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    Will Anybody Really Miss A&P?

    ‘Business as usual’ is what got historic retailer into trouble in the first place

    By Jim Dudlicek, EnsembleIQ

    As the once-great Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. goes down for the second and perhaps final time, one is compelled to ask: Will anybody miss it?

    Entering bankruptcy again just three years after emerging from court protection with Yucaipa’s help, a $1 billion-plus-in-the-hole A&P has been briskly selling off as many of its nearly 300 stores as it can to other northeastern players – some competitors, others looking to enter new territory.

    It seems clear that A&P – operating under seven banner names across six states – couldn’t do what was necessary to be relevant and engender loyalty in the modern era of retailing.

    Still, for the short term, at least, A&P anticipates providing business as usual for its customers.

    “For the majority of our customers, we do not expect this to have any impact on your shopping experience,” the company noted on its website when news broke that it would be closing 25 stores as it sought buyers for the others. “While some stores will close in the near term, the vast majority will continue providing customers with the same high-quality products and exceptional customer service.”

    Business as usual?

    It seems to me that A&P’s version of “business as usual” is part of the problem.

    In Consumer Reports’ most recent rating of supermarket chains, A&P and its Waldbaum’s and Pathmark banners ranked at the very bottom of the list of 68 companies, with A&P and Waldbaum’s tied with Walmart for the lowest overall satisfaction score. Pathmark scored just slightly higher overall but was the only ranked chain to earn “worst” ratings in all freshness and store quality categories. Additionally, Pathmark and Waldbaum’s earned low marks for prepared foods, a key growth area for the grocery industry. (Topping the ranking among neighboring northeastern grocers: Wegmans, at No. 1, and, in fifth place, Market Basket.)

    “While the decision to close some stores is always difficult, these actions will enable the company to refocus its efforts to ensure the vast majority of A&P stores continue operating under new owners as a result of the court-supervised process,” A&P CEO Paul Hertz said, adding that “interest from other strategic operators has been robust during the company’s sale process to date, and we have every expectation that will continue in Chapter 11.”

    Thus far, that interest has come from Ahold USA’s New York-based Stop & Shop division, which will acquire 25 of A&P’s metro N.Y. Waldbaum’s, Pathmark and A&P stores; Malvern, Pa.-based Acme Markets (part of the new Albertsons), picking up 76 namesake, Superfresh and Pathmark stores; and Staten Island, N.Y.-based Key Food Stores Cooperative Inc., which will acquire 19 A&P, Food Basics, Food Emporium, Pathmark and Waldbaum’s stores.

    Let’s hope the new owners will bring these locations up to a new, higher level of grocery retailing, to make them competitive with cutting-edge players. To be fair, I should note that Stop & Shop and Acme ranked 60th and 61st on the Consumer Reports list, just a few notches above the A&P slots (Key was not ranked).

    But based on what we know about the folks running Ahold (and its merger partner Delhaize), Acme (as a part of the Albertsons-Safeway empire) and Key Foods, we’re confident they won’t make the same mistakes as A&P.

    Businesses, not museums

    It’s always sad to see once-great institutions fade. In pop culture, A&P – which dates back to 1859 – is the archetype grocery store, a name that has become almost synonymous with its industry, kind of like Xerox or Dumpster. The HBO television series “Boardwalk Empire,” set in the 1920s, had a character (later revealed to be an undercover federal agent) who was a representative of A&P, setting up new markets across the country. The banner even touched my own childhood, when A&P briefly became my neighborhood grocery store in suburban Chicago when it took over our National market.

    Memories are great, but supermarkets are businesses, not museums, a fact that some enterprises don’t seem to realize until it’s too late.

    Read the latest coverage of A&P and other breaking industry news at Progressivegrocer.com

    Follow me on Twitter @jimdudlicek

    By Jim Dudlicek, EnsembleIQ
    • About Jim Dudlicek As editor-in-chief of Progressive Grocer, Jim Dudlicek oversees daily operations of the magazine, spearheads its signature features, produces PG’s monthly Trend Alert newsletter on center store issues, moderates its regular webcast series, and writes and comments about a wide range of grocery issues. A food industry journalist since 2002, Jim came to PG in June 2010 after covering the dairy industry for 7½ years, during which time he served as chief editor of Dairy Field and Dairy Foods magazines. A graduate of Marquette University, Jim is fascinated by how truly progressive grocers inspire consumers to enjoy food, transforming the industry from mere merchants into educators that can take the most basic of all necessities and turn it into something profound and life-enhancing.

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