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January 14, 2010

Regional vs. Nationwide

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'm still in the Los Angeles area, and enjoying it more than I had expected. We buy groceries at a chain called Ralph's. No Ralph's in Seattle. Must be a regional outfit, right?

Well ... yes and no.

It seems that some of the items on the shelves are house brands for Kroger, a Cincinnati-based company. Moreover, the grocery where we usually shop in Seattle (QFC -- Quality Food Centers) also sells Kroger-branded items. It turns about that Kroger, once a regional company, has tendrils all over the place as can be seen here, (scroll down for a list of "local" outfits controlled by Kroger).

Nationwide company, regional brand presence: interesting formula.

Banks also used to be tied to areas. In Washington, statewide at most. In Pennsylvania, to a home county and contiguous counties. In Illinois, even tighter geography. Nowadays, some banks have branches over much of the country. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; as a customer I find it convenient when traveling.

When I was young [Oh, no!! Not that again!] there seemed be many local and regional products. Consider beer. I grew up with brands such as Olympia (from Oylmpia, WA), Rainier (Seattle) , Sick's Select (also Seattle), Alt Heidelberg (Tacoma) and Lucky Lager (Vancouver, WA) -- eventually drinking the survivors when I got old enough. Later, when traveling, I'd make it a point to drink a local beer. I recall being disappointed in Rhode Island when the bar only had Bud and no Narragansett.

There were local food brands, too. And not just dairy products, which remain largely local. In my case, it was Nalley canned goods such as chili (the brand still exists, but is no longer locally owned), Frye's meat products and Buchan's bread.

I'm sure you can come up with examples from your own past.

Given all the consolidation we've seen in recent decades, are local/regional products a dying breed?

Not necessarily. Many nationwide brands started locally, and start-ups are, almost by definition, local. Consider coffee houses. Yes, there's Starbucks, a local Seattle firm that now spans the globe, as they say. Yet even in Seattle one finds stores from regional chains such as Tully (Seattle) and Peet's (Bay Area). Strong in Southern California, Las Vegas and Oahu is an outfit called Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. The old regional beers are largely gone -- crushed by Budweiser and Miller -- but now local microbrews are sprouting.

Modern communications, including fast, relatively inexpensive transportation, has indeed "nationalized" a number of products -- look at advertisements in old newspapers to get a feel for which products were still local at various times. But as I noted, local is far from finished.



posted by Donald at January 14, 2010


There are still no truly nationwide supermarket chains.

Posted by: Peter on January 14, 2010 11:28 PM

RE: no nationwide supermarket chains I suspect that those who get their groceries at WalMart would find that assertion a surprise. And even if there isn't a Whole Foods in every state (yet) they do have outlets from Hawaii to Maine not to mention in Canada and now London in the UK.

This posting touches on my interest in the Buy Local phenomena as a good thing for political/social/economic reasons. While I am no absolutist (with a spouse employed by Whole Foods we do most of our regular grocery shopping there, for example) I generally try to shop in locally owned shops and select locally produced products whenever it is possible without dramatic price difference ... I'll spend an extra 10% or so for most things. I have my regular local coffee shop that does its own roasting (Coffee By Design), local craft brews (Peak Organic or Geary's) and buy local produce whenever I can ... through the Farmer's Market in season or at Whole Foods or the various local groceries we frequent to augment our regular shopping.

Raye's mustard is a favorite, made in Eastport Maine, my mother's hometown and the place I spent childhood summers.

We bank at a local savings institution and just moved from a chain to a newly opened local pharmacy.

Posted by: Chris White on January 15, 2010 8:59 AM

Actually, Trader Joe's appears to be spreading beyond it's southern California roots - it's in 25 states. Not exactly competition to Kroger, but it's a quirky sort of "local" grocery store.

Also, I think Gelson's is owned by Ralphs.

Posted by: Sgt. Joe Friday on January 15, 2010 12:05 PM

Not all Wal-Marts have full-fledged supermarkets. None of the ones in my area do.

Posted by: Peter on January 15, 2010 2:09 PM

A local soft drink manufacturer, Saxby, has not only stayed strong in my part of NSW but its products are making its way to Sydney and beyond.

I once asked a Saxby rep why a giant like Coca Cola couldn't manufacture a reasonable ginger beer, even when they bought out the smaller companies that listed old and popular flavours. He replied that Coca Cola, for all their wealth and marketing brilliance, simply can't make soft drinks.

Corporations have their own inherent limitations. However, the sympathy vote and the boycott are examples of what I would call "consumerist bloat", and are a reflection of the corporate bloat they aim to defeat.

Corporations that get off the point will only be punished by consumers who stay on the point. And if corporations stay on the point, why punish them? The reason I don't go to Starbucks is that, like nearly everyone, they overheat and overextract coffee. Even some top bars in Italy - and every single cafe in France - wreck coffee in this way.

If Starbucks made a perfect short black I'd stop there every day, for the comfy chairs. Businesses big or small, local or global, should be rewarded for doing things well. There are some Sydney cafes, even one cafe chain, who are rigorous in their preparation of coffee. They show respect for me and for the coffee that someone's gone to a lot of trouble to grow and process. That's what I call "ethical production". The rest is cant.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on January 16, 2010 4:31 AM

We have a few Ralph's stores in Seattle -- a small one in Belltown, for example. (More of an urban neighborhood market than a full-size supermarket.) Not only Ralph's and QFC, but also Fred Meyer are owned by Kroger. Kroger is the largest supermarket company in the US, except for Wal-mart, which is only partly a supermarket.

Posted by: Nate on January 16, 2010 11:52 AM

Here in Canada, while all our banks our national and have been for a long time, there are still lots of regional chains of all different kinds - restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, etc. Canada is a small country population-wise, but huge geographically (second only to Russia), and regionalism couldn't help but develop in a big way here. As for beer, there are lots of local microbrews in various regions across Canada, which, largely because of provincial trade barriers, do not cross provincial and/or regional boundaries.

As far as fast food goes, though, we don't have quite the regionalism that America does; yes, there are some local small chains tied to tiny local areas, but there are no regional large equivalents of, say, White Castle, Jack-In-The-Box, In'N'Out Burger, or Chik-Fil-A, as in America; the market can't quite seem to sustain it (same as no local or provincial banks EXCEPT the Alberta Treasury Branch, which used to be part of the provincial government prior to being privatized). I found dealing with small, inefficient local banks annoying when I lived in America for a year, and longed, surprisingly, for the big evil national banks we had back in Canada, which hitherto then I had hated. :)

Posted by: Will S. on January 16, 2010 8:05 PM

Ralphs, Alpha Beta, and Vons; I have shopped at them all in SoCal. In Spokane (Eastern Washington) we have Rossauers, which I have not seen anywhere else. Arizona has Bashas.

When I was a kid, there were many independent grocers, many of which were in the IGA (Independent Grocers Alliance) network. We used to do most of our shopping at the IGA stores.

Posted by: kurt9 on January 17, 2010 6:10 PM

With the rise of micro-brews, there are plenty of local beers to drink now. And they are a lot better than Lucky Lager or Oly.

Posted by: JohnV on January 17, 2010 10:24 PM

My thought exactly, JohnV. The one regional beer from back in the day that I remember fondly was Yuengling in Philadelphia. I'm guessing our host has knocked back a few of them.

Posted by: robert61 on January 18, 2010 12:09 PM

Tully isn't a local brand; we have it in Japan.
It's cheaper than Starbucks and offers a slightly different selection of specialty drinks.

Posted by: Nanani on January 26, 2010 12:47 AM

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