Companies & Industries

As Piggly Wiggly Gets Carved Up, Customers Cry


As Piggly Wiggly Gets Carved Up, Customers Cry

Courtesy Fresh Brands, Inc.

Piggly Wiggly Carolina, a family-owned grocery chain based in Charleston, S.C., recently announced a deal (PDF) to sell about half of its stores to bigger rivals Harris Teeter (HTSI) and Bi-Lo Holding. As one might expect for an employee-owned company with the tag-line “Local Since Forever,” the reaction was sizable and swift.

The Moultrie News, a weekly newspaper just outside of Charleston, ran an elegy for the grocery store titled, “Saying goodbye to Piggly Wiggly is hard to do.” “I know it’s ‘just’ a grocery store, but that’s like saying Shem Creek is ‘just’ a creek,” wrote Will Haynie. He went on:

Piggly Wiggly grocery stores have been part of the familiar landscape and part of the culture of how we eat, meet and live. When you walk into a local Piggly Wiggly, it has a distinctive Lowcountry aura that other stores just don’t quite have.

Twitter user @robinshuler confessed to “hugging and crying with all the cashiers” when she heard the news. Jeff Bezos is a brilliant guy, but it’s hard to imagine Amazon.com (AMZN) inciting such a reaction, no matter of how efficiently it delivers groceries.

Piggly Wiggly stores aren’t the biggest grocery stores in the country or even the cheapest, but they cultivated a following by being unabashedly, intentionally local. For those living near the coast of South Carolina and Georgia—the so-called “Lowcountry”—Piggly Wiggly was one of the only places to consistently find such regional favorites as Duke’s mayonnaise, “dirty-rice,” smooth grits, and smoky neck bones.

The name helped, too. It isn’t a grocery chain, or even a store; it’s simply “The Pig”—a brand the company fattened up with a pile of branded souvenirs in every store. This week, customers are rushing to snap up beer koozies, t-shirts, Frisbees and other swag plastered with the company’s porcine logo.

Maybe it was only a matter of time, given the rapid pace at which grocery stores are gobbling each other up in the Southeast. Bi-Lo, the Florida-based chain that is buying some 22 of the Piggly Wiggly stores, recently bought the Winn-Dixie chain and 165 stores from Delhaize (DEG). Harris Teeter, a North Carolina-based company buying six Piggly Wiggly locations, is in the process of being acquired by Kroger (KR), an Ohio-based giant. Piggly Wiggly will still continue to operate about 30 stores and serve dozens of others via a franchise agreement.

Piggly Wiggly spokesman Christopher Ibsen described the deal as “bittersweet.” He told The Post and Courier in Charleston that “the environment that has heated up dramatically in the past six months in the grocery industry with mergers and acquisitions created an opportunity for us.”

Duke’s mayonnaise can be found at Amazon.com.

Kyle-stock-190
Stock is an associate editor for Businessweek.com. Twitter: @kylestock

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