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The grocery will never be the same again



  Why Amazon Buys Whole Foods

Whole Foods does not look much different since Amazon bought it a year ago. Salmon and avocados are a little cheaper. Buyers are greeted by ads for echoes. Workers wear uniforms with the light blue Prime logo.

To find the big changes, look at the rest of the grocery store.

Incumbents such as Walmart ( WMT ) Kroger [ KR ) Costco [1

9659005] ( COST ) and Target ( TGT ) have taken aggressive steps in the store and on the Internet Amazon ( AMZN ) .

Each company has expanded on-line delivery and pick-up in the store, invested money in supply chains and technology enhancements, and kept prices low despite higher costs to prevent customer losses.

"This was a great wake up call," said Bill Bishop, co-founder of retail consultancy Brick Meets Click.

Despite Wall Street's initial concerns, buyers have remained loyal to legacy players, driving them to their fastest sales growth in years and reassuring investors.

$ 800 Billion Food Market at stake

Amazon's fall into the $ 800 billion food industry was an existential threat to rivals.

Kroger is the largest supermarket chain in the country, and food and drink accounts for more than half of Walmart's and Costco's sales. Food accounts for 20% of Target's sales.

Amazon has intensified the fight for online food.

Although online ordering in the US is slow, analysts at MoffettNathanson estimate that they will account for 18% of grocery sales by 2025, from about 2% today.

Given its disruptive history, many analysts believed that Amazon would use Whole Foods to strangle its loyalists.

But Whole Foods represents only about 2.5% of the US food market and covers a smaller, more affluent part of the population than Walmart or Kroger. The impact of the Amazon Agreement has proven to be over the top.

"The amount of industry share that Amazon can share with the physical stores is limited," RBC analysts William Kirk and Mark Mahaney wrote in a research report earlier this month. "We believe grocery is available in the face of Amazon's fear."

  Whole Food Limited
Amazon completed its $ 13.7 billion deal on Whole Foods a year ago on Tuesday. It was the largest acquisition in Amazonian history.

Doubling in stores

Amazon has the logistics experience, but traditional retailers have given Americans the preference to buy meat and produce in physical stories. At the same time, these retailers have provided new digital tools.

Costco has launched a two-day dry food delivery that shipped with Instacart the same day for fresh produce, and partnered with startup Zest Labs to keep products fresh throughout the supply chain.

Costco tries to perfect what works: merchandise cheaper to sell than competitors.

"We give Whole Foods twice a week in many, many markets across the country, and we scratch our heads," said CFO Richard Galanti to analysts last year, a signal for the company's trust that it is Whole can beat food on prices.

Walmart believes close to almost every US household – 90% of the country lives within 10 miles of a store – there is a significant advantage over Whole Foods.

Including Sam's Club, Walmart has about 4,360 stores in the US, compared with around 470 Whole Foods locations.

More than 1,800 Walmart's now offer a free grocery pick-up service, and the retailer plans to have 2,220 stores by the end of this year. Whole Foods is just beginning.

Analysts say click-and-collect is more convenient for Americans who drive and have no time to wait for fresh food at home.

At Walmart, digital sales increased 40% year-over-year in the final quarter, and Morgan Stanley analyst Simeon Gutman estimated that more than half of that growth came from food-picking.

Walmart has also expanded its online food delivery options to include transportation partners such as Postmates and DoorDash, with plans to cover 40% of the US population by the end of the year.

In the last quarter, Walmart's food sales grew at the fastest pace in nine years, taking market share from competitors.

In Search of Offers

Target and Kroger follow a different approach and use external help to build technology and infrastructure.

Last year, Target purchased the food delivery startup firm Shipt, a membership platform for $ 99 a year, for $ 550 million to compete with Prime Now, Amazon's delivery option for home appliances.

CEO Brian Cornell said earlier this year that Target is not a "full-service grocer," but that space and product choice are a "convenient alternative."

In the last quarter, on the path to the fastest sales growth in more than a decade, Target reported that food and beverage sales have accelerated and gained market share.

Kroger has also thrown money on digital players to compete in the changing food landscape.

In recent months, the company has increased its stake in the UK's online warehouse Ocado for automated warehouses, acquired home-cooking company Home Chef, and partnered with technology startup Nuro for driverless delivery.

At the same time, Kroger has expanded its own pick-up service, ClickList, and launched Ship, its own dry-food delivery service, earlier this month.

Today, Kroger has 1,250 curbside warehouses and offers 1,200 deliveries through partnerships with Instacart and other third parties.

In the final quarter, Kroger impressed Wall Street with 66% online revenue growth. Meat, seafood and natural foods were among the strongest categories.

Whole Foods has not taken away any Kroger customers, Chief Financial Officer John Schlotman noted earlier this year: "They see no harm to our business."

Amazon plays from behind

Amazon grows at Whole Foods. Price reductions have improved traffic, sales in the same business have increased 3% since the deal, and the grocer has seen a big boost from the prime-day sale in July, according to RBC.

But instead of making drastic changes, Amazon has been constantly trying to use Whole Foods as a weapon to block more Americans into the Prime ecosystem by offering discounts to members and selling electronics in stores.

"It's now obvious that buying Whole Foods was just part of the larger mosaic that is Amazon's long-term growth plan," Bishop said.

Meanwhile Whole Foods rivals in the race to expand collection and delivery. And while it may prove more competitive in urban areas, it still faces an upswing with mid-sized suburban and rural buyers.

For clever operators like Walmart, Kroger, and Costco, it may be easier to catch up in the online food race than Amazon's when it comes to gathering their experience in selling groceries in stores.

CNNMoney (New York) First published August 28, 2018: 14:47 ET


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