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Dominck's and Chicago: The 'Checked out' lane

In the end, Chicago’s Dominick’s stores were just corporate

October 23, 2013
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If you ever lived, worked and shopped in Chicago, there’s a good chance the name Dominick’s rings a bell. It was one of the two independent supermarket chains in Chicago; Jewel (or as the locals often called it — Jewel’s) was the other.  

Bernie
Bernie Pacyniak

Depending upon where you lived, you’d shop at one or the other. And, as we all eventually do, you’d develop a comfort level with the store and the people who worked there. It’d become, in a sense, your Dominick’s or Jewel.

Dominick’s parent company, Safeway has announced it is checking out of Chicago, literally. Citing the need to leave the Chicago market in order to “eliminate a noticeable drag on our financial results and a significant drain on our resources,” Safeway CEO Robert Edwards said it would either sell or close the 72 stores spread across the city by early 2014.

Although my focus tends to be on manufacturing rather than retailing — managing editor Crystal Lindell covers the retail beat — I am a shopper. As a near-native Chicagoan, I’ve pushed my cart at many a Dominick’s and Jewel, back when they were independently owned supermarket chains and the only game in town.

As most anyone who sells candy to retailers knows, the landscape has changed dramatically during the past ten, 20 years. The bigs have gotten bigger and there’s been much more fractionalization of the retailing infrastructure.

For example, I may hit three, four, perhaps five different shopping venues on a given Saturday. There’s the fresh fruit and vegetable market, the local Polish deli, the discount liquor store and the local supermarket or Costco, depending what’s on my mental list.

As a male shopper, it’s pretty much a Zorro-like mission: I like to make my Z and get out. Hence, convenience and access dictates where I shop. Consequently, if I needed to go to a traditional grocery store, Jewel would be the one, since it was located right across from the fresh fruit and vegetable market.

I used to be a Dominick’s shopper for many years though. But every since they became “corporatized,” the stores seemed to have lost their way, forgetting that Chicago neighborhoods often reflect immigrant tastes and traditions. Pricing also came into play.

During the past decade, I’ve seen an influx of small, independent supermarkets within Chicagoland, all  offering greater variety, better pricing, even excitement. One example, my father used to shop at a supermarket called Garden Fresh Market. During the last couple of years, I or my wife would often do the shopping for him. Well, this particular store in Mundelein, Ill., catered specifically to Russian and Hispanic immigrants.

One day when I walked in, I noticed they had set up a halvah bar, right next to their chilies stand. Chunks of halvahs sat on the counter, tempting all who walked by to have a fresh piece cut and weighed. Whether you like halvah or not, the idea was pretty interesting.

Moreover, the company had one of the largest candy aisles I’ve seen in the United States, featuring imports from Europe. It also had an extensive nut and candy private-label line. It didn’t take long to realize that owner Adi Mor knew who his customers were and worked hard at pleasing them.

No doubt Dominick DiMatteo, the founder of Dominick’s, did as well. So did his son, Dominick DiMatteo Jr. And the philosophy was passed on. Ironically, Robert Mariano, the current ceo of Roundy’s, a Milwaukee-based supermarket chain, started his career at Dominick’s. He actually ran the company from 1995 to 1998. Today, he has 12 new Mariano supermarkets in the Chicago area, just one of the many competitors giving Dominick’s tough competition.

Rumor has it he’s looking to cherry-pick the best Dominick’s sites and further expand his presence in Chicago. I’m hopeful he and others purchase the 72 stores (four have already been acquired by Jewel), saving the jobs of 6,600 employees and providing a place to shop for locals.

Keep in mind that any loss of retail space means a loss of confectionery sales as well. When it’s all said and done, it’s clear that those who run retail shops must be in tune with their customers, not just their accountants. The object is to sell jelly beans, not count them.

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