"Welcome" to my long-overdue second feature post here on the My Florida Retail Blog!
That pun will become way funnier as we get deeper into this post. But before we can get there, there's a little bit of history we need to go through first. Longtime readers of the Albertsons Florida Blog may already be familiar with some or all of what I'm about to say, but a refresher never hurts.
While its supermarket scene is almost wholly dominated by Publix (and Winn-Dixie is also a chain that exists), the state of Florida has been home to numerous infiltration attempts by other grocery store chains. Kroger, the world's largest supermarket chain, of course is just one of the many suitors that has attempted to get a piece of the Floridian pie over the years. According to the Orlando Sentinel, "Kroger opened its first Florida supermarket in 1980 in the south Brevard city of Indian Harbor Beach," and expanded from there. The stores were named SupeRx Food & Drug, after Kroger's subsidiary pharmacy chain at the time, SupeRx. (SupeRx had actually begun as a drugstore operation way back in 1960. You can read more about SupeRx's history at this post from Pleasant Family Shopping.)
In July 1986, Kroger began a major restructuring effort, announcing that it was "entertaining bids for the SupeRx and Hook chains," its pharmacy operations. "We wanted to sell off the retail drug business to concentrate our resources on the retail food business, which we think can be a better performer on its own," a spokesman said. As reported at the time, "The sale of Kroger's over 830 stand-alone drugstores was accomplished in four separate deals." One of these deals took place just days before Christmas 1986, when Rite Aid agreed to acquire all 106 SupeRx drugstores in Florida, in addition to a few others in separate states.
However, "not included in the sale are Kroger's 28 food and drug stores in Florida," the December 1986 article reported (emphasis mine). These stores were to remain open, and change their names from SupeRx Food & Drug to a newly created banner, Florida Choice. Florida Choice would go on to expand further, in particular thanks to the acquisition of A&P-owned Family Mart stores throughout the state.
|Florida Choice magazine ad from early 1988. Courtesy William S. via Albertsons Florida Blog|
We'll come back to Florida Choice a little later; right now is where the new stuff comes in. That four-part sale of Kroger's SupeRx and Hook drugstore chains was "expected to bring Kroger $450 million to $500 million," according to The Cincinnati Post. A portion of those proceeds, it was decided, would be used to fund a new Kroger venture: Welcome. As The Washington Post reported in January 1987:
Kroger Co., a national supermarket chain that is based in Ohio, has been preparing quietly to build its biggest stores ever and plans to put two of the "superwarehouse" facilities in Richmond.
But the first step in its effort to build the stores will come in Greenville, SC, where Kroger is constructing a pilot "Welcome" store that will dwarf the size of a typical Kroger supermarket.
The first Welcome store will have an area of 90,000 square feet. Most Kroger superstores are about 60,000 square feet with combined food and drug stores.
"This will be our hybrid superwarehouse," said Paul Bernish, Kroger spokesman. "It will be independent of the Kroger food store operations."
Welcome Inc., a Kroger subsidiary, will operate the new stores. The no-frills operation involves stores where customers buy basic food products, such as canned goods, at steep discounts.
In recent years, warehouse stores were upgraded with huge produce sections and large service areas, such as seafood bars and delicatessens.
"The superwarehouse store has gone full circle in that they started out with no frills and few employees," said Ryan Mathews, senior editor of Grocery Marketing in Detroit, a trade publication. "Now, because of their expanded service departments, they are often labor intensive," he said.
Superwarehouses are different from membership warehouses, which have been described as looking like airplane hangars loaded with wholesale food products, tires, and other products.
Retailers were experimenting with many new store concepts in the late 1980s and early 1990s; just this week I shared the story of American Fare, Kmart's ill-fated hypermarket attempt, over on my site, The Mid-South Retail Blog. Kroger, it would seem, was no exception. All in all, Welcome would go on to be a six-store chain, beginning, as the above article noted, with its first location in Greenville, SC, in 1987.
|Welcome store exterior, Greenville, SC. Courtesy The Dead Mall Files|
|Welcome store interior, Greenville, SC. The floral department is pictured. Courtesy The Dead Mall Files|
|Welcome store interior, Greenville, SC. The front end is pictured. Courtesy The Dead Mall Files|
The Dead Mall Files, a Greenville-area resident, was the first to bring this short-lived Kroger concept to my attention; she also shared the above, very rare colorized photos of the Greenville Welcome store to "The Retail Union" chat room on Discord, so we can all get an idea of what the concept looked like (thanks again!). As you can see, the stores were quite large, and had somewhat of a minimalist design, between the large, simple department name signs on the walls, and the exterior entry and exit points marked not by words but rather by symbols. The stores also were clearly quite large; bigger was better in this time of store format experimentation.
