Editor’s Note: Today’s post is a guest submission from HHR’s good friend Anonymous in Houston with the photos taken by Mike
In last month’s The Year of Kroger installment, we took a look at a north Houston suburban Kroger, the Kroger on Veterans Memorial. This month’s installment of The Year of Kroger will keep us in the north Houston suburbs and the general FM 1960 corridor. In this edition of The Year of Kroger, we will take a look at the Kroger Signature format and how it enabled Kroger to dominate the Houston market in the late 1990s and 2000s after some challenging years for the chain here in Houston.
There are many places I could start to begin discussing the Kroger Signature story, but I will begin the historical analysis in the early 1980s. In 1980, Kroger had been in Houston for a quarter of a century since their purchase of Henke & Pillot in 1955. Of course, Henke’s had been in Houston for decades before that. Up to this point, the Kroger story in Houston was looking like a major success. After weaning Houston shoppers off the Henke’s name in the 1960s, Kroger started opening many new stores in Houston under their own banner in the 1970s. These modern stores were popular and helped Kroger withstand the arrival of Safeway and Eagle (Lucky), among others, in the 1970s. Kroger’s modern stores and competitive pricing also helped them compete against their historical rival in the Houston area, Weingarten. While Kroger and Safeway were joining the super store bandwagon, Weingarten remained committed to the standard supermarket format.
Thus, in the early 1980s, Kroger was leading the way in Houston’s grocery market share. Safeway’s acquisition of a number of Grand Union Weingarten locations in 1984 helped Safeway erase their deficit, but Safeway’s acquired stores, many of which were short-lived, were largely uncompetitive compared to Kroger’s newest Greenhouse store/Bauhaus décor package format that was popping up all over town such as the aforementioned Veterans Memorial Kroger that opened in 1981. Thus, Kroger quickly returned to the top of the Houston market share charts. Given Safeway’s problems, which contributed to them to leaving the Houston market in 1987 along with Eagle and Weingarten who left a few years before that, it would seem that life was good for Kroger in Houston, but such was not exactly the case.
Kroger had many challenges in Houston in the mid-1980s through the early-1990s. For one, the Houston economy was very soft in the 1980s due to low oil prices, various banking scandals and failures, and other economic woes that were hitting the rest of the country. Like Safeway and many other companies in the 1980s, Kroger was the subject of many rumors about potential buyouts of the company which put a strain on the company. In perhaps the most publicly visible struggle Kroger had in Houston, Kroger’s union employees decided to strike in 1990 after a period of tension between the chain and their workers. While Houston might seem like an unlikely place for a grocery strike, the reality is that Kroger, Safeway/AppleTree, Eagle, Weingarten, Rice, and other Houston grocers all used union labor. Labor unions outside of the grocery sector were not uncommon in Houston in those days either. Thus, strife with labor risked alienating many customers.
These news clips from 1990 give a taste of the significance of the Houston Kroger strike. This news segment from KPRC-TV on February 20, 1990 gives a good overview of the strike. This February 23, 1990 clip from KHOU-TV from Houston’s former Disco Kroger gives a little taste of the strike. Finally, this clip from KHOU-TV from later in the evening on February 23, 1990 has Channel 11’s Steve Smith claiming that it will be “Krogering as usual” as an agreement was made to end the strike. The strike was settled after a few days, but with some shoppers choosing to shop elsewhere during the strike, it meant that Kroger had to overcome high-visibility negative publicity.
Furthermore, while Kroger’s established competitors were leaving town, Kroger was facing competition from a new group of grocers in the early 1990s. Gerland’s Food Fair, a longtime Houston independent, was strengthening their efforts by expanding their store count in the early 1990s and by embracing cutting-edge technology. Rice Food Markets went upscale with their Rice Epicurean Markets which catered to Houston’s wealthiest shoppers. Fiesta Mart was appealing to Houston’s vast international community while also appealing to middle-class suburban shoppers with dazzling stores with artistic designs. Albertsons had been in Texas for a number of years with stores similar to Kroger’s stores and seemed sure to enter Houston at some point in the 1990s. Food Lion and HEB Pantry Foods entered Houston in 1992 with stores geared to appeal to shoppers on a tight budget. Kmart, Wal-Mart, and Target also seemed committed to bring supercenters to Houston at some point.
