When a retailer withdraws from a market, significant change is bound to occur. And although A&P/Super Fresh frittered away most of its market share and once strong image over the past 20 years, the closure of 25 stores is a notable, if not negative benchmark.
Now we turn the page to the next chapter to witness how the three retailers that acquired 11 of those units have gone about their business of creating a potentially improved shopping experience in those 11 communities and you’ll find three dramatically different approaches.
Over the past few weeks I’ve had a chance to visit most of the eight Fresh & Green’s that are operated by Canadian equity firm Catalyst Capital; the new Shoppers Food & Pharmacy, which opened on July 17 in Ellicott City, MD; and the two new ShopRites (operated by Village Super Markets) in Lutherville, MD and Silver Spring, MD which opened on July 28.
The early results are in and this review could be called “The Best, The Good and The Ugly.”
Clearly, ShopRite, as it normally does, opened its two new stores with its best foot forward. Intensive work and considerable expense went into improving what were two of the better and more modern former Super Fresh stores. New signage, fixtures and attention to detail, particularly in perishables, make the stores look fresh and energetic as Wakefern continues penetrate the Maryland market aggressively (the largest grocery co-op in the country now operates 10 ShopRites and one PriceRite unit in the Old Line State. We’re also hearing that the former Super Fresh on Perring Parkway in Baltimore, which has been closed for a couple of years, has been acquired by another yet unnamed Wakefern member).
At the Shoppers store in Ellicott City (another fairly modern and large former Super Fresh), the store looked clean, bright and well-stocked each of the three times I visited. There wasn’t much of a noticeable upgrade in fixtures or departments (at least not yet), but the staff was friendly and accommodating. With Shoppers new to the community, it will need some time to get some marketing traction, but the store was well-prepared to move forward in what will most likely be a solid, not spectacular, style.
As for Fresh & Green’s, all I can say is that at this point (about a month after opening) the stores that I visited have been nothing short of a disaster to this point. I’ve covered hundreds of store openings in my 37 years of writing about the grocery business including quite a few acquisitions and subsequent reopenings. I’ve never seen anything quite like this, though. Temporary, vinyl signs serve as a “welcome” to consumers, out-of stocks, while improving, are still well below anything that can be considered within the normal range. A tour of several stores in late July revealed that some key DSD vendors – Pepsi, Edy’s, Nabisco – still aren’t delivering product. C&S has helped fill the supply chain need in large part, but the wholesaler’s Best Yet label is virtually unknown in the B-W market. Fresh & Green’s “consumer marketing” to this point has been a one-page 8 1/2 x 11 inch glossy price sheet that featured 11 “hot” items – the spelling of three of those featured products had typos. Fresh & Green’s stores are fully unionized (UFCW Local 27 is represented in seven of the units and Local 400 has its members in the lone Washington, DC store) and had ample staff on hand in all stores (it rehired Super Fresh meatcutters and clerks at those stores and also retained some A&P management), but almost no customers in the multiple visits I made to its stores. What’s potentially of even more concern is that 10 weeks after the company won the right to those eight units at an auction there is still little local infrastructure, no regional office and no sign that significant remodelings of those units, (which are significantly older than Ellicott City, Lutherville and Silver Spring) is in the near-term offing.
About a month ago, I talked to Matt Williams, CEO of the company that owns Fresh & Green’s. Matt was forthcoming, extremely intelligent and refreshingly honest when he conceded that opening the stores with almost no “down time” was a gamble. The honeymoon period is almost over and there is little indication that Fresh & Green’s has any mojo in its “gris-gris’ bag to turn this thing around.
Because, as we all know in retailing, you rarely get a second chance to make a first impression.