Haggen-Albertsons-Safeway fiasco hurts real people

Haggen locations include one on Puyallup's South Hill.
Haggen locations include one on Puyallup's South Hill. Staff file, 2014

Supermarkets are like accounting firms: They rarely make the news, but when they do, it’s not in a good way.

So it is with the Bellingham-based Haggen, which until late last year had been an 18-store chain with nice seafood sections. Now it’s a bloated goliath caught in a monumental corporate crackup. Hundreds of its employees – and some communities, including Spanaway – have become collateral damage.

What happened to Haggen will ultimately have to be sorted out by lawsuits, the bankruptcy court and MBA professors. The bare facts:

▪ The small family chain was purchased in 2011 by a Florida-based investment firm, Convest Partners.

▪ The Federal Trade Commission allowed two giant chains, Albertsons and Safeway, to merge – but only on condition that they divest 168 stores to protect consumers from monopolies.

▪ With Convest’s backing, Haggen last December bought 146 Safeways and Albertsons stores in the West – the proverbial guppy swallowing the whale.

▪ Things have since gone downhill. Shoppers saw new signs go up on top of their old supermarkets – and saw prices go up on the inside. Folks in California, Nevada and Arizona had never seen a Haggen before and had no warm and fuzzy feelings about the brand.

▪ Albertsons has sued Haggen, claiming fraud. Haggen has announced the closure or sale of 26 stores. Haggen has sued Albertsons for $1 billion in damages, claiming corporate sabotage.

▪ Haggen last Tuesday filed for bankruptcy protection in federal court.

There’s no cause to weep for high-rolling investors and empire-building CEOs. In this debacle, though, ordinary people got hurt.

People got laid off when Haggen closed some of its foundering new stories. Other workers got their hours cut. Non-compete clauses may complicate current employees’ ability to land jobs outside the stricken Haggen empire. We trust the new Safeway-Albertson behemoth won’t niggle over contract language when their own former employees apply for work.

Beyond the workers, neighborhoods and communities suffer real damage when a supermarket goes down.

We tend not to think of them much when they stay out of trouble, but supermarkets are a big deal. What they offer is irreplaceable: convenient access to fresh food at reasonable prices. Produce aisles keep people healthy.

Big-box stores carry groceries these days, but it can be a hardship to drive across town to reach them. People with limited means have to pay for extra gas. Some just don’t have a way to get there.

The Haggen in Spanaway has closed and the Haggen in Gig Harbor – once a Safeway – is gasping for air. It’s tough to see these important stores falter, especially when corporate blundering is to blame.