While these were all credible threats, especially HEB who chased Kroger out of the San Antonio market in 1993, the biggest threat to Kroger in Houston in the early 1990s was undoubtedly Randall’s. Randall’s had gone from being a small independent grocer in the early 1980s to being essentially tied with Kroger in Houston grocery market share in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Randall’s had their upscale Flagship stores which generated considerable buzz locally at the time, but Kroger’s main concern was Randall’s standard stores even if the local media sometimes obsessed about Randall’s Flagship stores. Randall’s built many new stores in the mid-1980s. Even with Houston’s soft economy, Houstonians were in love with Randall’s stores, typically the standard Randall’s stores, which were bigger, more upscale, more cutting-edge, and which had better customer service than Kroger’s stores of the 1980s, the ~45,000 sq. ft. food, pharmacy, and general merchandise ‘combination store’ Greenhouse Kroger stores. Kroger had Randall’s beat in pricing, but the pricing difference wasn’t big enough to harm Randall’s growth. Randall’s was the chain with momentum and Kroger wasn’t. To make matters worse for Kroger, Randall’s was primed for a second wave of construction of standard format Randall’s stores in the 1990s with their ‘New Generation’ stores. While Randall’s was already beating Kroger in wealthy urban and prime suburban areas, Randall’s was aiming their ‘New Generation’ stores at more blue-collar areas where Kroger was still dominant.
Kroger needed an answer. Typically, big chains like Kroger look to corporate headquarters for new directions, but for whatever reason, Kroger allowed their Southwest Division, and specifically the Houston part of the Southwest Division, to design their own answer to Randall’s dominating ways, the Kroger Signature format of 1993. In turn, the success of Houston’s Signature stores were eventually replicated in Dallas, but Dallas did not get the Signature format until 1998. By that point, Randall’s had bought out major Dallas grocery chain Tom Thumb. While Randall’s acquisition of Tom Thumb was hardly seamless, Kroger surely recognized the threat posed by Randall’s in the Dallas market. Other Kroger markets eventually got stores similar to the Houston Kroger Signature stores, but outside of Louisiana, whose Kroger stores are operated by the Dallas and Houston divisions, the Signature name was not used on what could be described as stores fitting the Signature format. The Fry’s division of Kroger in the western US does use the Signature name for upscale stores. While there might be some precedent for using the Signature name, the Fry’s Signature stores otherwise seem unrelated to the Houston Kroger Signatures.
Kroger went a number of years in the late 1980s and early 1990s where they did not open many stores in Houston. It was around this time that were serious questions about Kroger’s future here in Houston and there was serious talk about them leaving Houston and Dallas just like how they left San Antonio. That said, Kroger did build a Greenhouse store in 1987 in the Gulfton part of Houston, in the shadows of the infamous Colonial House Apartments, which was around 60,000 sq. ft. in size, like a 1990s Kroger, and which had a more modern interior than what one would normally expect from a Greenhouse Kroger. Kroger also experimented with a new format of stores in Dallas and Houston in the late 1980s called the ‘Power Alley Format’. As mentioned in this aforementioned HHR article about Gerland’s technology, the Houston Kroger power alley store opened in 1988 and was located in Sugar Land. We’ll have more about Kroger’s power alley stores in a future The Year of Kroger entry, so stay tuned for that, but the short summary of a power alley is that it is a design which puts the bakery and deli right at the front of the store near the produce department.
