NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, November 7th, 2022

An overwhelming majority of King County voters oppose the Kroger/Albertsons merger

Near­ly sev­en in ten like­ly 2022 vot­ers in King Coun­ty, home to the City of Seat­tle and most of its imme­di­ate sub­urbs, are opposed to Kroger’s pur­chase of fel­low gro­cer Albert­sons, a poll con­duct­ed last week for NPI has found.

68% of respon­dents sur­veyed for NPI by Change Research said they opposed the merg­er, while just 17% said they sup­port­ed it. Near­ly half (48%) said they were strong­ly opposed, while only 5% were strong­ly supportive.

Kroger has claimed that it will “invest” in low­er prices for shop­pers if the merg­er goes through, and the ques­tion posed to respon­dents explic­it­ly men­tioned this pledge, as well as explain­ing that the com­pa­nies believe it will cre­ate “a pre­mier seam­less ecosys­tem across 48 states and the Dis­trict of Colum­bia, pro­vid­ing cus­tomers with a best-in-class shop­ping experience.”

But respon­dents were unmoved.

Kroger and Albert­sons are the num­ber one and num­ber two gro­cers by rev­enue in the Unit­ed States, respec­tive­ly, and own a sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age of the gro­cery stores in the Seat­tle mar­ket. They know that to win approval to com­bine, they’d have to divest stores, as was the case when Albert­sons bought Safe­way in 2015. How­ev­er, Albert­sons’ divest­ment of stores to local­ly based gro­cer Haggen was a fail­ure, and Albert­sons end­ed up buy­ing some of those stores back.

That expe­ri­ence was cit­ed by U.S. Sen­a­tors Pat­ty Mur­ray and Maria Cantwell in a let­ter urg­ing the FTC to review the pro­posed merg­er with a very crit­i­cal eye.

“Togeth­er, the 337 Albert­sons and Kroger gro­cery stores in Wash­ing­ton rep­re­sent 21.5% of the state’s total,” the sen­a­tors wrote on Novem­ber 1st.

“Under­served com­mu­ni­ties through­out Wash­ing­ton ben­e­fit from these stores and what they pro­vide in price com­pe­ti­tion, con­ve­nience, high-qual­i­ty nutri­tion­al access, and phar­ma­cy ser­vices,” the sen­a­tors not­ed to the FTC’s Lina Khan. “Giv­en their aggre­gate share of the state’s retail gro­cery sec­tor, we fear that Wash­ing­ton is at dis­pro­por­tion­ate risk of los­ing stores as a result of the pro­posed merger.”

“Our most urgent con­cern is the announce­ment by Albert­sons of a cash div­i­dend of $6.85 per share, payable on Novem­ber 14th, 2022, to its share­hold­ers, only two years after the com­pa­ny went pub­lic,” the let­ter added. “This div­i­dend of approx­i­mate­ly $4 bil­lion com­pris­es near­ly 20 per­cent of the val­ue of the com­pa­ny — an extra­or­di­nary cash out­lay that direct­ly ben­e­fits the largest share­hold­ers of Albert­sons, who also con­trol the board. This action appears to reflect a dis­re­gard for the well­be­ing of the ongo­ing busi­ness should the merg­er not be completed.”

Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bob Fer­gu­son, tak­ing note of these plans to enrich Albert­sons’ stock­hold­ers, went to court last week to block the pay­ment of the div­i­dend.

“Pay­ing out $4 bil­lion before reg­u­la­tors can do their job and review the pro­posed merg­er will weak­en Albert­sons’ abil­i­ty to con­tin­ue busi­ness oper­a­tions and com­pete,” Fer­gu­son declared. “Free enter­prise is built on com­pa­nies com­pet­ing, and that com­pe­ti­tion ben­e­fits con­sumers. Cor­po­ra­tions propos­ing a merg­er can­not sab­o­tage their abil­i­ty to com­pete while that merg­er is under review.”

King Coun­ty Supe­ri­or Court Judge Ken Schu­bert agreed to hit pause on Albert­sons’ plans and issued a Tem­po­rary Restrain­ing Order halt­ing the pay­ment of the div­i­dend until the mat­ter is fur­ther lit­i­gat­ed and adju­di­cat­ed. The tem­po­rary restrain­ing order is in effect until at least this Thursday.

The attor­neys gen­er­al of Cal­i­for­nia, Illi­nois, and D.C. filed their own law­suit in fed­er­al court in the Dis­trict of Colum­bia to stop the dividend.

