Part 1: Auchan comes to Texas and brings a Mall

Bonjour folks, and welcome back to Houston Historic Retail. Today we begin part one of a three-part series on Auchan! Why now you ask? Well tomorrow is the 34th anniversary of Auchan Day as declared by Mayor Kathy Whitmire in 1988! For those not in the know, Auchan is a family-owned French company that operates Supermarkets, Convenience Stores, and Hypermarkets all throughout the world. While Sam Walton would be the first to introduce true Hypermarkets to Texas and, with a few exceptions, most of the United States, he would not be alone in the Lone Star State. Hypermarkets themselves have a somewhat roundabout history, a European innovation with American roots. After World War II, the National Cash Register Corporation, or simply NCR, was looking to expand its cash register sales. Looking overseas at recovering markets, NCR began to host seminars that would bring business owners to Dayton, Ohio, where sessions would be led by a gentleman named Bernardo Trujillo. Mr. Trujillo, who was born in Colombia, would explain how business was evolving in the United States and how these trends would soon become global. Over 11,000 business owners from around the globe would attend these sessions, but no one took the message as close to heart as the French, with about 2000 of the attendees over the years being from France. With the French retail space mostly unchanged from prior to the war, it was ripe for change. Trujillo’s advice was strongly rooted in American practices and espoused discount-driven convenience over everything else. Members of the Mulliez family, who owned a textile manufacturing company, attended the sessions, with plans to soon develop their own stores.

Today we’re looking at only the red section. Map courtesy of carbon-izer.com

By around 1963, Carrefour, another French grocer which had also attended NCR’s seminars, opened France’s first Hypermarket. The new store would sell a wide range of groceries and home goods in a building of over 25k Square Feet. The new store experienced tremendous success, largely thanks to its policy of extreme discounting. The store was able to make it up, however, with tremendous volume, thanks to one of Trullijo’s predictions that cars would become dominant in France. One of Bernado’s most famous slogans was so important that the French still use the original English version, “No parking, no business.” Carrefour’s new store was a quick success, and other retailers like Mulliez, with the debut of Auchan, were soon jumping on the bandwagon, implementing more of Trujillo’s ideas. Some of the ideas were obvious such as “stack high and sell cheap” or “where there is traffic, there is business.” Other pearls of Wisdom from Ohio included removing windows from stores, placing loss leaders in the back of the market, and always building bigger and better. By the 1970s, the two chains had come to dominate much of France, building both Hypermarkets and Supermarkets born out of Bernado Trujillo’s mold. Looking to expand customer bases, the stores were constantly expanding services. By the 1980s, the companies had expanded beyond their borders into Europe, and only a few years later, both Auchan and Carrefour would make the Atlantic leap into the United States.

Back here in the states, many of Trujillo’s predictions for the future of American retail had come true. The car had become a staple of everyday life, with retail almost always being car based. Discounting had also become the trend here too, with a similar volume format utilized to make up for loss leaders. Despite his vision of combined convenience, even by the early 1980s, most discount department stores lacked the consumer services we associate with modern hypermarkets. Even fewer stores existed that combined grocery and non-grocery under one roof. While some regional retailers had succeeded with the concept, major players like Kmart and Target closed their food stores around this time. The explosive growth of discount department stores was renewed with new development by Wal-Mart in the 1980s. While Sam Walton is not known to have met with Trujillo, he developed his stores largely around many of the ideas given in those NCR presentations. In 1987 enamored with what Wal-Mart considered to be “distinctly” European retailing, the company opened its own Hypermart USA in Garland. The store mimicked a European Hypermarket in design, selection, and layout and was hugely successful. Just over a year later, Auchan and Carrefour would open locations in Houston, and Philidelphia, respectively.

By 1988, the retail scape of Houston was changing dramatically. The 60s and 70s had brought up discount department stores like Kmart, and Target, along with smaller options like Globe and Sage. Each chain would attempt selling groceries at one point or another, meaning that Auchan’s combined fare was not brand new to Houstonians. Rather our perceptions would be shaped by the massive size of the store. At the time, Houston was ready for new discounters. Wal-Mart had a small and primarily uneventful rollout only two years prior. Kmart’s reputation had grown mainly tired and somewhat worn out, and Target, while nice, was still quite niche serving only a few parts of town. Auchan’s selection of Houston as their market was quite apt and had actually come after years of quiet research by the French outfit, which went so far as to franchise a Cub Foods location from SuperValu in the early 80s. This connection to the windy city would also land them a close encounter with their own Hypermarket, although that’s a story for Part 2.

