business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

I had the opportunity recently to visit the new Fresh Eats MKT small-store format that Kroger is testing in Central Ohio that the company's CFO, Mike Schlotman, has described a "different kind of convenience store."

The one I visited was in Blacklick, Ohio, a bedroom community about 15 miles east of Columbus; it had just been open a few weeks, and I've posted some pictures below to give you a sense of the approximately 12,000 square-foot shopping experience.

Fresh East MKT seems to take its "convenience" moniker seriously - it is just 1.5 miles north of a giant Meijer, and there are full-sized Kroger stores three, six, and seven miles away in varying directions. On the one hand, the suburban setting seems like an odd choice for a format that one might ordinarily think would be better suited for an urban environment; but Kroger clearly is trying to figure out how it can slice this particular loaf of format bread in different ways.

It strikes me as a very interesting effort - essentially offering a highly edited grocery selection, hitting most of the categories that a standard grocery store would have, but in a highly focused way. The layout is pleasing, with fresh foods (produce, deli, bakery) on display right inside the front door, and series of low shelves and a wall of frozen/refrigerated doors easily seen from almost any angle. The store also has gas pumps and a pharmacy drive-up window, and I can see where it would be a go-to stop for local residents facing time constraints.

I was, to be honest, a little surprised by the size of the Starbucks occupying one whole wall of the store; it struck me as a little oversized for the unit, but it also is possible that it is seen as a big draw for the neighborhood. And I also think that the store may be experiencing some out-of-stock issues, though I was there on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, so it may not be a fair assessment. (That said, convenience is only convenient if there is merchandise to buy, and there were an awful lot of holes in pretty much every aisle; every hole represents a potential lost sale, and that's dangerous for any store, but even more so for a new format.)

I do have one suggestion for Kroger - that it ought to test using the Fresh Eats MKT location as a pickup location for local residents looking for a click-and-collect option. It would enable them to actually sell a lot more products than the store keeps in stock, ands the relatively close proximity of larger Kroger stores might make the logistics doable.

Just a thought.

I don't think Fresh Eats MKT is perfect, and I do think it has some issues that need to be addressed. But ... we talk a lot here about the importance of continuous reinvention and innovation, and Kroger is to be lauded for trying new things.

It is an Eye-Opener.

KC's View: