For a big mainstream grocer, Kroger has made some savvy acquisitive moves in recent years, including taking stake in Lucky’s Markets; picking up the exemplary Harris Teeter chain; absorbing Roundy’s (which trades as Pick ‘n Save, Copps, Metro Market and Mariano’s); and acquiring a number of operations in the realms of e-commerce, manufacturing, technology and data/analytics. It is no accident that Kroger has put in a very solid performance over the last decade despite some very stern competitive headwinds – this is a retailer that has flourished by continually investing in its existing operations as well as judiciously putting money into new ventures too.

I’d been wanting to visit a Mariano’s for quite some time: it is an upscale concept developed for the Chicago market in 2010 and it has steadily expanded since then, helped by an acquisition of a dozen Dominick’s stores that had been jettisoned by Safeway. With a most pleasing strapline of ‘Shop well. Eat well. Live well’, I’d heard some good things about Mariano’s, so took the opportunity afforded by a recent trip to Chicago to stroll to one of their stores. And very good it was too.

The ground floor of the store featured some excellent food-for-now and food-to-go offerings, such as a wine bar, sushi counter and oyster bar, plus some other nice touches like a gourmet chocolate counter. The main body of the store is sited on the first floor and it really was a joy from start to finish.

The wine department was stunning, in terms of breadth, authority and visual merchandising, while the produce section boasted some lovely fixtures, an excellent organics range and plenty of nods to local sourcing. The chilled beer range was excellent, combining some big national brands with craft beers from local microbreweries.

The variety of service counters was superb, encompassing meat, fish, cheese, bakery, prepared foods, rotisserie and fried chicken, salad, salsa and coffee.

The overall range benefitted from a very decent array of private label items including legacy Roundy’s products in addition to Kroger brands such as the premium Private Selections. There were strong pricing messages throughout the store, which is well and good, although the overenthusiastic deployment of yellow shelf tags to flag up every single discount created a certain degree of visual clutter.

The store’s design was very strong, veering towards the industrial with plenty of exposed concrete and metalwork. The navigability of the store was a breeze, thanks in no small part to wall graphics and overhead category signage, and customer service was equally impressive throughout. It’s always a pleasure when a store measures up to expectations and Mariano’s is definitely a case in point. Lovely place.

Bryan Roberts, Global Insight Director

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