Safeway rebounds with sharper focus

After being hemmed in by recession, cash flow problems and costs, a venerable lion of West Coast food and drug retailing is roaring again. 

Safeway shed a few more unprofitable stores in 2010 and early 2011, but emerged with sales and earnings results that help affirm its long-term strategy. The chain generated sales of $41.05 billion in the fiscal year ended Jan. 1, 2011, up less than half a percent from the previous year. But with a smaller, more productive store base and other improvements came a return to profitability; net income for fiscal 2010 was $589.8 million, compared with a net loss for 2009 of $1.1 billion. 

Chairman, president and CEO Steve Burd cited “price reductions, reinvigorated private-label brands and targeted marketing” for the upturn, as well as new curbs on shrink and operating costs.

In the midst of a still difficult economy in 2010, Safeway also opened or remodeled another 74 stores in line with its Lifestyle prototype, which offers customers “wood-like flooring, relaxing earth-toned decor and subdued lighting with spotlights on featured products … [for] a warm, inviting ambience,” according to the company.

“Our … store renovations are almost complete, with 85% of our 1,694 locations now transformed into Lifestyle stores,” Burd reported Feb. 28. 

Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway remains one of the nation’s top pharmacy retailers. Pharmacies operate in nearly 80% of its 1,694 supermarkets, giving it some 1,320 in-store pharmacies across a broad swath of the western and southwestern United States and in the Philadelphia market. That healthcare prowess is tied to a reputation as one of America’s top supermarket sources for organic and healthier-choice foods.

In April, Safeway took a big step to regaining full power in its pharmacy division with the hiring of pharmaceutical industry veteran Darren Singer as its new SVP pharmacy, health and wellness. The appointment fills a long-running management void that opened a full year earlier, when Dave Fong, Safeway’s top pharmacy executive, left the company as SVP pharmacy and family health. Fong’s position had been filled on an interim basis by Gary Rocheleau, but no permanent replacement had been named since Fong’s quiet departure in April 2010.

Singer, a 25-year veteran of GlaxoSmithKline, will regulate retail pharmacy operations, specialty care, pharmacy services, compliance, benefit management and managed care. He will report to merchandising president Kelly Griffith.

Singer, who among other roles at GSK was VP marketing for OTC wellness, could bolster Safeway’s ongoing efforts to marry pharmacy with health and nutrition. “His … proven track record in running some of the most visible and valuable brands in the pharmacy and wellness industry are well-suited to his leadership role,” Griffith said.

Safeway calls its pharmacists “experienced health consultants” who provide immunizations for whooping cough, tetanus and other conditions, along with the flu. Increasingly, the company is taking such health services as immunizations and health screenings outside the stores and into local businesses, schools, senior centers and other settings.

Safeway also is aligning those pharmacy care programs with a broader message designed to appeal to the total health-and-wellness needs of consumers. In mid-February, those efforts got another boost with the launch of SimpleNutrition, a shelf tag system designed to make it easier for shoppers to find better nutrition choices. Safeway called the new green tags “a first step in helping customers modify the selection of products that support a healthier lifestyle,” and said the tags point out one or more of 22 different nutrition and ingredient benefits for tagged items — e.g., organic, gluten-free or low-sodium products. Barbara Walker, group VP consumer communications and brand marketing, called it “a quick snapshot of the nutrition and ingredient benefits” of many foods.

Safeway also has broadened its nutritional message appeal with another branded line of healthier foods. Launched in late January, Open Nature is a new line of more than 100 naturally raised and unadulterated foods, beginning with products sold in the meat departments. The brand — which joins Safeway’s other healthy-
alternative brands, O Organics and Eating Right — will expand to other food categories throughout 2011, the company reported.

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