On February 7th, on The Gary Parrish Show with Geoff Calkins, there was banter about the inappropriateness of buying flowers for one's sweetheart from the grocery store. What followed was a bit of goodnatured, exaggerated backpeddling in the form of praise for Kroger — Kroger is a sponsor of the show, after all. The grocery's chain's rotisserie chicken, its grab-and-go sushi were among the virtues listed.
Said Parrish, "As far as I'm concerned, [Kroger's] the only grocery in the world!"
The next day, Kroger delivered to The Gary Parrish Show studios chicken, sushi, and, in fine flourish, a vase of red roses.
Kroger's response was both funny and shrewd, and it is one example of the Kroger Delta division taking a more active aim at engaging the community.
Kroger Delta oversees stores in West Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Missouri. According to Joe Bell, manager of marketing and public affairs for Kroger Delta, in recent years, the company has invested some $200 million in stores in Mississippi, $150 million in Arkansas. While he did not say how much Kroger has spent in Memphis with store expansions over the past few years, he does estimate that Kroger will invest $50 million in stores in the Memphis area in the next three to five years.
Bell says the company was "surprised and confused" by negative reaction that followed Kroger's 2011 acquisition of the area Schnucks chain. He points out that Kroger has been in Memphis since 1928.
But ... but ... many around these parts seemed to take Kroger's acquisition of Schnucks personally.
Bell admits that Kroger's PR approach was to "stay under the radar." Now they are taking a new approach with two goals: "be more visible, be more accessible," says Bell.
One early move was the December meeting Kroger representatives held with Midtown community organizations to get their thoughts on the new Union store.
Bell says the Midtown crowd is fiercely loyal. The meeting was an effort to get to know everybody.
"We want them to feel good about [the store]," Bell says. "That's their store. We want them to call it my Kroger."
From that meeting, they have a list of requests from members of the community. One such request is outdoor seating.
The new Union store would be in the Belvedere Apartments spot, with the old building razed to make room for parking. Plans have the store facing east with a glass side wall at Union.
Another followup meeting is being planned for a month or so.
Also in December, Kroger Delta hired a new PR film, Obsidian in order, Bell says, "to help us see our blind spots."
Thomas Whitehead is Obsidian's sales rep for the Kroger account. He says they went though customer comment cards to get a feel for what the shopper wants, what makes them loyal. Value, he says, doesn't always refer to a great bargain.
It was Whitehead who suggested to Bell that Kroger respond to The Gary Parrish Show.
The gambit worked. There was talk about Kroger on The Gary Parrish Show that day, not to mention The Eric Hasseltine Show.
"No lie," Whitehead says. "For this area, Kroger had the highest selling day for Valentine's Day gifts."
A few weeks ago, after Whitehead learned about the Big Daddy's bowling alley that was in the basement of the old Poplar Plaza store, he invited a few reporters, including Memphis magazine's Vance Lauderdale, to check it out. By sheer coincidence, Kerry Crawford of I Love Memphis tweeted about the bowling alley, so Whitehead invited her to check it out too.
The Party at the Plaza event to celebrate the new Poplar Plaza store on March 19th, the day before the store opens to the public, was a suggestion from Obsidian. Whitehead says that Kroger Delta marketing took the idea and ran with it.
The 400 invited guests include city officials and representatives from the University of Memphis. Kroger also invited the old Poplar Plaza store's top 100 shoppers (info determined by the Kroger-Plus cards). Each guest received a unique plated metal invitation.
The new Poplar Plaza store is massive — 85,000 square feet compared to 50,000 of the old space across the parking lot. The store holds 6,000 to 8,000 more products than the old store.
There will be a bistro serving hot plate lunches, an expanded bulk item section, an entire aisle dedicated to gluten-free items, and a small health clinic.
The new Poplar Plaza store is being considered a flagship. So while there is nothing in the new store that can't be found in at least one of the 50 or so Krogers in the area, it's got what Bell calls "all of the best of everything."
Inventory in every location is calibrated from information gathered from Kroger-Plus cards. That's why there's a large selection of kosher items at the Mendenhall Kroger and why you won't see that amount at the Poplar Plaza store.
Every Kroger serves the particular needs of a particular community and this is why they view themselves not as a faceless chain store, but as a local, neighborhood merchant. This is the idea that Kroger Delta is trying to convey.
Says Bell, "We want to be seen as part of the community, not just as selling groceries."