Sunday, March 9, 2014

To the grocery grave, Part 2

As I begin to write this post, I feel like that dude in the old Verizon Wireless commercials.
Screengrabbed from Google. 
I don't know if anyone is actually going to hear me, but let me say it again, echolalia-style:
Screengrabbed from To the grocery grave, Part 1 (January 14, 2014).  
With that January declaration in mind, imagine my surprise when I saw this front page Chron headline yesterday...
Screengrabbed from the frontpage of's online edition, March 8, 2014.  It's referencing The Fresh Market, which is also scheduled to open a store in Clear Lake in a few months.  The store that's closing is near Highland Village (Westheimer at Weslayan).  
...and then proceeded to read this part:
Screengrabbed from this Houston Chronicle piece (paywalled).  I would have used the word "irrelevant" rather than "redundant".  
Are you kidding me?!  Seriously?!  Somebody actually (ahem) got paid to make a business decision like that?!  Someone actually attempted to operate a grocery store across the street from THE flagship Central Market?   I had no idea!

Local readers, let me ask you this:  Is there a Houstonian alive today who would have given such a venture more than a snowball's chance in hell of succeeding?

Absolutely not.  There's no way.  Zero chance of any store in that location competing with HEB Central Market.  The reasons are many and the explanations too long to go into in a blog post, but that's the way it is.  And the fact that The Fresh Market made a blunder of that magnitude tells me it didn't do good market research, which doesn't bode well for its future in our area.

Sigh.  Market research.  Let's go there for a minute.

In October 2012, I visited the Hubbell and Hudson specialty grocer in The Woodlands and gave it a resounding thumbs down.  That store proceeded to fail by January 2014.  Here's what I had to say about it at that point, as it relates to the grocery scene we have in Clear Lake Texas:

As I see it, the only way for a g-store to compete effectively with our twin [HEB juggernauts] 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.

I still believe that.  Simply parading out a new grocery store with a big hoity-toity factor isn't going to cut it.  It didn't work in The Woodlands and it's not going to work in Clear Lake.  Especially for any grocer who makes the risky decision to locate on the west side of IH-45 (we saw what happened to Fiesta's flagship because of that fatal decision... that may have been many years ago, but the psychological and logistical factors that contributed to its demise are all still in place).

I've begun to suspect that grocery analysts have given up entirely on the idea of competing with Whole Foods.  If that's the case, then it's a stupid, short-sighted conclusion.  Whole Foods actually has two very soft spots in its corporate underbelly:

Number one - Their pricing structure (which they enjoy by virtue of non-competition in their niche and which has led to their nickname of "Whole Paycheck").  
An amusing Google manipulation - when you Google "whole paycheck", the first return is actually the legitimate website for Whole Foods.

Screengrabbed from Google. 
Number two - The fact that so much of what they do is not supported by factual analysis.
About two weeks ago, The Daily Beast published this excellent article explaining exactly that.

Screengrabbed from The Daily Beast.
Much of what they do is not supported by factual analysis, and the educated portion of its clientele knows that.  But everyone also knows that you have to take the bad with the good in the American retail landscape.  I don't go to Whole Foods for the pills and the potions - sometimes I literally shield my eyes as I'm walking by those aisles, because the pseudoscience makes me so uncomfortable.  I go there because the non-potion products, the ones that are not hype-driven, are simply of better quality than the average grocery store, to a degree that is readily apparent to anyone in possession of taste buds.
Last week I made a huge batch of Cuban black beans (recipe to follow in a subsequent post because I have declared it to be the official dish of Centerpointe Section 9).  My husband was elated because he found this batch to taste noticeably better than my last batch.  I said, "That's because the dried black beans and kidney beans that I used this time came from the Whole Foods on Waugh Drive.  They are organic and specialty-farmed rather than being the factory-farmed tasteless junk for sale in most other grocery stores."

I didn't lead the witness.  I didn't give him any indication that I'd used a different source this time.  He could detect it directly.  
So what's the bottom line on all this rambling commentary of mine?

The bottom line is that we still have a genuine grocery niche deficiency in our area and it's still ripe for commercial exploitation.  I don't know whether The Fresh Market is in a position to become that player, but after reading the Houston Chronicle story (paywalled) yesterday, I'm beginning to have my doubts.  I guess time will tell.
Thus far, despite the other local failure announced yesterday, the indications are that the Clear Lake Fresh Market store is still a "go".  They are recruiting senior staff (e.g., this LinkedIn postingwhich was live as of the date of this blog post).  But whether or not they'll actually meet the market is another question entirely.

Screengrabbed from this Houston Chronicle article.  

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