Whatcom County could see major impacts amid potential grocery merger

Rachel Showalter/The Bellingham Herald

Whatcom County could see major impacts to its grocery stores if the proposed Albertsons-Kroger merger, announced last month, goes through.

But a decision is still not finalized after Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the companies, which lead to a temporary restraining order blocking a $4 billion dollar dividend payment. The Attorney General argued the payment could mean store closures during the merger approval process.

“That one legal action is the one and only thing pausing the entire country and causing the dividend payment to be on hold,” said UFCW 3000 spokesperson Tom Geiger in a telephone interview with The Bellingham Herald.

UFCW 3000 is a union representing more than 50,000 members working in grocery, retail, health care, meat packing, cannabis and other industries across Washington state, north-east Oregon, and northern Idaho.

“The merger overall, we believe, is a bad idea. It would threaten competition and choice for customers. It would threaten the likely closure of stores and potentially lay off workers,” Geiger told The Herald.

State legislators, including Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., have also publicly expressed concern about the merger for the same reasons.

“I don’t think it’s gonna be any different in Bellingham than it would be in Everett or any other place,” Geiger said about the potential merger.

The two companies dominate the grocery store industry across the state, amplifying concerns from union reps and legislators.

“Together, the 337 Albertsons and Kroger grocery stores in Washington represent 21.5 percent of the state’s total. Underserved communities throughout Washington benefit from these stores and what they provide in price competition, convenience, high-quality nutritional access, and pharmacy services. 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,” Sen. Cantwell and Sen. Murray wrote in a letter sent to the Federal Trade Commission earlier this month.

Bellingham has four Haggen stores, one Safeway store and two Fred Meyer stores, which are all owned by either Albertsons or Kroger. Ferndale has one Haggen store and Lynden has a Safeway store.

There is no plan yet by the union to handle possible store closures or worker lay-offs, Geiger told The Herald.

“Our resources are going into fighting it,” Geiger said.

In response to a request for comment about the potential impacts of the merger locally, Albertsons directed The Herald to the company news release issued in October announcing the merger.

The release said, in part, “Through a family of well-known and trusted supermarket banners, this combination will expand customer reach and improve proximity to deliver fresh and affordable food to approximately 85 million households with a premier omnichannel experience.”

A hearing on the restraining order blocking the dividend payment was supposed to be held Thursday, Nov. 17, in King County but has been rescheduled for Dec. 9, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

In response to the postponement of the hearing, Albertsons issued a news release Wednesday saying in part, “Albertsons Cos. continues to believe that the claim brought by the State of Washington is meritless and provides no legal basis for canceling or postponing a dividend that has been duly and unanimously approved by Albertsons Cos.’ fully informed Board of Directors.”

Kroger did not respond to a request for comment from The Bellingham Herald on either the hearing postponement or the potential impact of the merger.