The 1988 Sugar Land Kroger was a preview of the Kroger Signature stores which debuted in 1993. The Sugar Land Kroger had an upscale Neon décor package and, in 1993, that décor package, as described here by Retail Retell of the Mid-South Retail Blog, was still upscale enough for the Signature stores. In addition to carrying over the Sugar Land’s store assortment of gourmet foods, the Kroger Signature format had other upscale features including a mall-like food court featuring Pizza Hut Express, KFC Express, Taco Bell Express, a Sara Lee Premium Sandwich Shoppe, and Emperor’s Garden Oriental Kitchen. A food court like this wouldn’t have been revolutionary to Houston shoppers as we already had such a thing at Auchan, but it certainly would have seemed revolutionary to shoppers outside of Houston! Kroger Signature format called for a 60,000 sq. ft. store. Perhaps to make the store feel more upscale and manageable to shoppers unfamiliar with store so large, Kroger gave the Signature stores a unique layout. Pseudo3D of Carbon-izer has some great Kroger Signature resources including a store map of a 2000 Kroger Signature store. The original 1993 Kroger Signature stores used a similar format, but one that is slightly different. We’ll have a bit more on that later on in this article and in a future The Year of Kroger post.
Other features Kroger Signature stores had were mostly things Randall’s had been doing such as having an expanded video rental department, a large pharmacy, a more prominent floral department, an in-store bank, and photo finishing services to rival drug store chains such Eckerd and Walgreens. Older Greenhouse Krogers may have had these features to some degree, but all of them were more limited and less fancy looking than what Randall’s had and so expanding these areas were all a point of emphasis with the Kroger Signature format. Another feature Kroger Signature stores had were sound effects in certain departments. For example, there were thunder noises in the produce department when the automatic sprayers turned on.
Perhaps one of the more memorable features of Kroger Signature stores was in-store daycare for children. Huggieland, as the day care centers were initially called as Kroger certainly had a partnership with Huggies diapers, allowed shoppers to drop their kids off at a supervised play center while their parents shopped in peace. Kroger Signature stores had TV monitors placed across the store with a camera feed from inside Huggieland so that parents could keep an eye on their kids to ensure they were safe. It should be noted that while Huggieland was an early feature of Kroger Signature stores, the Huggieland program didn’t start until 1996. That said, early Kroger Signature stores did gain Huggieland departments. Eventually, Huggieland was renamed into Hugslie Land when, presumably at least, Kroger’s marketing deal with Huggies ran out. The in-store daycares were quietly removed at most Kroger Signature stores in the 2000s, but The Woodlands still had Hugslie Land until at least 2020. It’s not clear to me if these daycares still exist in select locations such as The Woodlands after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Kroger Signature stores were a smashing success for Kroger. While Kroger Signature stores did see some small changes in their early years, customers enjoyed shopping at Signature stores and demanded that Kroger open Signature stores in their areas if they didn’t already have one nearby. Indeed, Kroger built many similar Signature stores across the Houston area in the 1990s and early 2000s. These stores, combined with Randall’s own internal struggles as they tried to expand outside of the Houston area, helped Kroger regain unquestioned status atop of the Houston market share charts around the turn of the Millennium. Kroger’s lead over Randall’s only grew after Randall’s was acquired by Safeway in 1999. New competitors such as Albertsons and Food Lion struggled to compete against Kroger’s Signature stores. Food Lion suffered a quick failure in Houston. Even though Albertsons entered Houston in 1995, two years after the debut of Kroger’s Signature stores, Albertsons’ early Blue & Grey Market décor stores, as described here by the Albertsons Florida Blog, looked like relics from the 1980s compared to Kroger’s more upscale stores. With Albertsons also having a perception of a pricing disadvantage compared to Kroger, a perception which only grew as time went on, Albertsons could not recover in Houston even when they tried more upscale store formats in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Thus, Albertsons left Houston in 2002. Interestingly enough, Kroger picked up a number of Albertsons’ Houston locations which survive today as Krogertsons.
HEB’s Pantry Foods stores did enjoy some popularity due to their low prices and small store sizes, but ultimately HEB knew that Pantry Foods stores weren’t going to cut it when the competition had such nice stores as the Kroger Signature stores. Thus, HEB started building full-line supermarkets right around the time that Kroger was building their last stores with the Signature format described in this post. Walmart and HEB have since passed Kroger in local market share, mainly due to pricing perceptions, but Kroger is still in close range of their two competitors and these Signature stores, which make up a large percentage of Kroger’s Houston stores, are still reasonably competitive even decades after their initial design.
