What's in store at Genuardi's? An apology The supermarket chain has launched ads to regain shoppers who walked amid a new owner's changes.

Posted: November 01, 2002

It's mea culpa time at Genuardi's.

Responding to a barrage of customer criticism and a decline in its market share, the supermarket chain has launched an advertising campaign to apologize for angering shoppers with sweeping changes made in its stores after Safeway Inc. acquired the company 21 months ago.

"Despite our best intentions, not all of the changes we've made recently have gone smoothly, and we're sorry if your Genuardi's experience was affected," a newspaper and online version of the ad says. "But now, with so many good things happening at your Genuardi's, we'd like to invite you back."

Safeway, based in Pleasanton, Calif., has been under attack for months by once-loyal Genuardi's customers for changing the layout of Genuardi's 44 stores, replacing many familiar products with Safeway brands, and being unresponsive when shoppers complained about product quality or being unable to find what they wanted.

Wayne Popowski, a Bensalem psychologist, said he and his wife, Linda, were typical of the unhappy customers. They went to Genuardi's for years but now shop at a McCaffrey's supermarket because, he said, the eggs are fresher, while Genuardi's "meat selection isn't as good and the produce looks tired."

After the takeover, "it was like watching the Titanic sink. Safeway came in and, boom, it sank," Popowski said. "We'll give [Genuardi's] a try . . . but it's going to be hard to woo us back."

The advertising promises that, from now on, Genuardi's will feature better cuts of beef, fresher produce, and a better selection of natural, organic and gourmet foods.

Customers and industry observers said Safeway was doing damage control at a company with a reputation for quality products and good service developed over the 80 years it was owned and managed by members of the founding Genuardi family.

Meg Major, the fresh-foods editor of Progressive Grocer magazine and a longtime observer of the region's supermarket business, said it was unusual for grocery chains to offer such apologies.

"I think it was far more risky for them to avoid these issues," Major said. "These were the things that people were talking about, in stores, in school parking lots, at bus stops and train stations. . . . Genuardi's customers felt abandoned and voted with their feet."

Richard George, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University, said Genuardi's now must deliver on what it is promising.

"The good news is Safeway realized . . . they may not have done this correctly," he said. But "consumers are smarter than anyone gives them credit for. If this is just PR, the customers will know."

Some shoppers who have seen the print advertising or heard the TV and radio spots were skeptical yesterday whether Genuardi's was really "back," as the ads assert.

"It's interesting that they're fessing up," said Brian Bobiak, a resident of Glen Mills, Delaware County, who shops at both a Genuardi's and a Safeway store three miles apart in Delaware. "I'm wondering if it's a ploy or if they're really going to change things. . . . I'm a results-oriented person. I want to see the changes."

Barbara Guenther, who could walk to a Genuardi's store on Route 73 in Marlton, Burlington County, in 10 minutes, said she now drove five miles to an Acme Market in Voorhees to get the quality baked goods and produce she once bought at Genuardi's. She still shops occasionally at Genuardi's, but she is not likely to change her new pattern, she said.

"I go in there often enough that I would see the changes," Guenther said. "They're not going to go back to the things I want. It's really very, very sad. The biggest thing Safeway misjudged are the things that made it special."

Genuardi's share of supermarket sales in the eight-county Philadelphia area slipped just a fraction, to 12.55 percent from 12.73 percent, in the 12 months ended March 31, according to an annual survey by the industry newspaper Food Trade News.

But in the same period, the largest competitor, Acme Markets Inc., a division of Albertson's Inc., increased its market share from 25.83 percent to 26.49 percent, the survey found.

Genuardi's count of stores increased from 35 to 38 during the 12 months, while Acme's declined from 85 to 77.

The ads, scheduled to run on radio and television and in printed circulars the rest of the year, use Genuardi's store employees to deliver the message "Genuardi's is back!"

"We wanted customers to know we made some changes, and some were not received in a very positive way," Genuardi's spokeswoman Maryanne Crager said. "We want them to know we're reacting to what they've been saying."

Crager said the company would not reveal how much it was spending on the ad campaign.

The ads say that among the changes customers should notice:

Stores have resumed selling "USDA choice" beef, but at prices "about the same as other stores charge for the lower-quality USDA select grade." Safeway had changed the grade sold in Genuardi's stores from choice to select soon after the takeover.

Produce is being delivered fresh daily to stores.

Some products that had been removed from shelves have returned, and if customers don't see what they want, they can request that the products be stocked.

Genuardi's will refund 200 percent of the purchase price of any of its Safeway Select-brand products if a customer does not like them. Most Genuardi's store brands have been replaced with Safeway Select products.

Contact Tom Belden at 215-854-2454 or tbelden@phillynews.com.

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