Albert­sons grum­bled about both law­suits in a press release, argu­ing that the law­suits “are mer­it­less and pro­vide no legal basis for can­cel­ing or post­pon­ing a div­i­dend that has been duly and unan­i­mous­ly approved by Albert­sons Cos.’ ful­ly informed Board of Direc­tors.” Of course, as Sen­a­tors Mur­ray and Cantwell men­tioned, that “ful­ly informed Board of Direc­tors” also hap­pens to con­sist of rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Albert­sons’ biggest share­hold­ers who would get the dividend.

While Albert­sons was los­ing last week in court, our poll was com­plet­ing field­ing, and as we can see, Albert­sons (and Kroger) are also los­ing in the court of pub­lic opin­ion. Our research shows that King Coun­ty vot­ers don’t want this merg­er to go through, poten­tial­ly result­ing in store clo­sures and job losses.

UFCW Local 3000, which rep­re­sents union­ized work­ers at Kroger and Albert­sons, strong­ly oppos­es the acqui­si­tion. We men­tioned their oppo­si­tion in our question.

“The pro­posed merg­er of these two gro­cery giants is dev­as­tat­ing for work­ers and con­sumers alike and must be stopped,” Faye Guen­ther, pres­i­dent of UFCW 3000, said. “Just as our UFCW work­ers stood togeth­er to nego­ti­ate land­mark new con­tracts with both Kroger and Albertsons/Safeway with­in the last year across the west­ern U.S., we will stand unit­ed to fight for access to nutri­tious food, a safe shop­ping expe­ri­ence, and invest­ments in good jobs in our communities.”

Vot­ers in King Coun­ty agree.

Here’s the full text of the ques­tion we asked and the respons­es we received:

QUESTION: Kroger, which owns Fred Mey­er and QFC, recent­ly announced plans to acquire Albert­sons, which owns Safe­way. Kroger is the nation’s largest gro­cer by rev­enue and Albert­sons is the sec­ond largest. In Seat­tle and King Coun­ty, Kroger and Albert­sons are each other’s biggest local com­peti­tor. The two com­pa­nies say their pro­posed merg­er “cre­ates a pre­mier seam­less ecosys­tem across 48 states and the Dis­trict of Colum­bia, pro­vid­ing cus­tomers with a best-in-class shop­ping expe­ri­ence across both stores and dig­i­tal chan­nels” and Kroger has stat­ed it “plans to invest in low­er­ing prices for cus­tomers.” Merg­er skep­tics and oppo­nents, includ­ing Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bob Fer­gu­son and UFCW 3000, say the deal could be a dis­as­ter for shop­pers and work­ers, espe­cial­ly because the com­pa­nies might be required by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to sell some of their stores to anoth­er own­er that might strug­gle to keep them open. Do you sup­port or oppose the pro­posed Kroger-Albert­sons merger?

ANSWERS:

  • Sup­port the merg­er: 17% 
    • Strong­ly sup­port: 5%
    • Some­what sup­port: 12%
  • Oppose the merg­er: 68% 
    • Some­what oppose: 20%
    • Strong­ly oppose: 48%
  • Not sure: 14%

Our sur­vey of 740 like­ly 2022 King Coun­ty gen­er­al elec­tion vot­ers was in the field from Fri­day, Octo­ber 28th until today, Thurs­day, Novem­ber 3rd.

The poll was con­duct­ed entire­ly online for the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute by Change Research and has a mod­eled mar­gin of error of 4.0%.

Fol­low this link if you’re inter­est­ed in a detailed primer on the survey’s method­ol­o­gy along with infor­ma­tion about who took the poll.

We sought in our ques­tion to present both Kroger and Albert­sons’ argu­ments in sup­port of the merg­er from a shop­per’s point of view along with UFCW Local 3000 and AG Bob Fer­gu­son’s argu­ments against it. The argu­ments against won, and by a lot. Few­er than one in five vot­ers likes this pro­posed merger.

Big com­pa­nies like Kroger have a long record of mak­ing promis­es that they don’t keep when they want per­mis­sion to buy up a com­peti­tor. Research has shown that merg­ers don’t usu­al­ly return any val­ue to share­hold­ers. Yet they are attrac­tive to CEOs obsessed with empire build­ing and lucra­tive for invest­ment banks and law firms, which is why com­pa­nies keep try­ing to do them.

NPI has called on the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to take action to thwart this pro­posed merg­er. The research we are pub­lish­ing today clear­ly demon­strates that’s what peo­ple liv­ing in Wash­ing­ton State’s largest coun­ty want too.

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