fact, barely one full year later.

Albertsons, a national supermarket chain based out of Boise, took the bait, paying $88 million for the ten stores, as well as the central bakery and commissary that supplied them. Internal corporate executives considered the deal “a significant market entry opportunity for Albertsons [that] accelerates our entry into that marketplace by several years.” Albertsons, already planning three area stores, had now taken ownership of ten, complete with established locations and customer bases; not only did this look good for the immediate prospects post-purchase, it also painted a bright picture for future, organic expansion within the market.

Albertsons company logos, including that of Seessel's, on an old recycling bin, seen 2011 in Lake Charles, LA. Courtesy flickr

The grocery giant took a more quiet approach in regards to naming their new stores, simply adding a byline – dubbing them “Seessel’s by Albertsons” – and rolling them into their southeast division; other stores purchased in the region outside of the ten Seessel’s stores, as well as multiple new builds, allowed Albertsons to operate under their own name. Soon, Albertsons gained enough of a presence in the area to establish a regional office in Memphis as a part of the chain’s corporate hierarchy. Armed with a concept introduced the same year in their Texas stores, Albertsons set out to deliver to their Mid-South customers, Seessel’s and otherwise, the ultimate in convenience:

“Themed destination areas throughout the store denote such areas as Snack Central, Beverage Boulevard, Party Central, Pet Care Center and International Deli, where 73 varieties of cheese are offered. A wharf motif overlooks the Butcher Block and Fresh Seafood site, where shoppers may have purchases steamed for free or marinated and seasoned while they shop. Customers can request a prescription at one pharmacy window and pick up the completed order later at another window facing the central part of the store. … [T]he store’s Meal Center…will offer traditional deli items along with such ready-to-eat entrees as prime rib. … ‘The produce department offers all the best fruits and vegetables. Plus a lot of what we call Quick Fixin’ Ideas will be displayed throughout the store every day for quick, fast meals.’ … Store aisles will incorporate coolers to place cold pasta, puddings, pickles, beverages and salad dressings beside their warm counterparts.”

An example of the over-the-top décor package (Grocery Palace, or Theme Park) Albertsons used in the Mid-South, seen 2007 in Winter Park, FL. Courtesy jazno.net

Though this excerpt is from an article noting the opening of an Albertsons store in Tupelo in 2000, the features described are fairly typical of what was being implemented in all of their Mid-South stores. In addition to all of the above, Albertsons and Seessel’s by Albertsons stores incorporated bank branches, flower shops, photo centers, video stores, fuel stations, even Starbucks kiosks. Albertsons began to renovate existing Seessel’s stores as soon as they owned the brand, and continued to expand within the market, with as many as six stores under construction – and two in the planning stages – at one point during their tenure in the Mid-South. They built a new store in Horn Lake, the first in the region to feature both garden and promotional centers; they purchased three Jitney Jungle stores in Memphis as a result of that company’s bankruptcy, reopening them under the Seessel’s banner; they constructed a new store only a mile away from an existing one, directing customers to the former as they performed an extensive renovation on the latter, fashioning it into a Broadway-market style store unlike any of their other Mid-South locations.

That store that underwent the Broadway-market remodel was located at 576 S. Perkins Road in Memphis – a favorite of the blog. It closed for construction on October 25, 1999, and reopened sometime second-quarter 2000. That means it, compared to the rest of Albertsons’ Mid-South fleet of stores, likely had even less time open under the chain’s management.

A retail analyst noted in 2002, “When Albertsons bought Seessel’s in Memphis, it looked like such a steal, but a lot of the stores were beyond saving.” A customer’s opinion, written on a forum in 2009, is that “the years of ownership under cash strapped Bruno’s and a heavily leveraged Albertson’s had allowed food quality to slip and service levels were cut.” Whichever is the truth, it’s clear Albertsons was not experiencing positive enough results to match their efforts, and perhaps even was not putting in extensive enough efforts underneath their grandiose façade.

Albertsons opened the aforementioned Tupelo store in April 2000, only to close it and sell it to Kroger in January 2002. Similar stories played out across all of their ground-up stores throughout the Mid-South. Finally, on March 13, 2002, with only the Seessel’s branded stores remaining in their portfolio, Albertsons announced it would be completely exiting the Mid-South: a new headline was published which read, “Albertson’s saying good-bye to Memphis; closing, selling Seessel’s stores.”

