Albertsons Companies, Inc. (NYSE: ABS) is one of the largest retail grocery/pharmacy companies in the United States. It operates over 2,500 stores in 37 states under a variety of different names: Albertsons (without the apostrophe), ACME, Bruno's, Jewel, Max Foods, Osco, Savon, Shaw's, Star Markets and Super-Saver Foods. It is currently ranked fourth in sales by Supermarket News, behind Wal-Mart, Kroger and Costco. It is second only to Kroger with regard to its number of retail locations.

Founded on July 21, 1939 by Joe Albertson, the first Albertsons grocery store was located at 17th and State streets in downtown Boise, Idaho. It featured many conveniences that were unique to grocery shopping at the time: a money-back guarantee, free parking in an on-site lot (as opposed to metered street parking), 10,000 square feet of shopping space (almost eight times that of typical grocery stores in that era), a from-scratch bakery with an automatic doughnut machine, and an ice cream shop. Touted in ads as "Idaho's largest and finest food store," it foreshadowed America's modern concept of retail grocery shopping, sixty-five years ago.

By the end of World War II, Joe Albertson was operating six stores with annual sales approaching US$3 million. He incorporated his business in 1945, and by 1951 had built his largest store ever (60,000 square feet of space) which was the first to include a pharmacy in the same facility. The company went public with its first stock offering in 1959, and by the time its 100th store was opened in Seattle, Washington in 1963, Albertsons was firmly established as a major presence in Idaho, Utah, Oregon and Washington.

During the sixties, the company expanded its operations into California and the southwest by purchasing a number of smaller grocery chains, and by the end of the decade it operated over 200 stores in nine states, with annual sales of US$420 million. In 1969, Albertsons entered a partnership with Skagg's to create the first combination grocery/drug store with distinct names. Among the many business names that Albertsons has swallowed up through corporate acquistion are Seessel's, Smitty's, Super One Foods, and Buttrey Food and Drug. It still operates select stores under some of these names for reasons that must make sense to someone.

Corporate expansion continued in the 1970s, with Joe Albertson stepping down as President to serve as Chairman of the Board in 1972. By 1975 the company's annual sales had topped US$1 billion, but that number would double by the end of the decade. During the Reagan years, Albertsons stores introduced specialty departments like service delis, seafood counters, salad bars, florists, and other elements of one-stop shopping. Towards the end of the century, many Albertsons stores also featured small housewares departments. It currently offers "full-service" (delivery or pickup) in its Seattle and San Diego markets, where customers can shop and pay for groceries via the Internet. But times change, and changing competition can change everything.

Although Albertsons is among the more progressive grocers with regard to implementing new technologies as part of the shopping experience, and in spite of its massive nationwide effort to refurbish and remodel many of its older stores (a campaign it began in the late 1990s), the company is in the midst of a life-and-death struggle with retail giant Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart's status as the Largest Retail Corporation in the History of the Universe allows it to undercut Albertsons in price. This seems to be part of Wal-Mart's apparent plan to become the only retailer of food and dry goods in the United States, at which point it can charge whatever it likes for everything it sells. In July 2001, Albertson's, Inc. announced that it would close 165 low-performing stores in 25 states and cut 15-20 percent of its administrative and corporate-level jobs. It has also sold off a number of fair-performing stores to smaller competitors.

As if business was not already tough enough, in the last quarter of 2003, Albertsons became involved in a labor dispute with the United Food and Commercial Workers, with whom it holds contracts in certain states. Along with its competitor Ralphs, it locked out employees who were members of the UFCW in Southern California, in sympathy with competitor Vons (owned by Safeway, Inc.), whose UFCW workers were on strike. Contract negotiations were stalled for months over health care benefits and wage structures, among other issues. A boycott of Albertsons was held during the strike and lock out, costing the company millions of dollars in profits. The contract dispute was finally resolved in the second quarter of 2004, but not before driving Albertsons to the brink of bankruptcy.

On January 23, 2006, Albertsons finally gave up the struggle to survive the threat of Wal-Mart's predatory discounting and agreed to be bought by an investor group led by Supervalu Inc. (NYSE: SVU) for US$9.8 billion in cash and stock in a deal that splits up the company among retailers and financial buyers. This makes Supervalu the second-largest supermarket company in the United States, and essentially means that the Albertsons corporation now exists only in the history books.

When I lived in Florida and Tennessee, I almost never shopped at Albertsons because they were usually kind of old and nasty, with really bad lighting. However, as of this writing, I have shopped at Albertsons for most of my grocery needs since moving to Southern California. This has more to do with it being the closest grocery store to my home than with any preferences I might have in comparison to its competitors. I did participate in the boycott during the strike and lock out, at which time I took my business to a variety of small, independent grocers - with mixed results. In my opinion, Albertsons is no better or worse than any of its main regional competitors, including Winn-Dixie, Publix, Fred Meyer, Piggly Wiggly, or any of the others mentioned in this writeup. The quality and selection you can expect depends more upon the size, age and location of the store than the company that runs it or the name they choose to hang over the door.

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icicle says When Joe Albertson died in 1991, many Boise-area flags flew at half-mast. When I lived in Corvallis, I rarely shopped at the Albertsons in town - found it quite pricey - but compared to other grocery stores in this area, I'm always fairly impressed by the availability of items I shouldn't have a hard time finding (i.e. sun dried tomatoes).

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