Harris Teeter customers fret over Kroger takeover

adunn@newsobserver.comJuly 10, 2013 

Customer reaction to the news that supermarket giant Kroger would buy North Carolina-based Harris Teeter was swift and for the most part unanimous.

“I can’t say I’m too happy,” said Jamie Wilkerson, 33, of Cary, who read the news on Twitter “first thing this morning before I got out of bed.”

Within an hour of the merger’s announcement, Harris Teeter shoppers had flooded social media with hundreds of mostly negative comments, though a few wondered whether Kroger’s buying power would bring lower prices to the much smaller homegrown chain.

Harris Teeter loyalists expressed fears about everything – from the potential erosion of clean stores and top-notch customer service to the future of Harris Teeter’s generous double-coupon policy.

There was even fretting over whether Duke’s mayo, a Southern favorite, would still be stocked on store shelves with corporate ownership in the hands of Cincinnati-based Kroger.

Lynn Marmer, a Kroger vice president and officer of the company, said Kroger has a history of honoring local differences at previous supermarket chains it has acquired. The largest supermarket chain in the country, Kroger operates under many store names, including Fred Meyer, Ralphs, King Soopers, Fry’s and Food 4 Less. “We’re not a one-size-fits-all company,” Marmer said in a phone interview.

“The concern is, ‘Are they going to come in and take away everything I love about Harris Teeter?’ I hope not,” she said. “One of the things Kroger does really well is recognize local relevance.”

During a conference call with investors, Mike Schlotman, Kroger’s chief financial officer, provided a few clues to what the merger may mean to customers of both chains.

He said the company has “no plans to close stores” and will seriously consider adopting successful Harris Teeter programs that Kroger stores don’t currently offer.

Schlotman specifically mentioned Harris Teeter’s “click and collect” online shopping program, which Harris Teeter customers know as Express Lane.

“We essentially have a free incubator to study,” he said.

He also said the Harris Teeter name would remain atop stores.

“Those names mean something. They resonate in the markets they are in,” he said.

Schlotman said the company is committed to completing new stores that are already in the works, and will look into speeding up those projects.

This early in the merger, Marmer said, Kroger couldn’t rule out potential changes to coupon policies, loyalty card programs and other concerns paramount to consumers.

“The most honest answer to give you is we don’t know,” Marmer said. “We’re really early into this.”

That uncertainty is leaving Harris Teeter’s most loyal customers uneasy.

“I much prefer Harris Teeter. That’s why I shop here. It’s much cleaner and nicer,” said Leslie Packer, 51, a lawyer from Raleigh, who was stowing groceries in the trunk of her car after a quick late afternoon shop at the Harris Teeter on Oberlin Road.

She said she’ll take a wait-and-see attitude but will let the manager know if the store isn’t up to par. “Eventually, I’ll switch grocers, if it’s bad enough.”

Betty Munns, 63, of Raleigh is most worried about her double-coupon deals disappearing. She called the Kroger takeover “my worst nightmare come true.”

At Harris Teeter, coupons up to 99 cents are doubled every day. And periodically, the chain offers special coupon promotions that triple or “super double” coupon values, yielding coupon shoppers huge savings.

As Munns and other coupon shoppers digest the merger news, they are prepping for the fourth special coupon promotion Harris Teeter has offered in the Triangle in six weeks. Starting today, coupons up to $2 in value will “super double” up to $4 in value.

In contrast, Kroger stores in many parts of the country have stopped doubling coupons, adopting instead a low-price advertising strategy similar to that of Wal-Mart. Kroger stores in the Triangle stopped doubling coupons in May.

Munns, who shops Harris Teeter and Lowes Foods specifically for the coupon deals, said she suspects Kroger will very gradually strip Harris Teeter shoppers of their coupon perks.

“I feel like eventually it will all go the Kroger way,” she said. “It will be a slow process. They don’t want to turn people off.”

Despite the uncertainty of a merger, a few Triangle shoppers viewed a Kroger-Harris Teeter partnership as good news.

Tina Hughes, 51, of Cary was among those who see potential for lower prices. “I like Harris Teeter. It’s one of the cleanest stores, and if you want something fancy, that’s where you go,” she said.

“But for me it’s just not affordable,” said Hughes, an event planner who shops mostly at Kroger. “I’m hoping this will be the best of both worlds: cleaner and more affordable.”

Dunn: 919-829-4522

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