The first Kroger Signature store is the Champion Forest & Cypresswood store, Kroger HO-307, located at 15802 Champion Forest Dr, Spring, TX 77379. While this store still exists, and it is still an upscale store, the store was heavily remodeled on the inside in 2017 after the store sustained severe damage during Hurricane Harvey. Thus, the interior of this store does not at all resemble how it looked when it opened in 1993. It should be noted that there is no doubt Kroger was targeting Randall’s when this store opened as there was another regular Randall’s 0.8 miles north from the Kroger on Champion Forest and a Randall’s Flagship store, the Champions Randall’s that is still around, 2.5 miles south of the Kroger on Champion Forest and FM 1960 W.
The subject featured in today’s post, the Cypress Station Kroger, Kroger HO-395, is the second Kroger Signature store. The Cypress Station Kroger is located at 360 FM 1960 W., Houston, TX 77090. It opened on September 29, 1993, and it initially co-anchored the new Cypress Pointe shopping center with Venture, which was then a new chain in town, and CompUSA. OfficeMax and others joined the shopping center in later years. I attended the grand opening of the CompUSA in 1993 and I also visited the Venture and Kroger several times in their early years. The Venture eventually turned into a Big Kmart in 1997. Next to the Kroger shopping center was another shopping center with, you guessed it, Randall’s as the main anchor. Here again, Kroger was so confident in their new Kroger Signature store that they directly took on Randall’s. Kroger won this fight decisively as the Randall’s relocated to the old Woolco/Fiesta Mart location at Kuykendahl and FM 1960 W in 1997, but that location had closed by 2000.
As I stated in the Veterans Memorial The Year of Kroger post, most of Kroger’s stores today are replacement stores for older Kroger locations. This is most certainly the case with the Cypress Station Kroger. The Kroger Signature store replaced Kroger HP-228, a Kroger Family Center location actually, that opened on July 30, 1978. This was located on the other side of I-45 at 148 FM 1960 E. Houston, TX 77090. The old Kroger Family Center stood where PetSmart and Chuck E. Cheese stand today, but the old Kroger building was replaced with a new building in around 1997. We’ll take a closer look at the Kroger Family Center format in a future The Year of Kroger post because the Kroger Family Centers were also revolutionary stores. Kroger Family Center was a format that combined a supermarket with a discount store. It was kind of like an early version of a supercenter. At the time the FM 1960 Kroger Family Center opened, Kroger claimed it was the largest supermarket in Houston.
The Cypress Station Kroger is one of the least changed early Kroger Signature stores in Houston even though it is the second oldest one. In fact, the majority of the flooring at this location is the same distinctive Kroger Neon décor era flooring that the store opened with in 1993! Flooring aside, the store does have Kroger’s common Bountiful, also known as 2012, décor package. The flooring in the produce department does indicate that this store probably also once wore Kroger’s Millennium décor package at one time. Some other changes this store has seen since 1993 is the layout. The store no longer has the mix of north-south and east-west aisles as all the aisles follow a traditional pattern now. Also, the national fast food brand food court has long since been discontinued and removed.
One oddity about this 1993 Kroger Signature store is that it does not follow the power alley concept. The bakery and deli are located on the opposite side of the main entrance and produce department. This is actually a design similar to 1980s Kroger Greenhouse stores such as the Veterans Memorial Kroger. It is unclear why Kroger moved away from the aforementioned 1988 Sugar Land power alley concept with these early Kroger Signature stores because, by 1994, Kroger was using the power alley concept at Signature stores. We’ll have more on that subject in a future The Year of Kroger post.
While Cypress Station represented a higher-end suburban area in 1993 located on FM 1960 W. between the Greenspoint area and the prestigious Spring and The Woodlands areas, the area has seen some changes over the last 30 years. There are still some higher-end neighborhoods very close to the Kroger, but in typical Houston area fashion, higher-end neighborhoods sit in close vicinity to low-income housing and apartments. Perhaps in part due to these complex demographics which make it hard for a grocer to appeal to a single demographic, the Kroger does not have much competition nearby in modern times. There is a Food Town, which used to be a Gerland’s Food Fair, nearby at FM 1960 W. & Ella. HEB has a Joe V’s Smart Shop at FM 1960 E & Aldine Westfield, but this store is located quite far from a fair number of the Kroger’s shoppers. Neither of these two competitors, which are both discount supermarkets, offer as upscale of a shopping experience as the Kroger even if the Kroger isn’t quite up to the standards they set 30 years ago when this Signature store was new.
As mentioned earlier, we’re going to have more about Kroger Signature stores in future The Year of Kroger posts here at HHR. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts or memories about the stores mentioned in this blog post, please feel free to leave a comment using the comments section below. We love to hear from our readers!
Once again I’m late to the party, but thanks for the shout-outs/links, and great post! The Signature concept is very interesting me because in some of the coverage of it I’ve seen online, it looks and sounds very unique, with things such as special amenities, aisle orientation, and especially the food court. But then, in other coverage, it doesn’t look too awful different from so-called “regular” Krogers that I’ve seen before! Case in point, the location featured here seems just like a normal neon-build store like the several I’ve been in myself. I’m guessing that the Signature concept is what influenced this store build in the rest of the country, and if so, I wonder why the name wasn’t carried along with the format. In any case, it’s fun to read about the origins of the Signature concept, and to get to see the photos of this store. I’m glad to see the floor tile remain, although that is odd about the department signs being nameless! And finally — I’ve seen neon stores with the bakery/deli in the grand aisle, as well as neon stores with the same departments in the front corner opposite the entrance. Certainly odd, and I don’t know what to think about how that decision was made!
I suppose HHR’s readers should get used to seeing links to your Bountiful decor guide because the next handful of The Year of Kroger posts will be Bountiful stores. For better or for worse, Bountiful is still bountiful here in Houston, lol. There will be an interesting application of Banner/Marketplace in a The Year of Kroger post as we approach the summer so that is something for those who are bored with Bountiful to keep an eye on as we progress with this series!
It is really hard to explain why Signature stores only became a Houston and Dallas division thing. Even then, Dallas didn’t get Signature stores until five years after Houston did. It is possible that Kroger intended to build/extensively remodel several stores in Houston in 1993 in preparation to defend their market share from Randall’s New Generation stores and from the Albertsons stores that eventually opened in 1995. HEB Pantry Foods and Food Lion also came to Houston in 1992 so I’m sure Kroger was wanting to limit their potential by opening bold new stores. It is possible that in the rest of the country, Kroger wasn’t so eager to commit to building so many new stores. Rather, perhaps the intended to keep their core of older stores with some new stores mixed in where it made sense.
Since Houston perhaps was going to have a core of new, fancy stores, perhaps Kroger decided to give these stores a special designation. OTOH, in other markets, perhaps Kroger didn’t want to make the customers of their older stores to feel they were forced to shop at inferior stores and so Kroger didn’t want to make some of their stores feel more special than others. It’s hard to say, that’s just a guess. The Kroger Signature marketing campaign was very big here in Houston in the 1990s and many people demanded that their area get a Signature store.
Part of the Signature name was surely inspired by Randall’s Flagship stores. While I’m convinced Kroger was targeting regular Randall’s stores rather than the fancy, upscale Flagship stores, Houstonians were already trained to believe that an upscale banner meant something was special and desirable about a store. Also, if Kroger’s new 1990s Neon stores were inspired by Houston’s Kroger Signature stores, it is then fair to say that many of the country’s supermarkets were also inspired by Randall’s Houston stores since Kroger stole quite a bit from Randall’s 1980s stores.
I really can’t explain why the Cypress Station Kroger Signature store does not have a power alley since Kroger was already experimenting with that design, but next month’s The Year of Kroger store will visit an early Signature store which does have a power alley. With that, we’ll have the bulk of Kroger’s 1990s neon design stores covered, lol.
Interesting coverage of Kroger’s attempt to ward off competition in the Houston area. The layout of this location really does remind me of an old Greenhouse so I would be curious to know if produce was relocated to the front right corner. I’ve never seen those “low ceiling” aisle markers before so that is another strange twist to this store, especially considering chains like Publix were migrating away from low ceilings in all of their stores at this time. I’m also curious as to why Kroger removed all of the service department signs. In the Atlanta division, Kroger just leaves the signs up long after letters have begun to fall off which adds to the overall apathetic feel of the chain.
