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For grocers, Southern California is an irresistible—and cutthroat—market

Southern California’s $44 billion in annual grocery sales makes it the largest U.S. grocery market by far. Above, produce clerk Veronica Padilla stocks apples at the Ralphs grocery store in downtown Los Angeles. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The bold Southern California expansion by tiny grocery Haggen Inc., and the company's abrupt bankruptcy filing only six months after opening its first store in the region, came as little surprise to Jack Brown.

Brown is the longtime chief executive of the 168-store Stater Bros. chain, based in San Bernardino, and he's seen the rise and fall of many supermarkets since his entry into the business as a teenage box boy. Now 77, Brown even keeps a list of the chains that have disappeared — once-familiar names such as Lucky, Alpha Beta and Mayfair.

"I have seen everything in the food industry come and go in Southern California," he said.

But as the Haggen bankruptcy filing last week illustrated, Brown and the rest of the industry are seeing a fresh flurry of activity among rival stores that has roiled a Southern California grocery business that already is "arguably the most competitive in the country," said Ron Johnston, who publishes the industry-tracking Shelby Report.

In addition to Haggen, Fresh & Easy closed 30 stores in Southern California after an ill-fated effort in the region. Stalwart grocers Albertsons and Safeway, which also owned Vons and Pavilions, merged into one company to better compete against market leader Ralphs and others.

Discount food chains Aldi and Grocery Outlet Bargain Market plan new stores in the area. Whole Foods intends to open the first of its value-oriented stores, called 365, in Los Angeles next year.

Why do new entrants keep arriving despite the stiff competition and the troubles experienced by Haggen and others? Because Southern California's $44 billion in annual grocery sales makes it the largest U.S. grocery market by far, and that's a near-irresistible lure, Johnston said.

The market's enormous size also is why big-box discount retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp. and Costco Wholesale Corp. have expanded their grocery...


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