Kroger this morning issued a press release that continues to make the argument - the same argument that it has made since first proposing the $24.6 billion acquisition of Albertsons - that it will lower prices once the deal is complete, and that it has a 20-year track record of lowering prices after it makes acquisitions.
Here is the text of the press release:
The Kroger Co. today shared additional insights about how the company lowered prices in previous mergers, bolstering its commitment to bring more consumers across America lower prices and more choices following its proposed merger with Albertsons Cos.
"We believe the way to be America's best grocer is to provide great value by consistently lowering prices and offering more choices. When we do this, more customers shop with us and buy more groceries, which allows us to reinvest in even lower prices, a better shopping experience, and higher wages," said Rodney McMullen, chairman and CEO of Kroger. "We know this model works because we've been doing it successfully for many years, and this is exactly what this merger will bring customers – lower prices and more fresh, affordable choices."
This strategy is not new to Kroger. The retailer has invested to lower prices consistently since 2003, resulting in $5 billion in customer savings and providing more affordable products to families across America. Kroger offered an analysis that puts this significant investment into clearer context and includes additional details. Specifically, it demonstrates Kroger:
• Consistently lowered prices and improved the customer experience during previous mergers: Kroger invested more than $125 million to lower prices at Harris Teeter after its merger in 2014 and more than $100 million to lower prices at Roundy's after its merger in 2016. Additionally, Kroger invested $2.5 million and $2.4 million in capital per Harris Teeter and Roundy's store, respectively, to enhance the customer experience in the three years following each merger.
• Reduced profits to ensure groceries remained affordable for families across America: Kroger's ongoing work to lower prices in the last 20 years reduced its gross margin by 5%. Meanwhile, Amazon, Ahold Delhaize, Walmart and Dollar General have increased gross margins by 22%, 4%, 1% and 2%, respectively, during the same time period.
• Made clear, consistent commitments to lower prices and improve the customer experience post-merger: Kroger will invest $500 million to lower prices following the merger with Albertsons starting day one following the transaction close. Kroger will also invest $1.3 billion to improve Albertsons' stores following the merger, all to better serve customers.
• Will become more competitive and able to invest even more to support customers and over 700,000 associates by combining with Albertsons. Kroger's merger with Albertsons will allow it to attract and retain more customers by lowering prices, creating a more seamless and personalized experience and expanding its selection of fresh, affordable food. By doing so, Kroger expects to grow revenues and drive additional investments in pricing and store improvements as well as wages and benefits.
The press release then linked to a website extolling the virtues of a merger and offering endorsements from Sen,. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Burt Flickinger of Strategic Resource Group, and Jim Cramer of CNBC.
- KC's View:
I don't really argue with Kroger's argument that it traditionally has lowered prices after acquisitions, and plans to do the same if the Albertsons deal is approved.
I am, however, pretty sure that this will not be the only criteria that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will use when evaluating this case and making its conclusions.
I suspect the FTC could argue that while Kroger may have lowered prices in the past, that does not necessarily that it will in the future. The FTC also could argue that the merger will give a combined Kroger-Albertsons entity too much market power, with the ability to raise consumer prices.
Now, I also can take the other side of this. Sure, Kroger could raise prices, but it could not do so unchallenged - if it raised prices, it would open the door for companies like Walmart, Costco, Amazon and Target to lower their prices in response. Market forces, in fact, might be more powerful that Kroger's stated best intentions when it comes to lowered prices.
Clearly, there also will be a lot of other factors in play. Like the impact of further consolidation of big companies on both smaller retailers, which will have fewer resources and less ability to compete, and smaller/local suppliers, which will have less ability to negotiate effectively with the big players.
While Kroger says that there will be no front line jobs lost and that wages and benefits will go up, it is the latter part of this claim with which I have the biggest problem. Store managers, department managers, division managers, and in fact every manager in the company likely are going to be evaluated (and, ironically, rewarded) based on how low they can drive the labor factors for which they are responsible. This is what happens at almost every retailer, and new technologies - including and especially AI - will make it easier. And the combined Kroger-Albertsons entity will cut down on labor's options.
It is all about how competition and antitrust issues are defined - or redefined - by the FTC for a new century.
Listen. We're in the final minutes of the fourth quarter here. The Kroger press release has the faint hint of desperation, like it is hoping to get the ball over the goal line to win but sort of knowing that this game will go into overtime when the FTC rejects the merger. (I’m pushing the Super Bowl metaphor, but you get my point.)