At 75, Meijer is nimble in the ring vs. its retail foes

January 25, 2010
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Forget Floyd Mayweather in Las Vegas. The real fight is already under way in retail, with Arkansas behemoth Wal-Mart in one corner versus an infinite number of competitors in corners too innumerable to mention.

Grand Rapids-based regional retailer Meijer Inc., marking its 75th anniversary in 2009, stepped into the ring with enthusiasm, rolling out new stores, remodeled stores, online ideas and promotions to keep customers interested.

With a five-state footprint, the company added and remodeled stores in Michigan, Illinois and Ohio during an economy that has been shaky at best for retail. Six new stores are planned for 2010.

Just last week, Meijer opened a store in the Chicago suburb of Niles β€” its 191st store and 12th in Chicagoland β€” offering a relatively slim 102,000 square feet with an emphasis on groceries and pharmacy. The store, located in a previously vacant facility and in an ethnically diverse area, will carry grocery items tailored to the tastes of the Asian, Hispanic and Eastern European residents of the area. Meijer plans to repeat the plan for its next Chicagoland store, in Orland Park, where construction is expected to begin soon.

"For several years, we have worked hard throughout the Midwest to offer specific grocery items that are relevant to the unique customer base in the communities we service," Meijer President Mark Murray said.

The company also made headlines by indicating it would build a store in the city of Detroit, which has seen many grocery purveyors disappear. The superstore would be 190,000 square feet at the iconic corner of Eight Mile Road and Woodward Avenue, and it could open in 2011.

Grocery competition is highly intense in southeastern Michigan, where Meijer has about three dozen stores.

Wal-Mart last year unveiled plans to go urban with 13 new stores, all but one in southeastern Michigan. Added to the mix: tough competitor Kroger and a strong presence of stores supplied by Spartan Stories Inc., the Byron Center-based distributor and retailer.

In West Michigan, Spartan and Meijer, a private company with annual sales estimated around $15 billion, are long-time, respected competitors who both go up against Wal-Mart.

Meijer last year opened a new store in Cedar Springs and is in the process of replacing the old-style building at 28th Street and Kalamazoo Avenue in Grand Rapids. Another store opened in Hartland Township north of Detroit. Round that out with three new stores in Ohio and a $27 million distribution center expansion in Monroe County that will allow Meijer to double the number of stores supplied from that location.

Meijer has faced some challenges. It has paid millions in fines for employing pharmacists who were not allowed to participate in federal health care programs, as well as the aftermath of the political scandal involving its attempts to locate a store in Acme Township near Traverse City.

As people change the way they shop, Meijer has responded with new features. This year brought Meijer Natural products, which are minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients or additives, and NuVal, which helps consumers judge the healthfulness of a particular food. It also instituted its "Everyday Best Price" program to streamline sale prices. The Grocery Express service, which lets shoppers pick their purchases online and then pick up the completed order, has been a pilot at the Knapp's Corner store but last year migrated to a store in Chicago.

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