As far as the day old bread goes, Kroger Atlanta stores also have a rack dedicated to this which is typically located near the bakery. Krogers also usually have a great clearance section. Your photo of the deli makes me wonder: are the Houston Division delis as understaffed as the Atlanta Division ones? There is one Kroger that I have been to several times at varying hours throughout the day and not once seen it open. In the stores that do have a “staffed” deli, it usually takes way more effort than it should to find and get the attention of the (singular) employee.
I’m glad you liked the post! Here in Houston at least, the concept of using a low ceiling around the perimeter of the store and then a high ceiling around the center of the store was trendy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I think this was because Randall’s, the trendsetter in Houston at the time, was using such a design in their late 1980s-built stores. I don’t know the exact reason why Randall’s chose such a design, but I suspect it gave the stores a more artistic look and it also gave areas such as the deli dining area a more cozy feel while leaving the center grocery aisles feeling airy. Like with a lot of things, Kroger probably copied Randall’s with their Signature stores, but one thing Kroger didn’t steal here at the two 1993 Signature stores was Randall’s power alley layout even though Kroger had experimented with that layout before. We’ll see an early Kroger Signature store with a power alley design, which ended up becoming the norm, in next month’s The Year of Kroger post so stay tuned for that.
This store does have an odd hybrid design between the typical 1990s Kroger design and a Greenhouse store. It is still a mystery why Kroger shied away from the power alley concept here, but I can only assume that the presence of the national brand fast food court probably had something to do with it. Of course, the Kroger Signature store we’ll see next month also had a similar food court and the power alley so, well, go figure!
It’s not common here for Kroger stores to be in such disrepair for the letters to come off the department signs. I have seen it a couple of times and it’s usually with Bountiful’s ‘The Freezer’ frozen food letters which are affixed directly to the wall rather than using the Bountiful baskets. I think Kroger does a decent job maintaining their properties in Houston. This probably isn’t always easy as some of their stores are quite old, which you’ll get a better sense of in April, May, and June with The Year of Kroger, but Kroger also does very cheap and tacky looking renovations. Remix and Artisan would be two recent examples of this, but I’m not as anti-Remix as some other Kroger bloggers, lol. Also, Kroger is prone to exposing some terrible looking concrete floors here in Houston as they probably are in Atlanta as well.
As for why Kroger removed all the Bountiful baskets at the Cypress Station store, well, I really don’t know! The only two guesses I have is A) one of them became damaged so Kroger removed all of them to keep things consistent or B) this store is slowly moving towards being Remixed. That said, I have no reason to believe option B is happening.
It’s hard for me to say about the Kroger delis specifically because I don’t shop at them often. Kroger and HEB are the Boar’s Head stores in Houston and Randall’s is the Dietz & Watson store. I’m not sure what things are like in Atlanta, but I know Publix and Boar’s Head are pretty close. I would guess Kroger in Atlanta also sells Boar’s Head. As far as the hot deli goes, I never see people buying Kroger’s fried chicken. Randall’s is a much smaller player in Houston than Kroger these days, but Randall’s ‘Cheep Chicken’ seems much more popular than Kroger’s chicken.
Anyway, the deli counters are supposed to be manned, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they aren’t. Understaffing is a big problem with Kroger stores here in Houston and I’ve heard that is pretty much a national problem at Kroger stores. In fact, the Houston Kroger union was recently passing out fliers to customers pointing out that Kroger was understaffing stores and that customers were surely noticing that and the union was also pointing out that Kroger was making customers do the work of checking themselves out due to the understaffing. Perhaps the pressure from the unions might be working because during my last trip to Kroger, they actually had 3 manned registers open at a Greenhouse Remixed store I went to (well, it doesn’t have a Greenhouse anymore, but the interior is still a Greenhouse design). I hadn’t seen 3 manned registers open at a non-Marketplace Kroger is several months…probably before the pandemic. Was that a fluke or a sign that Kroger is finally getting the message that understaffing won’t be tolerated by customers? We’ll see, I’ll keep an eye on it. Perhaps ask me this same question in future The Year of Kroger posts and I’ll give a progress report on matters, lol.