Resilient Kroger readies for recovery

In retailing, it’s a given that a long-term, severe recession will cut through the ranks of food, drug and general merchandise retailers like a scythe through wheat, pushing weaker players out of the market as consumer spending dries up and Darwinian realities winnow the field. But it’s also true that the strongest merchants can emerge not only intact, but also with even brighter prospects if they innovate, invest and retain the loyalty of their customers.

Clearly, Kroger belongs in the latter category. The Cincinnati-based supermarket and combo-store behemoth weathered a tough 2010 with a 2.8% increase in same-store sales across its multifaceted retail empire and net earnings of more than $1.1 billion. The company also increased share of grocery sales by 80 basis points, according to Nielsen research, and in the final months of the fiscal year ended Jan. 29, 2011, appeared to regain momentum in drug and non-food sales.

“Kroger’s business proved resilient in 2010, weathering a challenging environment that continued to affect many of our customers,” said chairman and CEO David Dillon in March. “We were particularly pleased to see solid growth in our drug/general merchandise department where sales had softened during the recession as customers scaled back discretionary purchases.”

Sadly, the start of Kroger’s new fiscal year also witnessed the loss of one of its top pharmacy and non-food executives, EVP Don Becker, a 42-year company veteran who died unexpectedly in February at 62 years old. Becker oversaw drug, grocery and general merchandise buying, marketing and merchandising, and also was responsible for The Little Clinic operations.

Dillon called Becker a “dear friend and extraordinary leader” who “leaves a legacy of enthusiasm and passion for doing what’s right.”

Despite that major setback, Kroger appears to be laying a solid foundation for continued success. The company operates 1,950 in-store pharmacies that filled nearly 140 million prescriptions in 2010.

Besides a strong presence in the flagship Kroger combo stores, that pharmacy network sprawls across a complex web of such regional chains as King Soopers in Colorado, Ralphs in California, Smith’s Food & Drug Centers in Utah, Fry’s Food & Drug in Arizona and Fred Meyer in Oregon.

In 2010, Kroger also purchased its erstwhile partner in walk-in patient-care centers, The Little Clinic. The buyout gave it control of one of the nation’s largest operators of retail-based clinics, with 77 professional centers in select Kroger, Fry’s and King Soopers stores in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arizona and Colorado. The company also provides management for 40 branded clinics in Florida and Georgia.

In the midst of a tough economy, Kroger also invested a total of roughly $2 billion last year in store remodeling, the Little Clinic purchase, new technology and other improvements. Steady investments in automation have helped transform the pharmacy, where pharmacists in any of its stores and operating companies can see into any customer’s patient profile and prescription record via its nationally integrated pharmacy automation platform. That system, called the EasyFill Pharmacy Retail Network, allows pharmacists “a single view of the patient across Kroger,” according to Chris Hjelm, SVP and CIO. The system also tracks all pharmacy transactions in real time, he said, so “we know when a prescription is sold, not just filled.”

Kroger’s pharmacy team also continues to expand pharmacy and clinic-based services, including a variety of immunizations and biometric screenings for such conditions as diabetes, hyperlipidemia and obesity. Some Kroger pharmacists also now participate in long-term programs for diabetes management, education and coaching, in coordination with registered dietitians and certified diabetes educators.

Kroger also continues to wield one of retailing’s most effective loyalty card programs. The company reported that more than 90% of its customer transactions now involve the use of the Kroger card.

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