retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Kroger held a virtual investor conference yesterday, saying that it believes it will double its online sales to more than $20 billion by the end of 2023 … that it will have 11 of its planned 20 Ocado-powered robotic fulfillment centers open by the end of next year … plans to increase its average associate wage to $16/hour by the end of the year … and expects to deliver total shareholder return of between eight and 11 percent per year.

The doubling of online sales by the end of 2023 comes after a year in which it already doubled its e-grocery business to more than $10 billion as the pandemic drove consumers online. Kroger said it also doubled the number of digital households within its network during the past year.

Kroger says that over the past year it "invested more than $2.5 billion to safeguard and reward our associates, including nearly $1 billion to secure pensions for more than 30,000 associates. This was in addition to the $800 million incremental investment in associate wages and training over the last three years – which have raised our average wage to more than $15.50/hour. This year, we plan to invest an additional $350 million more that we expect will increase our average associate wage to $16/hour by the end of the year. "

CNBC writes that "Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen said the company will attract customers with fresh foods, grow its ads business to drive an alternate stream of revenue and fulfill online grocery orders more efficiently with the help of large, automated hubs operated with United Kingdom-based logistics technology company Ocado … McMullen said the company anticipates e-commerce, cooking at home and prepared meals to go will continue to propel sales beyond the pandemic."

CNBC also writes that "along with digital investments, Kroger’s Chief Information Officer Yael Cosset said the grocer will attract customers by doubling down on popular items and services. For example, he said it will expand its assortment of adult beverages and restaurant-style prepared meals. It will grow Home Chef, the meal kit company it acquired in 2018.

"Company leaders pointed to Kroger’s media and ads business, Kroger Precision Marketing, as a way to offset the cost of online grocery orders, too."

And, CNBC writes, "Kroger said it is experimenting with new ways to offer customers quick, restaurant-quality meals from ghost kitchens or convenient, preassembled dinner kits. Those investments in prepared food could help the grocer’s business — particularly as Americans grow tired of cooking or return to busier lives and fuller calendars after getting vaccinated for Covid-19."

KC's View:

Maybe it is because I've spent so much time writing about the mandated hazard pay issue, but when I read about Kroger's investor conference, I see an enormous emphasis on investment:  all the money that Kroger has to spend - on people and technology and basic infrastructure and all that means during a time of pandemic - just to stay viable and relevant.

That's the argument - Kroger is essentially saying that while critics focus on how much money the company makes, they ignore how much has been invested …and the fact that, as a public company, it has the responsibility to provide a return on investment to shareholders.  It is an argument that resonates in some quarters, and falls on deaf ears in others.