(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It was never going to be easy for Kroger Co., the nation’s largest supermarket chain, to play defense at a moment of colossal change in the grocery business.
That was apparent in its Thursday earnings report, in which revenue and adjusted earnings per share revenue came in slightly below analysts’ expectations, sending shares down. (On the bright side, comparable sales growth accelerated, increasing 2.5% from a year earlier.)
The patchy results are the latest reason to doubt that this company is going to be able to transform itself for a more digital-centric future before it’s too late.
At a presentation for analysts last month, CEO Rodney McMullen acknowledged that, two years into a three-year turnaround plan, the company has come up short. In particular, he said, “we asked our store associates to do too many things at once,” a reference to its efforts to remodel stores and make better use of shelf space while simultaneously ramping up its click-and-collect business.
It is concerning that Kroger apparently has found it so difficult to do retailing battle on multiple fronts. After all, that is simply the reality of being a major brick-and-mortar chain these days, and key rivals seem to be managing it just fine.
Target Corp. has renovated about 700 stores since 2017 and has also managed to roll out same-day delivery via Shipt and expand curbside pickup. In the latest quarter, 80% of its digital growth came from those and other same-day fulfillment options. Walmart Inc. has had similar success, developing an online grocery operation that is competitive with Amazon.com Inc.’s while also making physical stores cleaner and better-stocked.
It’s not just that Kroger needs to be able to multitask. It also needs a better plan to win at online grocery.
In a recent press release, Kroger proudly touted that, as a holiday season promotion, it would offer online grocery pickup for free and waive the usual $4.95 fee. Are shoppers seriously supposed to be impressed by that when pickup is always free at Walmart and Target? If Kroger can’t match that offering, it’s hard to see how it is going to fight effectively for digital grocery market share.
Kroger’s biggest e-commerce bet is its partnership with Ocado Group Plc to build automated warehouses for grocery delivery. But those efficiencies will only matter if it can build a substantial base of online customers. And the cost of building these one-of-a-kind facilities, executives have said recently, is coming in higher than expected.
In the meantime, Kroger continues to make head-scratching moves such as its foray into the world of so-called “dark kitchens,” or delivery-only food preparation facilities. Through a partnership with the cheekily named ClusterTruck, it announced this week, Kroger will experiment with on-demand delivery of prepared meals.
This effectively puts the supermarket chain in competition for the diners that Grubhub, Doordash and Uber Eats are after. This category has enormous growth potential, so Kroger’s ambitions are understandable. But it’s also an area in which restaurant and technology companies have a head start and seem destined to outflank Kroger. And the whole venture seems like a distraction from the more pressing mission of shoring up its positioning in its core grocery business.
Kroger’s three-year plan was underwhelming when it was unveiled two years ago, and since then the company hasn’t consistently impressed with its execution. Kroger is undoubtedly a busy company, but it’s not clear all the hustle is making it a better one.
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Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.
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