Tuesday, January 14, 2014

To the grocery grave

In October 2012, I gave a personal thumbs down to Hubbell and Hudson, the "upscale" grocer located in The Woodlands. 
Here's an excerpt from that post.  I went on to describe some specifics of what the store was missing.  But the problem wasn't individual product gaps - it was the overall focus of the store.  I need a grocery store that fits my focus, not some marketer's idea of what my focus ought to be.   
So it was no surprise to me when I read an announcement in Houston Chronicle this morning that the store is closing.
Most likely translation:  It's not making enough money.  It's not making enough money in The Woodlands, which is drowning in money, one of the wealthiest enclaves in America. 

Screengrabbed from that article
This announcement brings to mind the pending opening of The Fresh Market in Webster, which is scheduled for 2014 (projected date unstated, but I will email them to see if there's any update). 
Excerpt from that press release
As I've noted in numerous previous blog posts, many of Clear Lake's two hundred thousand residents are desperate for a better grocery store. 
Where's Waldo?  Or perhaps that should be Waldette?  Your blogger is in there somewhere. 

This is a photo taken of a peaceable green-shirt demonstration of Clear Lakers at the Waugh Drive Whole Foods in late 2013.  One of the Whole Foods employees took this with his cell phone and it eventually made it onto the "We Want A Whole Foods In Clear Lake" Facebook page, which currently has about 4,500 followers.

In August 2013, I wrote a blog post relaying a rumor about possible renewed interest in Whole Foods building a store down here.  So far that post has received over 1,100 hits, despite the fact that (a) I'm a micro-blog and (b) there was no concrete factual content in the post.  People around here will grasp at anything that even suggests our grocery conditions might improve. 
Many of Clear Lake's two hundred thousand residents are desperate for a better grocery store, but it has to be the right grocery store, or else I predict it will fail much as Hubbell and Hudson has in The Woodlands.  It, too, will starve for revenue in our sea of income plenty. 

What constitutes the right grocery store?  Well, ain't that the $64,000 question.  I'm certainly no marketing expert, but if you look at my December 3, 2013 compare-and-contrast post, you'll start to get a hint of what's awry in our grocery market.  In that post, I drew attention to the fact that you can buy up or buy down in just about every consumer product category that exists in our local area - except food.  There's this inexplicable paradigm which says that, whether we drive a Mercedes S-class sedan or a Chevrolet Spark, we have to eat the same corn-fed feedlot beef, because there's nothing else available in our local grocery realm.   
The Beamer of beef... 

Screengrabbed from this CNN article
...but this is what ALL of us - regardless of means - get sold instead.

Screengrabbed from this New York Times article
Any grocery store that opens in Clear Lake must compete with the twin juggernauts of HEB Clear Lake Market and HEB Bay Colony.  Those stores are both insane asylums during peak shopping times.  Sometimes I worry that the crowds are violating fire codes, because Bay Colony routinely becomes gridlocked inside, particularly along its back wall where the bread and milk are located.  Literally gridlocked because there are so many shoppers that nobody can move.  This past Sunday, I watched as a disabled shopper in a wheelchair navigated his way though the throngs and to the check-out.  I worried that he might get trampled.   Every time I encounter that kind of gridlock, I want to take a phone pic of it so that people can see what I mean, but I worry that I'll run into private property / legal issues if I post something like that. 

As I see it, the only way for a g-store to compete effectively with our twins is by occupying a different niche.  And the niche that we're missing - and that I think Hubbell and Hudson was also missing - is the health niche.

The true health niche.  A grocery store can't make the mistake of settling for the appearance of filling the health niche.  They have to actually meet the market.  When I walked into The Woodlands' Hubbell and Hudson in 2012 and saw only high-glycemic fresh baked breads for sale, the "fail" buzzer immediately went off in my head.  BAARP!!  Consumers who invest in high-end groceries are exquisitely sensitive to what's healthy and what's hype-y.  They're educated, they're relatively wealthy, and they're not going to spend all that extra money on any products that they perceive will not further their personal health goals.

Here's hoping that The Fresh Market does a better job than Hubbell and Hudson.  And I will post an update if I find out anything about their projected opening date.   

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