The Shaw’s supermarket on Whalley Avenue in New Haven, Connecticut is closing down. It’s one of 18 stores that are being sold off by Shaw’s owner, SuperValu, Most of the Shaw’s stores are being bought up by three other New England grocery chains, including Stop & Shop, ShopRite and PriceRite. The Shaw’s in New Haven doesn’t have a buyer yet. Wal-Mart is listed by Supermarket News as the largest grocery chain in the world. In America, Wal-Mart’s market share is in the mid 20% range for dry groceries, dairy and frozen foods. Supervalu is listed as number 15 on the worldwide grocers list. Supervalu describes itself as a “mix of owned, licensed, franchised and affiliated stores, (which) serves millions of families from coast-to-coast.” The retail banners that Supervalu operates include: Acme, Albertsons, Bigg’s Bristol Farms, Cub, Farm Fresh, Hornbackaer, Jewe-Osco, Shaw’s/Star Market, Shop ‘N Save, and Shoppers. The company also controls the discount grocery chain Save-A-Lot. The Shaw’s lineage goes back to 1860, when George C. Shaw opened his first store in Portland, Maine. A few years later, another native New Englander, Maynard A. Davis, opened his first Public Markets in Brockton and New Bedford, Massachusetts. These two stores merged, and today the Shaw’s/Star Market chain has over 30,000 workers in the six New England states — soon to be five states. The 18 stores being shut down represent around 9% of the 194 stores under the Shaw’s banner. Supervalu as a conglomerate controls roughly 4,300 retail outlets in the United States. “We bring our national scale and local hyper-relevance to thousands of consumers, helping to make us ‘America’s Neighborhood Grocer.'” But in Connecticut, Supervalu is leaving the neighborhood. According to the Hartford Courant’s account of the Shaw’s meltdown this week, the company had a 15 year track record in Connecticut, but had come under increasing pressures from competitors like Wal-Mart and Whole Foods. Today Wal-Mart has only 5 superstores in Connecticut, and 28 discount stores. But in 1994, just as Shaw’s was preparing to enter Connecticut, the state had only 2 Wal-Mart discount stores, and no supercenters. A spokesman for Supermarket News told the Hartford Courant that Shaw’s had failed to differentiate itself. “They’ve had an inconsistent identity with the shopper. In order for a conventional supermarket to stand out, they have to be special, whether that’s local flavor or product or service offerings that are unique.” At their point of highest penetration, Shaw’s had 26 stores in Connecticut, but over the years they shut down 8 stores. A spokesman for Supervalu told the Courant, “While these decisions are always difficult given the impact on associates and customers, they ultimately allow us to operate more efficiently and effectively within a highly competitive retail environment.” That’s of little consolation to the workers who are losing their jobs in the middle of this recession.
Many of the former Shaw’s stores will be unionized under their new owners. Brian Petronella, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) local 371, said 5 of the ShopRites will be represented by the UFCW. Local 371 will also represent the new Stop & Shop stores. The UFCW extended a hand to the Shaw’s workers who will work at ShopRite stores that are not unionized. “We will try to help those people get jobs at union locations,” Petronella told the Courant. The demise of Shaw’s in Connecticut is just a continuation of the shift in market share towards the largest grocer in the world: Wal-Mart. In 2003, a study by Retail Forward, entitled “Wal-Mart Food: Big, and Getting Bigger,” pointed out that just ten or fifteen years ago, “Wal-Mart was barely on the food radar screen. Virtually overnight, the retailing behemoth has become the dominant grocer in America.” In 2003, Wal-Mart sales were bigger than the combined sales of the top ten U.S. supermarket retailers. “Wal-Mart has the proven ability to quickly blanket a market with its multi-format approach,” said Retail Forward, “to become a dominant — if not leading — market share player in rapid fashion, wreaking havoc for the incumbents.” The latest incumbent is Shaw’s supermarkets. Seven years ago, Retail Forward predicted that “for every Wal-Mart supercenter that opens in the next five years, two supermarkets will close their doors. As a result, the supermarket industry is projected to lose 2,000 more stores over the next five years.” The consultant concluded that grocery stores can survive, but “the key is to be what Wal-Mart is not.” The analysts will say that Shaw’s failed to find a “distinct positioning strategy” that set them apart. But the fact is, the Connecticut market is saturated with grocery stores, and most of Wal-Mart’s stores still do not carry a full line of groceries — so the problem will get worse if Connecticut communities let Wal-Mart build more superstores. Readers are urged to copy this article and send it to their local city or town officials with the following note: “When Wal-Mart files a proposal for a superstore in our town, please learn from the lesson of Shaw’s supermarkets, and understand that a Wal-Mart opening merely leads to to other stores closing. It does not happen overnight — but it happens — and when it does, people lose their jobs, and no added value comes to the local economy. It’s just an unproductive game of retail musical chairs, and shifting market share. Wal-Mart sales comes largely from other cash registers. If you understand that, then you behave differently when the superstore comes knocking on your door.”