You may not have noticed that there were big changes overnight at the Albertsons, Acme, Jewel, Shaw’s and Star Market grocery chains. But you’ll notice the bigger changes that are still to come. Changes like new coupon policies and a potential phasing out of store loyalty programs – if your store even survives that long.
New owners officially took over this morning, after Supervalu announced yesterday that it had completed the sale of the five chains to an affiliate of Cerberus Capital Management. It’s not as though new signs went up overnight, aisles got rearranged and new cashiers showed up. For now, the changes are visible only in the corporate office. But not for long.
To fully comprehend what will, and what may, happen in 2013 and beyond, we first need to look back to 2006. That’s when the grocery chain Albertsons was sold, and split in two. Cerberus created the affiliate Albertsons LLC, and bought the stores that now operate as “Albertsons Market” in Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, New Mexico and Texas. Supervalu took ownership of the Albertsons locations that are currently in California, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. The deal that closed overnight reunites the two separate Albertsons chains, under the Albertsons LLC umbrella. And the new owners also get Chicago-based Jewel-Osco, Philadelphia-based Acme, and Boston-based Shaw’s and Star Market.
After its store acquisitions in 2006, Albertsons LLC immediately set about making changes. Just one week after the deal was done, it announced plans to shut down 100 of the more than 600 Albertsons stores it had just acquired. Hundreds more store closures came in subsequent years.
And the two Albertsons chains, under their respective new owners, began looking less and less alike. Albertsons kept its store loyalty program, Albertsons Market dumped it. Albertsons continued offering online delivery, Albertsons Market shut it down. Albertsons had one consistent chain-wide coupon policy, Albertsons Market let their own individual stores set their own policies. (read more background here: “Supervalu Sells Albertsons, Acme, Jewel-Osco, Shaw’s, Star Market: So What Does it Mean For You?”.)
Which brings us to today. An Albertsons LLC spokesperson said that at least some of those changes will be coming to the company’s new acquisitions.
“We don’t think that one coupon policy is something that we could arrive at,” spokesperson Christine Wilcox told Coupons in the News today. She dismissed a corporate coupon policy as being a “cookie cutter” approach that does not fit in with Albertsons LLC’s philosophy, of letting local stores decide how best to serve their own communities. She did not indicate exactly when such a change would take place at the newly-acquired chains, saying it was too soon to talk specifics. But she did offer that “we hope our customers will be delighted with any changes they may see.”
With the specter of possible store closings and employee layoffs hanging in the air, a coupon policy change might seem relatively minor. But once the dust settles, a change from one consistent coupon policy, to a free-for-all of different policies at different stores, could have a big impact on coupon users who shop at Albertsons, Acme, Jewel, Shaw’s and Star Market.
Just ask others who have been through it already. “If there’s one store that’s frustrating to shop at, it’s Albertsons!” writes Carrie Isaac, on her Colorado-based site Springs Bargains. “Their coupon policy varies widely by store, manager or cashier.” The Colorado stores operate under the Albertsons LLC system, which it describes on its website: “Your local Albertsons is the best, most accurate source of information for using coupons… We don’t have a blanket policy that fits every store and every market area, because your store, just like your community, is unique.”
Unfortunately, “no one knows what to expect when they shop there,” Isaac tells Coupons in the News. “It has prevented me from shopping there personally, and I know many of my readers as well.” Even if they came up with a “super-strict policy,” she adds, “it would be nice to have something consistent so we know what to expect.”
On the bright side, allowing individual stores to come up with their own coupon policies would, in theory, allow them to be more nimble in competing with others in their community. If a competitor doubles coupons, for example, an Albertsons LLC-owned store could decide to triple theirs, without running afoul of corporate policy.
Of course, none of this will matter if ultimately, the store you shop at isn’t around anymore. Critics have called Cerberus everything from “vultures” to “morticians”, who either cold-heartedly swoop in and kill stores, or fix them up just enough to make them presentable for sale to someone else. Cerberus certainly did both, with its Albertsons Market acquisitions (read more: “Bigger, Better, or Goners? What’s in Store For Your Jewel-Osco, Acme, Shaw’s and Star Market”). But then even critics have to admit that, after hundreds of often painful closures and sales, the slimmed-down chain turned out much stronger in the end. So whatever stores survive the current ownership transition, could end up in better shape than they are today.
“We’re very consumer-centric,” Wilcox said. “They’re the reason we’re in business.” What store locations, and chains, remain in business – and what those businesses will ultimately look like – is now the big question.
3/23 update: After the initial publication of this article, Wilcox sought to offer reassurance about one issue in particular. When it comes to potential store closings, any comparison to what took place in 2006, she said, is “apples to oranges”: “In 2006, we acquired stores that were in incredibly tough shape, and because of that we had to make tough decisions. Now we are acquiring stores that are in much better shape and we have NO closures to announce. This is a very different situation.”
Meanwhile, both Albertsons and Albertsons Market invited Facebook fans to vote on which of the two names the reunited Albertsons chain should adopt, saying “we’re still in the process of evaluating our programs and truly appreciate any and all feedback.”
And Jewel-Osco’s new president told the Chicago Tribune that the new owners “immediately made a decision to adjust prices across all Jewel-Osco stores on many regularly purchased items, like milk and bread. We want to show customers, from day one, that Jewel-Osco is serious about winning their business.”
So changes may be coming – but in some cases, it seems, change is not so bad.