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Published: Sunday, 5/12/2013 - Updated: 11 months ago

Kroger seeks bigger Marketplace slice

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Construction at Kroger Marketplace store in Lambertville, Mich. Construction at Kroger Marketplace store in Lambertville, Mich.
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It’s just a few paragraphs in an 87-page financial report, but in the annual 10-K document that the Kroger Co. filed on April 2 with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the fierce battle for market share that the Cincinnati-based retailer is waging with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. practically jumps off the page.

“Based on Nielsen Homescan Data, our estimated market share increased in total by approximately 20 basis points in 2012 across our 19 marketing areas outlined by the Nielsen report. … Wal-Mart Supercenters are a primary competitor in 17 of these 19 marketing areas. In these 17 marketing areas, our market share increased in nine and declined in eight,” the report states.

Kroger is the dominant supermarket chain in the Toledo area. Wal-Mart is the nation’s No. 1 retailer.

Wal-Mart has been muscling in on Kroger’s supermarket turf since 1988, when the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer began developing its Walmart supercenters, which carry a full line of groceries. In the Toledo area, Wal-Mart added groceries to its stores in 2006.

The addition of groceries pushed Wal-Mart further into the concept of “hypermarkets” — a format that combines a supermarket and a department store. In theory, it gives customers a one-stop shopping experience — and it gave Wal-Mart a significant advantage over pure supermarket chains such as Kroger, Aldi, Safeway, and SuperValu.

But Kroger, which learned a thing or two about hypermarkets after acquiring the consummate hypermarket chain Fred Meyer stores in 1998, has not been idle while Wal-Mart stocks up on groceries.

In 2004 in Columbus, the retailer built its first Kroger Marketplace store — a 125,000-square-foot store with full-service grocery and pharmacy departments, but also an expanded general merchandise area that includes outdoor living products, electronics, home goods, and toys. The Marketplace stores have evolved to include gourmet coffee stands, a bank, a jewelry store, apparel, and baby clothing and furniture.

As of April, Kroger had built 78 Marketplace stores, mostly in Ohio but also in Louisville, Nashville, Houston, and Phoenix (where it operates as Fry’s Food Stores).

A "Kroger Marketplace" store. Two of these stores are being built in the Toledo area. A "Kroger Marketplace" store. Two of these stores are being built in the Toledo area.
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Last year Kroger began converting its 68,000-square-foot supermarket in Lambertville into a 128,000-square-foot marketplace. The project is about 80 percent complete. In its first phase, it expanded the store’s produce area, added a bakery and a fresh seafood area, and built a “bistro” area with a coffee, beverage, and olive bar and made-to-order sandwiches.

The second phase that includes furniture, apparel, a Baby World section featuring baby furniture, furnishings, and apparel, and a Fred Meyer jewelers. It should be ready this summer.

Last month Kroger announced plans to build a second Marketplace store in the Toledo area, on Holloway Road at Airport Highway in Holland. The 124,000-square-foot store will open in the fall of 2014.

Grocery industry analyst Bill Bishop, head of Illinois-based Willard Bishop Consulting, said it isn’t surprising that a traditional supermarket chain such as Kroger has been deploying a concept that adds more general merchandise because retailers are always seeking new categories that will help attract customers, as Wal-Mart did when it added groceries to its lineup of general merchandise.

“Every retailer is trying to get into, to the extent they can, completely new markets because that’s a kind of pure growth for them. So when you go to a [Kroger] Marketplace store and see furniture — which shocked me the first time I saw it — it’s pretty evident that having bigger stores has let capable retailers put their toes into new markets for growth,” Mr. Bishop said. “And I think what you’re going to see is a lot more of that.”

Target varieties

Discount chain Target Stores Inc., for example, operated as a general merchandiser then began adding nonperishable food to its wares more than a decade ago. In 2009, the retailer went further toward the hypermarket concept by developing its “PFresh” stores that contain perishable and frozen foods, meat, dairy, and produce.

The PFresh concept was rolled out across 350 stores, either through remodeling or store openings, through 2010. And in 1995, Target developed its SuperTarget format, a 174,000-square-foot store that had a full grocery selection, fresh produce, bakery, and deli, plus a bank, fast-food stores, coffee bistros, pharmacy, and in some locations, a walk-in medical clinic.