The Dead Mall Files also shared several resources with me that helped in compiling information for this post, including the two newspaper excerpts you'll see reprinted below. I encourage you to enlarge the screenshots and read each article in full to get the whole story. (Additionally, The Dead Mall Files just started her own blog, so be sure to follow her there for more content!)
|April 1987 article from a Greenville, SC, newspaper. Courtesy newspapers.com|
|April 1988 article from a Cincinnati, OH, newspaper. Courtesy newspapers.com|
The first article above, printed in early April 1987, shares details of Welcome's arrival a couple of weeks prior in Greenville, SC. Below that, the second article, from April 1988, has a bit more detail on Kroger's warehouse store operations, sharing that the chain had actually been experimenting with the format for over a decade, beginning with a handful of Barney's Food & Drug Warehouse stores in its native state of Ohio, as well as Bi-Lo stores in the same area (not to be confused with the BI-LO chain of the Carolinas). Those stores closed in 1985, but now, three years later, "Kroger is trying its hand at warehousing again," The Cincinnati Enquirer reported. "It introduced the Welcome concept in Greenville, SC, just 13 months ago with a 92,000-square-foot store. Three months later, in June of last year , it bought four former Pak-N-Save stores from Safeway Stores Inc. and began opening those. Those stores, three of which are in Jacksonville, Fla., and one of which is in Mobile, Ala., range in size from 80,000 to 90,000 square feet."
While the name is a bit of a fuzzy matter -- the newspaper called them Pak-N-Save, while he called them Save and Pack -- Albertsons Florida Blog previously covered this chain of warehouse stores, Safeway's first foray into Florida long before their short-lived 2016 conversion of the state's final three Albertsons stores, in this post. And indeed, the aforementioned locations' brief stints as Kroger "Welcome" stores were duly noted in AFB's table. (This, of course, would be the Florida connection allowing me to share this story with you on this blog today!)
|Site plan for Regency Park in Jacksonville, FL. Note the large store on the left is marked as "Kroger Welcome Store." (Also, that looks a lot like the Facebook logo at the bottom left!) Courtesy AFB|
The April 1988 Enquirer article continued, "Next month, Kroger will open its sixth Welcome, this one in Richmond, VA. A seventh store, also in Richmond, will follow early next year." The pop-out article goes on to share better details of what the stores themselves were like: "Floors are tiled, not cement. Most merchandise is stocked on regular grocery shelving instead of warehouse-style racking. Lights are bright, signs are dominant, aisles are wide. And the stores include all of the specialty departments that Kroger has made regulars in its combination food and drug stores.
"The stores even include Pineapple Parks -- named for the pineapple logo in the Welcome logo -- where shoppers can sit on benches, drink free coffee, and wait for prescriptions or photos. And what of the pineapple? [A Kroger spokesperson] says the fruit, once considered an exotic delicacy, is an early American symbol of hospitality -- welcome."
Later in 1988, Kroger successfully warded off multiple buyout proposals from both the Haft family and KKR, hostile takeover attempts which would have involved taking the company private. But it became clear to Kroger that another major restructuring effort would be needed if it was to get its affairs in order. Thus, just two years after it began soliciting buyers for its SupeRx business, Kroger again put one of its divisions up for sale. This is where the tale of Florida Choice comes back into the picture. Referring back to the July 1988 Orlando Sentinel article mentioned at the top of this post:
All 43 Florida Choice supermarkets in the state have been put up for sale, the chain's parent said Wednesday, because it cannot afford to invest the money needed to compete in the rapidly growing market.
Florida Choice, with 5,000 employees in the state, will continue to operate all its stores until they are sold, [Kroger Co.] said. In addition to the supermarkets, the company will sell 39 liquor stores and three supermarkets now under construction.
[Two of those] -- one in the Wekiva section of south Seminole County and one in Melbourne -- will open soon as Florida Choice outlets and operate until they are sold, [VP for Florida operations Bill] Parker said. He said the fate of a store under construction in Rockledge has not been decided.
"Our Florida Choice operations have been unprofitable for some time, and our own projections indicate that too much time and additional investment would be required to make them profitable," Kroger president Joseph Pichler said in a statement.
Interestingly, the article ends with this key bit of information: "The decision does not affect three Kroger-owned warehouse stores, known as Welcome Stores, in Jacksonville." So, technically speaking, Welcome outlasted Florida Choice. But not for long.
I suspect that, like several other Kroger ventures in 1988, Welcome was prematurely killed as a result of the restructuring efforts and Kroger's response to the takeover attempts. For example, in April 1988, BI-LO (the Carolinas one, the one not operated by Kroger) announced it was exiting the Charlotte, NC, market, and sold its stores to Kroger. Kroger converted and operated the stores... until a mere six months later, October 1988, when Kroger announced it, too, would be exiting the Charlotte market -- and selling those stores straight back to BI-LO. (BI-LO, by the way, summarily closed most of those locations, as I understand it.)
The two newspaper article screenshots below go into a little more detail concerning the sale. In addition to Charlotte, Kroger exited the Charleston, SC, market; those stores were also included in the sale to BI-LO, as was the Greenville, SC, Welcome store, making for a total of 21 locations sold. "Other holdings Kroger has put up for sale include four Kroger stores in Fayetteville and Southern Pines, NC; five other Welcome stores in Virginia, Alabama, and Florida; 26 Fry's supermarkets in California; and 16 Price Savers Wholesale Warehouse units [in the Cincinnati area].
