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Posts published in “Day: July 11, 2015”

Another go-round


People tend to forget now, but Joe Albertson started out working at someone else’s supermarket.

Dropping out of the College of Idaho, he started as a clerk for the Safeway grocery chain. He was successful there, moving into midmanagement in his early 30s, but it wasn’t satisfying. Albertson thought he had a better way to run a grocery – they didn’t call them “supermarkets” then – and wanted to try running one on his own. Merging some of his own savings and some investments from a few other Safeway executives who believed in him, he launched his first Albertson’s at 17tth and State streets in Boise in 1939.

Befitting a store bearing its founder’s name, the Albertsons stores, which expanded quickly to Nampa and Caldwell, had a distinctive approach for the era, emphasizing not only a broad selection of food and other goods but also both self-service and strong customer service. The approach would eventually become standard in the industry, but it was new then, and Albertson’s personal insight and focus, and in many place community involvement, helped make his stores winners. Over the years he ran the company, the stores proliferated into the hundreds in many parts of the country.

Albertson’s company went public in 1959, but its founder kept a close watch until his death in 1986. In the years after that came the mass acquisitions: Seesel’s, Buttry, SuperOne, Bruno, and finally in 1999 swallowed the giant American Stores Company, which operated Jewel-Osco, Sav-on Drugs, Lucky and other stores. Closures and sales of stores followed. The public company, concerned as all public companies are about improving stock prices, began to be, apparently, more about buying and selling properties than it was about creating an innovative and popular supermarket – the basis of Joe Albertson’s successful business.

Financial indigestion was the near-term result, and in 2006 Albertsons was sold to SuperValu, and one of Idaho’s landmark businesses ceased to exist as an independent company. The Albertsons-labeled stores were slips up into various groups, bought and sold and swapped like trading cards.

Then it got a second chance.

Following a series of additional sales and mergers, which remarkably included important involvement by Safeway, Albertsons became a separate, freestanding company again. The Albertsons stores (and some others) were brought together with Safeway and some other store groups, and started operation as Albertsons LLC, still owned by an investor group. It has become again a massive company, running more than 2,200 stores around the country.

Last week, the investor group said it plans to take the company public – to again place Albertsons stock on the public stock exchanges.

What will Albertsons do now?

It could go back to the way it did business in the 90s, and some years down the road go through another round of swallowing and regurgitation.

The suggestion here, though, is that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Make that little memorial at 17th and State in Boise to Joe Albertson’s first store something of a touchstone. And remember that while much in the world may have changed since 1939, the basic business sense Albertson displayed back then is, or can be, something more durable.

You can’t say that

One of the more interesting complaints from conservatives about the Portland wedding bakery case - the bakers who declined to sell pastry for a lesbian wedding - concerns a specific provision in the state order about what the baker can say about it.

It cannot say, the state said, that it will not provide services for gay weddings. Specifically, it said, it must “…cease and desist from publishing, circulating, issuing or displaying, or causing to be published, circulated, issued or displayed, any communication, notice, advertisement or sign of any kind to the effect that any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, services or privileges of a place of public accommodation will be refused, withheld from or denied to, or that any discrimination will be made against, any person on account of sexual orientation.”

On its face, this sounds like a first amendment violation. How is it, or is it, justifiable?

California law professor Eugene Volokh takes on exactly this subject in a recent blog post, and draws a careful distinction:

The bakers have a flat free-speech protection if they want to say, “we disapprove of the Oregon decision,” or “we disapprove of same-sex marriages,” he said.

What they cannot do is say that "we won’t do same-sex marriage, same-sex wedding cakes” because doing so isn't legal. It becomes "essentially a true threat of illegal conduct." And threats of illegal conduct (it becomes most obvious in the case of threats of violence, but other conduct can be covered too) are themselves illegal.

It's a little subtle, but the point is clear.