Former Seessel's by Albertsons near Riverdale Road in Memphis. Schnucks closed the store in 2003 after entering the market but continued to operate the fuel center out front. Kroger's KwikShop runs the fuel center today, while the store still sits vacant. Image source unknown

The departure was a decision spurred by new corporate management; the Seessel’s divestiture was joined by market retreats from Nashville, San Antonio, and Houston, resulting in considerable job loss and over 150 store closures. Locally, having grown from ten stores in 1998 to as many as 16 at the turn of the millennium, the Seessel’s chain was left with just 12 stores – and no owner – in spring 2002.

All in all, though regarded with mixed reviews, Albertsons led an ambitious – if ill-timed – effort in the Mid-South. Following their lead, Schnucks endeavored to do the same.

Family-owned and based in Saint Louis, Schnucks purchased the 12 Seessel’s stores, as well as 6 Albertsons Express gas stations and convenience stores, on April 30, 2002, for an undisclosed amount of money. Perhaps it was comparable to the $88 million Albertsons had paid for ten stores and zero gas stations four years prior – but at that time, Seessel’s was second in the marketplace; Schnucks, meanwhile, assumed the third place position Albertsons vacated. Nevertheless, they committed, as Albertsons had, to delivering the Seessel’s experience shoppers were used to, but with much more individualized attention, given that “Albertson’s somewhat ignored this marketplace,” per Craig Schnuck himself. From the get-go, however, Schnucks made a critical mistake: they decided to deliver that high-end, upscale Seessel’s experience sans the Seessel’s name.

Removal of Seessel's sign from Midtown Memphis grocery store during Schnucks conversion, likely seen 2002. Courtesy Memphis Photo Blog

Regardless, Schnucks put in an impressive effort, indeed. There’s much to be said on paper: though they closed one of the Albertsons-built stores directly following the purchase, they committed to “immediate renovation and remodeling of all stores” remaining, in what the company considered “Phase I” of a strategic program. “Schnucks Embarks on Second Phase of Memphis Expansion” was the headline in July 2004, as the company detailed plans for multiple new stores to anchor completely new shopping centers, a minor miracle for local economies. Their first ground-up store in the market, located in Collierville, acted as an ideal for the rest of the group, including what was already present and what was to follow:

“The new Collierville Schnucks showcases fruits, vegetables, and other perishables displayed ‘open market’ style in a distinctive format featuring vaulted ceilings and archways. It’s the first of its kind among Schnucks Mid-South stores. … [T]he store includes a full-service florist, an in-store pharmacy, and an in-store bakery specializing in custom cake decorating. The location also features a cold beverage bar, a deli and grill with a separate cash register and seating section, a service seafood department, and a hot- and cold-food and salad bar.”

Schnucks made an effort to invest in the Mid-South, responding to customers’ feedback: for example, they became especially involved in improving the Union Avenue store in Midtown Memphis, the smallest and oldest of the former Seessel’s stores; they quickly remodeled the store’s interior, and began purchasing surrounding parcels of land and probing the community regarding the possibility of building a new, larger store in the site’s vicinity in the future. The chain also adopted the fuel center concept they had entered into with the former Albertsons Express stations, opening fuel centers at their new Mid-South stores as well as introducing and purchasing/converting yet more across their entire corporate footprint.

Interior of Union Avenue (Midtown) store, featuring - similar to the S Perkins Albertsons - a unique décor Schnucks used in none of their other Memphis metro locations, seen January 2016 during final days in operation prior to demolition. Courtesy Downtown Memphis Blog

Again: this all looks great on paper. But in person, it seems Schnucks was not meeting customers’ expectations as well as they had hoped or publicized. While not necessarily their own fault, Schnucks fell victim to the disassociation of “the Seesel’s [sic] name…with an upmarket operation,” suggested an internet user; a managing partner of a local commercial real estate business agreed that “the stores had already lost much of their customers’ loyalty by [2002], and the acquisition didn’t bring them back,” fresh start or not. A separate internet commenter in 2007 concurred: “The local take tends to be, ‘We hate Schnucks, but there is nothing better.’” A retail analyst’s 2004 evaluation of Schnucks’ Mid-South efforts – “Because it is one of the last great family-owned and operated businesses, they understand the heritage of what Art Seessel did in Memphis” – may be true, but understanding and practicing are two different things.

Schnucks abruptly cut its fuel rewards program at its Mid-South stores in August 2011. Soon after, on September 2, 2011, amidst swirling rumors – yet despite corporate denial – Schnucks announced that it would be exiting the Memphis area, selling nine of its stores to dominant market grocer Kroger. Schnucks went on to close the remaining three; Kroger closed one of its new purchases and two of its own existing stores, while keeping all of the Schnucks gas stations and convenience stores and rebranding them as Kwik Shops.

