In Our View: Food for Thought

Albertsons-Safeway merger reflects changing face of grocery shopping

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On the surface, it appears straight-forward and innocuous — grocery store chains Albertsons and Safeway are merging, with Albertsons' parent company acquiring its rival for about $9 billion

But, as The Washington Post's Wonkblog.com puts it, there might be something larger afoot here. Under the headline "The end of the traditional supermarket," Wonkblog proceeds to analyze the quickly changing nature of the supermarket experience and what it means to consumers. "The supermarket, which rose up in the 1930s and had its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, has long relied on its convenience and size for its popularity. It's the place where you can find five different brands of peanut butter or 10 different kinds of olive oil," writes Jia Lynn Yang. "Safeway, much like its rival Giant Food, has struggled to remain competitive in a rapidly changing industry. After years of gobbling up market share from mom-and-pop grocers around the country, Safeway is facing the same threat from Wal-Mart and CVS."

The loss of the mom-and-pop grocery store has meant the loss of a slice of Americana and has been a blow to our collective sense of community. But now even the big chains are under duress from the changing marketplace.

That dynamic has been playing out in Clark County. With the emergence and expansion of Costco, Wal-Mart and similar warehouse chains in the past two decades, the traditional grocery store is facing new challenges. Add in the Northwest's natural affinity for grocers that emphasize organic or fresh products — such as Chuck's Produce and Whole Foods and New Seasons and Trader Joe's and Zupan's — and the landscape for groceries in this region has been dramatically altered. Albertsons recently closed two stores in Clark County, leaving it with two local outlets. Safeway, the nation's second-largest grocery store chain — behind Kroger's, which owns Fred Meyer — has 10 outlets in Southwest Washington.

"The traditional supermarket that we grew up with and that we love needs to evolve," Phil Lempert, an editor at Supermarket News, told The Washington Post. He said that supermarkets have lost about 15 percent of their market share to other retailers -- big-box stores and warehouses — over the past decade. "It's gotten a lot more competitive, and the ones who are going to win, and who are winning now, are focused on the consumer."

That remains the bottom line for the bottom line. Consumers don't flock to Wal-Mart out of some macabre desire to further enrich the Walton family. They flock there because Wal-Mart offers low prices thanks to the power of volume purchasing.

It remains to be seen whether the market can sustain so many retailers in the grocery business, but for now these are halcyon days for consumers. With so many options — including a growing movement in support of fresh, locally grown produce — purchasers have plenty of options.

Competition always is good for consumers, and that competition has been weakened a little by the merger of Safeway and Albertsons. "Analysts say the two companies need to combine in order to survive — and that no matter what happens, the future of grocery shopping will not be the same," The Washington Post reported. Lempert, of Supermarket News, added: "We are seeing smaller experiences. And as a result, we're not going to need to walk into a supermarket and see 100 different brands of olive oil that are basically all the same."