Deal might require sale of Giant stores Antitrust concerns don't sway consumers

July 14, 1998|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

Westminster and Eldersburg shoppers are still saying, "That's my Giant," but with a note of apprehension.

Shoppers, store employees and Western Maryland Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett fear the Giant Food Inc. supermarkets in the communities will soon be sold with three others in Frederick County as part of an antitrust procedure.

Shoppers and employees at the two Carroll stores appear caught in the middle of a $2.7 billion cash deal in which Landover-based Giant Food Inc. is being sold to Royal Ahold NV, a Netherlands grocer that owns several U.S. supermarket chains, including Martin's Food Markets.

The Eldersburg Martin's and the Westminster Martin's are about a half-mile from the Giant supermarkets in their communities -- too close to satisfy the Federal Trade Commission, which must approve the purchase.

FTC officials would not address the issue directly yesterday, but public affairs director Victoria A. Streitfeld said the commission typically looks at the "anti-competitive effects" that such a large sale might have.

"We don't look to close stores," she said. "We look at two things -- prices and quality."

The commission's goal is to protect consumers by ensuring prices don't go up and quality doesn't go down, she said.

The Carroll and Frederick Giants that compete with Martin's probably would have to be sold to a competitor before the FTC would approve the deal.

It is not a strategy Giant shoppers find appealing.

"It's crazy," said Eddie Bracken of Westminster. "There's no monopoly here. There's a Weis and a co-op [supermarket] within a mile."

The Westminster Giant on Route 140 "has some of the best products in the city," he said. "I don't want them to take my Giant away. They can't take it away from me. Take it from Baltimore."

Sykesville resident Mary Chairs expressed similar views.

"I don't understand why there was not better insight and planning when they put up such a big store here that's been open such a short while," she said, referring to the store near Routes 32 and 26 in Eldersburg.

The store's closing would mean "traveling some place else" to find another Giant, she said. She has begun to notice "a depressing atmosphere" in an otherwise bright and elegant supermarket, she said.

"It's not as vibrant as it once was," she said.

Eldersburg resident Pam Jacobs called the proposed move "really disappointing." The Eldersburg store is "clean, they have what you want, and the people are helpful and friendly," she said. "I'm really going to miss it."

Nothing in either store yesterday indicated they could be sold soon, save for two small, inconspicuous piles of letters at the customer service counter in the Eldersburg store.

One was a copy of a letter from Bartlett, a Republican who lives outside Frederick, to FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky.

"In the process of analyzing any merger -- especially this one -- I would hope that the FTC, as well as the corporations involved, would place the highest priority upon the economic impact such a move would have upon the Giant work force and the consumers who depend so greatly upon the stores currently at risk," Bartlett said. "Surely it is not the intent of the FTC or any rule the Commission enforces, to deny the public access to food stores which have become the cornerstone of growing communities in western Maryland."

Bartlett aide Phil Straw said the congressman has not received reply to his letter, but is trying to get the FTC to brief him "as soon as possible on the status of the merger as it relates to consumer access, the preservation and protection of jobs and free enterprise competition."

The people airing Bartlett's letter at the Eldersburg Giant want more than a status report. They have attached a hand-written flier to the letter, urging shoppers to "please e-mail or call your governor, senator or congressman" and ask for their help to keep the stores open. "The more people the bigger impact we will get," the flier says.

The second item available for shoppers at the Eldersburg Giant is a searing form letter to Pitofsky that can be individually signed by "concerned citizens."

"This is not the first time Royal Ahold has disrupted economic stability for other hard-working families in the United States," the letter says. "If the buyout of Giant Food Inc. by Royal Ahold cannot occur without divesting the stores, please consider not allowing the merging to occur if [it] means sacrificing American jobs."

Pub Date: 7/14/98

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