Vestibule of Truse Parkway Schnucks, featuring original Albertsons wood paneling and lettering, seen September 2011 during Schnucks' closeout sale in advance of market exit. Courtesy flickr (visit user's album, too)

For what it’s worth, Schnucks stuck around longer than Albertsons did. They didn’t leave on the most favorable terms, though, especially considering their employees were given little notice and no severance. Said Scott Schnuck, chairman and CEO, in a statement on the departure:

“Despite the best efforts of our talented store teams and a strong customer following, we were unable to gain the strong foothold we had hoped for when we entered the market in 2002. Schnucks competes very favorably in other markets, but in the Mid-South, fierce competition including a growing number of non-traditional grocers and a lingering high price perception was the one-two punch that brought us to today’s announcement.”

The two facets touched upon in that quote – competition and high prices – are rather complex. Starting with the latter: Schnucks entered the market in 2002 pledging to uphold the Seessel’s experience mentioned previously; this meant “shoppers can expect to see high-quality goods and high-end service.” With that, naturally, comes high prices; so, the “lingering high price perception” was somewhat brought upon Schnucks by themselves.

The competition note is another one of interest. The Memphis grocery market has become uniquely competitive, while paradoxically lacking much actual competition. Schnucks cites “non-traditional grocers” – without a doubt, there are many of those, especially now, since Schnucks’ departure: Whole Foods, The Fresh Market, Sprouts, Trader Joe’s, etc. In that sense, the Memphis grocery market is highly competitive. But in the other, more traditional sense of strict grocery stores – not trendy, organic merchants or all-in-one, conglomerate supercenters – Kroger is now the only one left. In fact, Schnucks’ exit was enough for Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen to petition the Department of Justice to investigate whether the sale to Kroger presented any anti-trust violations. The locally-owned alternatives to these three degrees of national corporations are so numerous and unrelated that there really is no one comparable party large enough to make a dent in Kroger’s near monopoly in Memphis.

Interior (featuring perhaps original Albertsons checklane lights) of the Whitehaven grocery store on Shelby Drive, one of the Schnucks stores Kroger purchased, seen 2013. Courtesy Memphis Daily News

From Kroger’s viewpoint, this is definitely considered a success. An article headlined “How Kroger has gained from rivals’ mismanagement” specifically references the Seessel’s situation; the chain’s Delta Division is approaching a store count of 40 with no viable competitor, and is furthermore launching its Marketplace concept to compete with Walmart and Target. This isn’t to say that Kroger is faceless or attempting to take advantage of Mid-South consumers, though:

Joe Bell, then-manager of marketing and public affairs for Kroger Delta, in 2013 said “the company was ‘surprised and confused’ by negative reaction that followed Kroger’s 2011 acquisition of the area Schnucks chain. He points out that Kroger has been in Memphis since 1928[, and] notes that Kroger was cited for its benevolence by Forbes, that the company does charitable work with women’s health organizations, that they proudly support the Mid-South Food Bank. But… but… many around these parts seemed to take Kroger’s acquisition of Schnucks personally. Bell admits that Kroger’s PR approach was to ‘stay under the radar.’ Now they are taking a new approach with two goals: ‘be more visible, be more accessible,’ says Bell.”

Largely, Kroger has kept to those goals. They have spent $118 million renovating, remodeling, and upgrading their Mid-South stores, and have strengthened bonds with the community. They’re even making good on their promise to build a new Midtown store on Union Avenue – an endeavor Schnucks had toyed with previously, as mentioned earlier, to no avail.

Construction progress on new Midtown/Union Kroger, seen July 2016. Compare to rendering here. Courtesy WMC Action News 5

Still, this doesn’t disguise or make up for the lack of competition; Memphians yearn for other options, specifically Publix, and there’s no need to cite a source for that.

That’s simply the aftermath of Seessel’s.
Although no more than a select few are directly quoted above, all of the articles below not only were used in writing this post, but represent a chronological Internet timeline of the Seessel's history. If you would like a more in-depth look into the chain's past and the events that have led to the present state of the grocery market of Memphis and its surrounding metropolitan area, I encourage you to peruse the links below and investigate further on your own - there's plenty to be found!
Mar 18 2016 -- Let's Go Krogering 2.0
If you're a local and have a Seessel's story of your own to share, please feel free to do so in the comments to this post - your experiences are just as much a part of the history as all those articles! Additionally, if you're interested in more on Albertsons' local operations, check out my special flickr series investigating Albertsons in Mississippi. In the meantime, that's what's happening in the Mid-South, and has been for some time now... until next time, have fun exploring the retail world wherever you are!
Retail Retell