"Kroger spokesman Paul Bernish said the sale of the 21 stores was not a particular priority for the chain, nor was it necessary to meet a $40 per share dividend the company is scheduled to pay its shareholders Friday. 'We will be paying that from bank borrowings,' Bernish said. 'The proceeds, as we get them from the sale of these assets, will be used to helped [sic] draw down the debt.'"
In other words, the fate of the six Welcome stores seems to have been sealed mostly because they were simply expendable.
|October 1988 article from a Greenville, SC, newspaper. Courtesy newspapers.com|
|December 1988 article from a Greenville, SC, newspaper. Courtesy newspapers.com|
The second of the two articles above, from December 1988, mentions that the Greenville Welcome store would close permanently on Saturday night, the 31st, the very last day of the year. BI-LO optimistically wanted to open a new store in at least a portion of the 92,000 square foot space, but wound up never doing so. (Likewise, that proposed second Richmond Welcome store? Never built or opened.) This article also confirms that the Welcome stores "were part of a package of stores Kroger put up for sale as part of a $4.6 billion restructuring plan it began in September to fend off two takeover attempts," and states that "Kroger has since sold two other Welcome stores in Jacksonville, Fla.," leaving the remaining two Welcome stores -- one in Jacksonville, and the other in Mobile, AL -- still available for purchase headed into 1989.
(The Richmond, VA, Welcome store reportedly closed in September 1988, according to a topic on Groceteria. Also of note from that forum, people who remember Welcome share that "The connection with Kroger was played down -- some Kroger merchandise, but the idea was that you weren't supposed to notice any Kroger connection (though the connection was well publicized in the newspaper)." Additionally, all six stores "seemed to be in markets on the periphery of established Kroger markets," but never in markets where Kroger operated one of their namesake stores.)
The Wikipedia article for Mobile Festival Centre, the shopping center in which the Mobile, AL, Welcome store was located, suggests that that store closed in the mid-1990s, which is possible... but I think it's much more likely that the chain was gone entirely by some point in early 1989. As I said, AFB has previously shared the fates of the four Welcome locations that started their lives as Safeway-owned Save and Pack stores, but for the sake of completeness I've compiled the addresses and current statuses of all six Welcome stores in the table below.
|Store Address||City, State||Longevity||Building History||Current Status|
|20 Haywood Rd||Greenville, SC||March 1987 -- December 1988||built as Welcome||subdivided between Burlington and Surplus Warehouse|
|9400 Atlantic Blvd||Jacksonville, FL||June 1987 -- December 1988*||purchased from Safeway||subdivided between Celebration Church (former Hobby Lobby) and a vacant space (which was most recently home to Books-A-Million). The entire building was home to a Publix for a short period after Welcome closed.|
|8102 Blanding Blvd||Jacksonville, FL||June 1987 -- December 1988*||purchased from Safeway||operating as Floor and Décor|
|5201 Norwood Ave||Jacksonville, FL||June 1987 -- December 1988*||purchased from Safeway||operating as Norwood Flea Market|
|3725 Airport Blvd||Mobile, AL||June 1987 -- ?? (likely sometime in 1989)||purchased from Safeway||operating as Academy Sports|
|10400 Midlothian Turnpike||Richmond, VA||June 1988 -- September 1988||built as Welcome||operating as Burlington|
|SW corner of Pemberton Rd and W Broad St||Richmond, VA||N/A -- land was purchased, but a store was never constructed||N/A (never opened)||opened 1989 as Ukrop's; later became Martin's; currently being rebuilt as Publix|
|* -- one of the Jacksonville stores closed later than the others, but it's not clear which|
|Exterior of the Greenville, SC, Welcome store, pictured shortly before its closure in December 1988. Courtesy newspapers.com via The Dead Mall Files|
I'll conclude this post with the above black-and-white image of the Greenville, SC, Welcome store, a close-up of the same photo shared in one of the newspaper excerpts earlier. So now we know that Kroger had at least one more venture in Florida besides its SupeRx/Florida Choice chain, although in the end, the Welcome experiment was no less short-lived. In modern times, Kroger has once again executed -- in a roundabout way -- yet another entrance and retreat from Florida, given their involvement with the expansion and demise of the Lucky's Market chain.
Now, it sounds like they're plotting something else, based on the news that Kroger will soon be constructing one of its new, large e-commerce fulfillment centers, a joint venture with Ocado, in Groveland, FL. Will this warehouse lead to a future store expansion attempt? Or, perhaps, could Kroger instead sneak into Florida via its current, growing store-within-a-store partnership with Walgreens? All good questions for which the answers remain to be seen... but the most important thing Kroger should monitor is whether, in the eyes of Florida residents, they will be welcome.
That's all for now. If you have any questions, comments, or -- best of all -- information or photos of Welcome to share, please drop us a line below and/or email me at midsouthretailblog [at] gmail [dot] com. Until next time, then, and as always... have fun exploring the retail world wherever you are!