When I arrived in Chicago in the early 1980’s, national chains A&P and Kroger had tried unsuccessfully to penetrate the supermarket arena and been rebuffed by local favorites Dominick’s and Jewel. It wasn’t until the 1990’s when retailers began to consolidate in earnest that these local chains were purchased by national brands.
Dominick’s was first acquired by Yucaipa, and then a few years later by Safeway.
What has happened since, is a business school lesson in why sometimes national brand retailers don’t know better than locals and why economies of scale and consolidation often don’t work as advertised.
The chain, as owned by a Chicago family had a Chicago heart and feel. It was a source of local pride. The chain, as owned by Safeway, was just another “banner”. At least at the corporate level.
The buzz about Dominick’s since the Safeway acquisition has been pretty consistent over the years. People still liked the stores, but they just weren’t the “same” nor as “good” as the original owners. Is that fair or accurate? Probably not, but that attitude certainly laid the seeds for what happened last month.
Supermarkets have a way of becoming a part of the neighborhood they serve. Chicago Tribune’s John Kass wrote an eloquent column about this when notice was given about the chain’s closure.
This was certainly true of the one near us. There were two things, really, that made it that way. One was simple, it had been there well before Safeway bought the chain. The other was more personal: The employees. Many of them had worked there for twenty years or more. I knew the cashiers, the produce stockers and many of the stock employees by name or by sight. They are (I say “are” because the store will remain open for two more weeks) friendly, personable, hard-working, and polite. They have roots in the community and many of them live nearby. One cashier spoke about how she went to a seminar to learn how to write a resume. She had worked at the store for her entire career and never needed one.
The regional chain Roundy’s has acquired eleven of the stores for their Mariano’s “banner.” Mariano’s is the brainchild of former Dominick’s executive Rob Mariano. The stores are high-end, very popular, full of fresh produce and unique brands. Our neighborhood store was not one of the lucky eleven. There were 77 Dominick’s stores remaining at the time of closure.
In case you were wondering about magazines, the Mariano’s stores I have been in have beautiful fixtures. But the mainlines are small mainline racks and there is not a lot of checkout space.
Our neighborhood store was supposed to be closed on December 28th. But it has been given a reprieve until January 25th and restocked with what looks like left over stock from other stores. The employees are still there, but up in the air about whether or not the extension means some other company is looking to acquire their space and give them a chance at remaining employed.
In the meantime, for the first New Years in a long time, there is nothing in front of the mainline rack. Nothing blocking the checkout racks. There are no magazines, books, or newspapers in the store at all.
If Heinen’s or Roundy’s or some regional chain like Sunset or Garden Fresh acquires the store, what will happen to the 20 foot mainline and tower racks? What will happen to the new checkouts that were installed last year?
I have no answer to that question.