Although Target had 251 SuperTargets as of February, the firm does not have any of those stores or PFresh formats in the Toledo area, and a spokesman would not say whether any are planned.

But with Kroger adding two Marketplace stores, and Wal-Mart, Meijer Inc., and The Andersons Inc. all claiming their shares of the local customer pie, it seems logical that Target may move to put a PFresh in Toledo, if not a SuperTarget. After all, Mr. Bishop said, all retailers have access to consumer trend data and have a good sense of what area customers want.

“Everybody has a lot better customer information from their loyalty card data, and they’re more aware of what households are doing,” he said. “They all have the ability to reach out to the grocery shopper and will know which areas will be in the market for children’s things, for family things, and for groceries.”

Different concepts

David Livingston, a Milwaukee-based grocery industry analyst and data researcher, said while all of the retailers are moving toward combinations of groceries and general merchandise, each is doing its mix a little differently to fit the preferences of their own customers.

“Kroger’s concept is a little bit different than the others,” said Mr. Livingston, whose company, DLJ Research, does market analyses for investors, retailers, developers, and real estate investment trusts.

“At a Walmart Supercenter, the grocery, food, drug, and pet food categories represent about 60 percent of sales. A typical Target store’s grocery sales is about 33 percent of total sales, and it’s a little higher with a SuperTarget,” he said. “But at Kroger [Marketplace], their general merchandise sales are only about 10 or 15 percent [of total sales].”

Given those low numbers for general merchandise sales, Mr. Livingston said he wonders why Kroger even bothers with building more Marketplace stores.

“I’ve never understood why Kroger does this. They’re got their reasoning and it does bring people into the store and maybe they come more often. But they still don’t do as much in general merchandise sales as their competitors,” he said.

Mr. Livingston said his guess is that Kroger is still tinkering with the concept, learning lessons from its Fred Meyer chain on the West Coast, and uncertain how far into the hypermarket concept it should go.

It’s working

Chuck Cerankosky, a retail analyst with Northcoast Research Holdings LLC, of Cleveland, said from all indications, the Marketplace concept seems to be working for Kroger.

“They’re different from Wal-Mart in that [Kroger’s] perishables have a great deal more quality. And the quality component from their grocery perishables then extends into their general merchandise selection,” Mr. Cerankosky said.

“I think their quality stands above Wal-Mart,” he added.

The analyst said the emphasis on quality in the Marketplace stores in turn dictates where they will be built and probably determines why there are not a lot yet.

“They tend to be in upscale locations, but given that it’s Kroger, they’ve just been amazing in their ability to tweak their merchandise to make it upscale wherever they are.

“But they go all over the place to match what their demographic research tell them. It’s all part of their plan, and it's working for them,” Mr. Cerankosky said.

Jackie Siekmann, a spokesman for Kroger’s Columbus division, said Kroger has no intention of populating every locale with Marketplace stores. The company, she said, has several store formats, and is building Marketplace stores only where research tells them it is warranted.

For example, Ms. Siekmann said, the new 86,629-square-foot Kroger store at Reynolds Road and Dussell Drive in Maumee will be a supermarket with a fuel station.

“I think the most important aspect of this that we tell our customers over and over is that our goal is not to turn every store into a Marketplace,” Ms. Siekmann said. “What we want is to make the food shopping experience the best it can be and then add other things on to that."

The Kroger spokesman acknowledged that “Wal-Mart is no doubt one of our competitors that we look at.”

But Ms. Siekmann said Kroger’s movement into more general merchandising has been based more on feedback from its customers as opposed to watching what competitors do.

“The customer tells us more and more that they want conveniences. They want fuel, prescriptions — socks and stalks all in one trip, as we like to say,” she said.

The company did demographic research in the Toledo market, and it told the company there was a demand for two Marketplace stores, she said.

“We could see from our data that some of our Toledo folks were stopping [at a Kroger Marketplace] in Mansfield on the way to Columbus,” Ms. Siekmann said.

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.



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