The 1988 grand opening of Auchan in West Houston came with huge fanfare. The giant building along the feeders of the yet unbuilt Sam Houston Tollway was massive. It stood out very much like a sore thumb in an area that had previously been flat farmland. The new Hypermarket wouldn’t just have its domineering presence as its only unique feature. This store would also include mall space. 18 separate shops, all along the front end of the store, would provide all sorts of services. From banking to hair cuts, Taco Bell to Pizza Hut, it was all at Auchan’s Mall. Even though the mall was mostly a convenience feature trying to bring customers in to shop, the sparsity of the area at the time meant it was not uncommon for residents of nearby neighborhoods to take the family to dinner at the Auchan food court! The second story of the mall was taken up by offices for Auchan, which spanned across the entire balcony area. Providing an excellent view into the store, which is where we’ll take our next look, in Part 2 of Auchan!

8 comments

  1. I’ve been to a European hypermerché before, but the 2-story mall in this location adds an entirely new dimension to this space. I was also fascinated how many of these ideas originated from NCR and how the company hosted sessions which in turn inspired retail trends around the world. Cool stuff!

    1. I’ve had the opportunity to visit a few Auchans in France. Mostly Supermarché though, only one was a Hypermarché, but it was attached to a mall that was supposedly owned by Auchan. It really didn’t feel very similar to our store back home. The mall was two stories, but was a corridor leading to Auchan in the back, and was much larger. The store itself was not too distant in terms of products, they even had brands I recognized, like Rik & Rok (their kid’s brand) and a few others that aren’t coming to mind. One big difference in the store was the bi-level product selection. Something which has still not widely caught on in America.

      As for NCR’s influence, I think it’s wild. From the research I did on this, it makes it seem like Bernardo Trujillo essentially had the final say in his seminars. He could claim whatever he wanted, as long as it was helping sell products for NCR. At some point, after NCR began to downplay the seminars, a French supermarket owners association paid for him to tour Europe and continue giving the seminars. I wonder if any were ever recorded.

      1. It certainly would have been interesting to see a Texas Auchan and compare it to one back in France. I’m also surprised that they shared common brands since common distribution would be very difficult.

        It would be cool if a video from one of these seminars ever surfaces!

  2. This is so cool – I’ve been in that building before when part of it was used as an school/afterschool (wise?) for the life of me I couldn’t figure it out. Thanks Mike!

    1. No kidding, what was Wise like? I feel like they ripped out the mall interior that was temporarily built on the old sales floor after Auchan moved out.

  3. I went to the grand opening of the Beltway 8 Auchan and it was absolutely a memorable experience. Of course, in those days, the Beltway itself was relatively new so even taking the Beltway out to the store was part of the experience. Then, just seeing the massive size of the place from the outside and the large crowd that was there for the grand opening. Of course, there was the surprise of the oddity of having to put a quarter in to get a cart!

    Walking in from the produce side, there was that McDonald’s right there in the front. This was long before McDonald’s entered Wal-Mart stores so that was a surprise. Then, as you look to the left, there’s a whole food court with Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and so forth! Wow! The smell of the bakery, the atrium over the produce department, the size of the lobster tank! That’s just the grocery side! The size of the store, and the number of registers the store had, was quite daunting really.

    The concept of all-in-one shopping wasn’t new in Houston at the time. Stores like Sage had this in Houston years before Auchan and even Kmart and Target had grocery operations in their early days, but those didn’t compare to the magnitude of Auchan. Even in the early 2000s, the West Belt Auchan still felt really impressive even in an era when Wal-Mart Supercenters and Super Kmart Centers were around.

    1. I’m no cheese eater, and even I’ll agree that it was above board! They had everything you could want, and then more. Not just limited to French cheese either, they had also sorts of European specialty products some that you still can’t find in Houston!

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