Keep Giant stores, crowd at rally urges Protesters fear owner may unload them in FTC antitrust action

July 24, 1998|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

More than 100 people gathered in a Westminster parking lot yesterday morning to oppose a possible closing of a Giant Food Inc. grocery store there and one in Eldersburg as part of an antitrust action.

Many carried red-lettered placards, saying, "We can speak Dutch. Keep Giant in Carroll County!!!"

The signs were referring to Royal Ahold NV, a Netherlands grocer that owns several U.S. supermarket chains. Royal Ahold might be forced to sell Giant supermarkets in Carroll and Frederick counties to win Federal Trade Commission approval of its proposed $2.7 billion cash purchase of Giant Food Inc. of Landover.

The FTC is concerned because Royal Ahold owns Martin's Food Markets. The commission believes that Royal Ahold could have a monopoly in Carroll and Frederick counties unless the Giant supermarkets are sold to another grocery chain.

The Martin's stores in Eldersburg and Westminster are about a half-mile from the Giant supermarkets in those communities.

The FTC doesn't look to close stores when reviewing "anti-competitive effects," but it could require that some of the stores be sold to competitors, said Victoria A. Streitfeld, FTC public affairs director.

The idea is to protect consumers by ensuring that prices don't increase and quality doesn't decline.

But those attending yesterday morning's rally outside the Westminster Giant weren't buying that argument.

They don't want another grocery chain to take over the Westminster store. They want it to remain a Giant. They called the Westminster Giant unique, and praised it for its warmth, friendliness, selection of products and community atmosphere.

And they cheered it.

"No rally would be complete without a cheer," said a man who moved to the center of the crowd near the end of the half-hour rally. He then led the crowd in a staccato cheer, spelling out the name of the supermarket, shouting each letter four times in unison:

"G,G,G,G,I,I,I,I Giant! Giant! Giant! Giant! Yea!"

A woman customer came forward and told the crowd, "This is not a monopoly. Giant is as different from Martin's as Bloomingdale's is from Dollar Store. We really need to keep this store open. It's one of a kind."

Another woman, who identified herself as "a mother of two," told the crowd she had "grown up with Giant Food." She said she did not know of any other store with similar quality, much less one that provides a double shopping cart for her and her two children as Giant does.

Earlier, Anita Riley, secretary-treasurer of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 27 which represents 6,300 Giant employees, addressed the crowd of Giant employees, customers and children.

"Our union stands firm with this community to protect good, family-sustaining jobs here at this store," she said.

The union has "a strong contract with Giant and if they sell any store, that [new] store must honor the contract," she said.

County Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown recalled his part in helping bring Giant to Westminster in 1990 when he was mayor of the city.

"I recall very early that Giant was to be a major tenant" in the shopping center, and "how that was a plus for Carroll County, not just Westminster," he said.

Brown, who came up with the idea for the "We can speak Dutch" signs last week and asked a neighboring tenant in the shopping center to pay for them, described Giant as "a cut above the rest" in terms of quality, selection and service.

"That's why I feel so betrayed in a way" that the store might be sold, he said.

Brown said he is concerned for the store's 260 employees and the effect that the sale of the store might have on them.

Those employees contribute "gainfully to the community," he said. Other supermarkets are nonunion, and the salaries paid employees would not be comparable to those paid by Giant, he said.

Like many of Giant's customers, Brown does not see ownership of Giant and a nearby Martin's as a monopoly situation. "Martin's markets itself for an entirely different clientele," he said.

"I hope the FTC will come to the same conclusion and allow both to remain."

Barry F. Scher, Giant's vice president for public affairs, said after yesterday's rally that the FTC is reviewing the proposed acquisition.

Giant does not have a firm list of stores "that may -- the operative word is 'may' -- be up for divestiture," he said.

"No matter what, the [Westminster] store will not close" as a grocery store, Scher said. "It could not be closed and used for another retail purpose." If the Giant were closed, "it would reopen as a supermarket under another name," he said.

Scher, who observed yesterday's rally, said Giant is "very pleased with the public response" to the threatened divestiture and is "impressed as well with the support from our staff."

Pub Date: 7/24/98

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