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What’s behind the demise of Main & Vine? Amazon and new home-delivery services

Kroger closing its Main & Vine grocery store in Gig Harbor can be blamed somewhat on Amazon. But another big underlying trend was at work as well.
Kroger closing its Main & Vine grocery store in Gig Harbor can be blamed somewhat on Amazon. But another big underlying trend was at work as well. dperine@thenewstribune.com

It’s tempting to write off the closing of Kroger’s Main & Vine grocery experiment in Gig Harbor as one more example of life in an era of short attention spans.

After all, we are accustomed to watching sports highlights on YouTube because it’s too boring to sit through an entire game. And the business-and-investing sector is notorious for a short-term focus, emphasizing quarterly results over long-term performance.

The official and unofficial rationalizations for the abrupt move are that Main & Vine was never intended as anything more than an experimental project (and that some of its features are migrating to other Kroger brands), and a new Fred Meyer store nearby would put two Kroger-owned operations in uncomfortably close proximity to one another.

Still, to go through the expense and hassle of closing down a QFC store, setting up an entirely new brand (one with which customers had no familiarity), then closing that down, thus alienating two sets of customers, indicates less than stalwart commitment.

So did Kroger just get bored with Main & Vine or impatient for it to produce results? Or is something else at play here?

The answer to those questions is yes.

Understanding why those propositions might be simultaneously true requires an understanding of the current state of affairs in the grocery business, for which the adjective tumultuous might be understating matters.

Grocery shoppers in this region have witnessed the tumult firsthand, in the form of the Haggen debacle.

That episode seems like ancient history now given what else is going on in the business, most of it driven by Amazon, directly or in reaction to it.

Between the purchase of Whole Foods and its own experiments with convenience-store-sized outlets, grocery online ordering and pickup and delivery, Amazon has the entire industry, including the biggest players such as Kroger and Walmart, nervously watching what Jeff Bezos will do next.

But Amazon is not the whole story either. What Kroger did with Main & Vine can be blamed, in a limited sense, on Amazon, but there’s one more big underlying trend at work here.

What we might be watching is the end of the era for showy higher-end grocery stores.

There was a time — not so long ago even though it feels like ages — when Whole Foods was the most influential trend-setter in the grocery business.

The huge selection of gourmet, specialty, natural and organic foods presented in an inviting, even entertaining, format made Whole Foods the one to copy; even resolutely middle-of-the-market retailers like Safeway were compelled to up their game.

Whole Foods was in an enviable position for its size, growth and a market slice taken out of the segment with a lot of disposable income and a willingness to pay upscale prices for an upscale grocery experience.

But the Whole Foods growth engine was wheezing and coughing even before Amazon showed up.

Two years ago, the company announced layoffs and a strategy to lower prices. More recently the company closed its smaller concept store in Bellevue Square (although it is opening those stores elsewhere).

Higher-end grocery stores aren’t going to disappear. But they’re no longer the bright shiny object that entrances the industry’s decision-makers.

Here’s what is: Delivery.

In the same week Main & Vine’s demise became public, Kroger announced that QFC had signed a deal with Instacart for home delivery from most of its stores in the Puget Sound and Portland markets.

That’s not the only project Kroger has going in terms of changing grocery shopping. It, like Amazon and others, offers a service through which customers can order groceries online, then pick them up at the store.

This is not the first time delivery has been the Next Big Thing in the grocery business.

Companies like HomeGrocer (later Webvan) didn’t survive that earlier wave of enthusiasm because the financial model didn’t work. Whether it’s any more sustainable now than a decade and a half ago is an unresolved question. Nor is it clear that sufficient numbers of consumers want or will use the service.

But since Amazon, with its emphasis on logistics and fast delivery and its seemingly inexhaustible supply of investors’ money, is doing it, everyone else is too for fear of being shut out.

Thus consumers will get all manner of shopping and delivery options the way they got olive bars and 25 varieties of artisanal organic mustard.

Consumers would be well advised not to get too attached to any particular brand or service. As the Main & Vine experience indicates, today’s hot new idea in the grocery business, whatever it is, could have a very short shelf life.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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