Howdy folks, and welcome back to Houston Historic Retail. Today we’re continuing with Part 2 of a three-part series covering Auchan. Last time, we left off right at the start of Auchan in Houston while taking a look at the mall portion. Today we’ll continue the story and take a look at the grocery side of the store, which is still serving its intended purpose over 30 years later. The fanfare around the arrival (scroll up for a photo of the checkouts!) of the French Hypermarket matched the massive store. In the early 80s, many French chains attempted to enter the United States with their own Hypermarkets. Auchan, on the other hand, opted to start by experimenting with a franchised Cub Food Store in Chicago. The competition in the windy city helped Auchan move its sights to Houston for its first Hypermarket. Their choice was likely influenced by the fact that Texas was still new territory for the Hypermarket concept. While combination stores had operated here, they were tiny in size compared to European Hypermarkets on the Eastcoast and even the more modest domestic Hypermarkets throughout the country. The entry of Auchan into Houston came with intentions to build a chain in the United States, although any hopes of a second store in Texas were dashed before ever being announced, thanks to Sam Walton’s Hypermart USA. Not only was the store equally massive, but it also included its own 17-store “mall” front end, albeit single-story and not nearly as suave as Auchan. Only months after announcing plans for the Houston store, Auchan revealed plans for a second store in Chicago, although it wouldn’t be a Hypermarket just yet.
The Chicago Auchan would open in April 1989. This store was a bit smaller than the Houston store, coming in at 130,000 Square Feet. In a similar bid, Walmart had also opened a smaller format location under the Wal-Mart Super Center name. Doing away with the mall, and scaling back to a more reasonable size, just like the Chicago Auchan was attempting. A big difference between the concepts, however, was the product selection. While the Super Center maintained a limited selection based on the original Hypermart departments, Auchan’s Chicago store limited itself to mostly grocery items and a limited selection of hardlines. Auchan would explain this by stating that their policy was to meet local needs and that a 32,000 Square Foot addition was planned soon to bring Apparel to the Chicago store. At this point, Auchan was already a little unsteady in the American market and noted that they would hold off any future development in the U.S. for at least six years. While the addition would be built, the space would end up repurposed. With some being used for seasonal items and the rest as a garden center, with no apparel ever added to the store. In 1991, Auchan ended up quietly selling the location to Dominick’s, who would reopen it under the Omni Superstore banner. While the location was apparently highly profitable, Auchan’s management resented the fact the store was not a true Hypermarket.
In Houston, however, business seemed to be as good as ever. While the area around Auchan continued to change, the draw of the store continued to pull customers in to shop. One of their biggest draws was their seasonal sales, the one I remember the fondest was back-to-school. The entire seasonal section was devoted to school supplies and things like uniforms and backpacks. Interestingly Auchan sold pre-boxed school supplies based on district-mandated supply lists for the area. Despite adapting to fit the community needs, some features of Auchan remained fiercely French, such as their requirement for the shopper to provide a quarter to use a cart (much like Aldi) or their extensive cheese selection and authentic French baked goods. The store existed in duality, they carried both high-end imported French goods and cheap international products. In 2000, Auchan would finally attempt to expand again, this time in Houston. The second store would be located on the South Loop, in a former Target building. The store was one of the first Target locations in the state and featured a massive grocery store known as Target foods, located adjacent. Although not a true Hypermarket, as the stores operated independently, Auchan would repurpose the building as such.
In early 2003, after nearly 15 years of operation, Auchan announced that they had plans to close both of their Houston stores, withdrawing from the American market entirely. Auchan largely blames its demise on not being able to keep up with the scaling of other retailers. While they somewhat play off the second location as an attempt at scaling up, officials also note that plans had been to sell or liquidate the units had been ongoing for the previous six months. In the opinion of some in the Houston Retail Circle, the second Auchan was the poison pill. Auchan was vocally unhappy with the local “lack” of zoning laws allowing new grocers to build so nearby. Specifically, the Hong Kong Food Market in the former Venture/Kmart, along with the brand new HEB just up the Beltway. Auchan’s strategy with the South Loop store was targeting an area where another retailer wasn’t nearby. However, Auchan’s choice of location was exceedingly poor, and issues with safety and the overall image kept many shoppers away. With this second location hemorrhaging money, the decision to shut down was imminent. Auchan’s South Loop store would close in February, and the West Belt location would hang on until Early March. The shutdown was an emotional time for employees and customers alike. However, the store wouldn’t stay vacant for long, and that’s where we’ll conclude in Part 3!