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Warning of higher grocery prices, Washington AG sues to stop Kroger-Albertsons merger

Washington's attorney general has sued to stop Kroger from merging with Albertsons and creating a grocery-store colossus. Here, a Kroger in Flowood, Mississippi operates a gas station and a pharmacy.
Rogelio V. Solis
Washington's attorney general has sued to stop Kroger from merging with Albertsons and creating a grocery-store colossus. Here, a Kroger in Flowood, Mississippi operates a gas station and a pharmacy.

Updated January 15, 2024 at 5:45 PM ET

The Washington attorney general sued Kroger and Albertsons on Monday to block the merger of the two largest supermarket chains in the U.S. He is asking the court to grant a permanent nationwide injunction.

The mega-deal, worth $24.6 billion, promised to shake up competition in the food aisles. Kroger, the biggest supermarket operator with 2,719 locations, owns Ralphs, Harris Teeter, Fred Meyer, King Soopers and other chains. Albertsons is the second-biggest chain, with 2,272 stores, and owns Safeway and Vons. Together they employ about 720,000 people.

Yet Kroger and Albertsons say they must unite to stand a chance against nontraditional rivals, including Amazon, Costco and especially Walmart. The grocers say the latter two companies sell more groceries than Kroger and Albertsons combined. And they emphasize that they offer union jobs, in contrast to some of their rivals. They had hoped to close the deal in August.

The lawsuit, filed in Washington state court, may throw a wrench in those plans. Attorney General Bob Ferguson argues that, because the two chains own more than half of all supermarkets in his state, their proposed union will eliminate a rivalry that helps keep food prices in check.

"Shoppers will have fewer choices and less competition, and, without a competitive marketplace, they will pay higher prices at the grocery store," Ferguson said in a statement.

The lawsuit cites an Albertsons vice president writing, "you are basically creating a monopoly in grocery with the merger so [it] makes no sense" when the deal was merely rumored.

In a joint statement Monday, Kroger and Albertsons called the decision to file a lawsuit "premature" given the merger is still under review by the Federal Trade Commission.

"The merging parties will vigorously defend this in court because we care deeply about our customers and the communities we serve," the statement read. "Kroger and Albertsons Companies merging will bring lower prices to more customers, strengthen and create good-paying union jobs, and bring more fresh, affordable food to more communities."

Worries over plan to sell off some stores

A legal challenge to the merger does not come as a surprise. The FTC has been reviewing the proposed deal for over a year. Multiple state officials and lawmakershave voiced concerns that the tie-up risks reducing options for shoppers, farmers, workers and food producers. As early as May 2023, Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen said the two grocery chains "committed to litigate in advance" if federal regulators or state attorneys general rejected the merger.

Ohio-based Kroger and Idaho-based Albertsons overlap particularly in Western states. To pre-empt regulators' concerns about diminishing grocery competition in those markets, the retailers found a buyer for up to 650stores that they'd sell off as part of the merger: C&S Wholesale Grocers, a supplier company that also runs some Piggly Wiggly supermarkets.

Ferguson said that plan does not go far enough to protect supermarket employees and customers in his state. His office asserts the combined Kroger-Albertsons would still "enjoy a near-monopoly" in many parts of Washington. It also questioned whether C&S could run the markets successfully.

Albertsons' merger with Safeway in 2015 serves as a warning in that regard. The FTC required it to sell off 168 stores as part of the deal. Within months, one of its buyers laid off workers and filed for bankruptcy protection. Albertsons repurchased 33 of those stores — some for as little as $1 at auction, Ferguson says.

Antitrust experts in the Biden administration had previously spoken skeptically about whether divestitures sufficiently safeguard competition, including on prices and terms struck with suppliers. The regulators have also pushed for tougher scrutiny of megadeals, making this merger a high-profile test.

Andrea Hsu contributed to this story.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.