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Tuesday, October 20, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Attention Shoppers: We've Been Sold - Again -- As Grocery Giants Take Over, Customers Fret About Choice

Seattle Times Business Reporters

Paper or plastic?

That may be the only choice left to shoppers - or so many fear - if the supermarket chains continue their frenzied round of mergers.

"It's getting hard to keep them straight," said Sandy Land, who headed into the Benson Plaza Fred Meyer in Renton yesterday with her 2 1/2-year-old son, Stefen.

Portland-based Fred Meyer announced yesterday that it will be acquired for $8 billion by the nation's largest grocery company, Kroger, a 1,400-store chain that operates mainly in the Midwest and Southeast.

That news comes just eight months after Fred Meyer bought the smaller, Seattle-based QFC.

And in July it was QFC that was the "giant" when it bought independent neighborhood favorite Art's Food Center on Crown Hill.

In all three cases, the acquiring company has pledged to keep things the same at the stores it has bought: the products, the prices, the signs outside. But so much consolidation has left some shoppers wondering whether their favorite stores will stay their favorites for long.

"It affects us all," said Alfreda Golidy. Her favorite store, M.L. King Way Market, was taken over by Associated Grocers, a cooperative of independent grocers, earlier this month when the previous owners fell behind on their debts.

"This was the only African-American grocery store in the state, as I understand," Golidy said. "I'll have to wait and see with the new ownership."

The consolidation trend is viewed skeptically by many shoppers.

"I am against fat business. Then the prices go up, and we have no choice about it," shopper Ursula Cox said yesterday, after hearing that her regular store for 20 years, Fred Meyer, is being snapped up.

Some consumers will debate their choice of supermarkets with the passion usually reserved for arguments over politics or baseball. What keeps a store's followers so loyal?

For Golidy, it's the catfish. And good prices on produce.

For Land at Fred Meyer, it's the soy milk, along with the rest of the store's health-food department. And good prices.

And for QFC shopper Shelley Butler, it's the fresh produce and quality meat that draw her in - despite the store's higher-than-average prices.

Another QFC shopper, Michelle Barnett, said she's noticed a change in QFC since it was bought by Fred Meyer.

"When QFC was a local store, they knew what Seattle customers wanted," Barnett said. "Now the shelves seem to be empty and some of the things they used to have aren't there anymore."

QFC executives maintain the chain's emphasis on quality goods and customer service hasn't changed.

Barnett and her husband, Glen, prefer shopping at the Puget Consumers Co-op Natural Market in Green Lake. They like the organic foods, bulk foods and greeting cards printed on recycled paper. But because they live in Maple Leaf, they do most of their shopping at the Northgate QFC.

Many shoppers say they're flexible enough to alternate between two, sometimes even three, stores depending on what they need.

"When I have to do a lot of shopping, I go to Albertson's or Chinatown where things are cheaper," said Lien Le, who was shopping yesterday at Larry's Market on Aurora Avenue, closer to home.

Le said Larry's is clean and the staff friendly. But those factors matter little when it's time to stock up.

Mae Tse, who travels from Renton to Seattle's Chinatown International District weekly to shop at Uwajimaya, said the store's selection of Asian foods and fresh fish make the trip worthwhile. When she isn't searching for specialty foods, though, she can settle for any of the chains in her neighborhood: QFC, Albertson's or Safeway.

"I just go by the ads and coupons," she said. "Whichever is cheaper."

Flexibility only goes so far, though.

Many shoppers said that, even if they shop at more than one store, they return to their regular spots because those places feel familiar.

Florence Washington, has shopped at Albertson's in Bothell for "20-something years" and likes knowing where everything is located.

She said she'd stick with her store even after an acquisition. But to any prospective corporate suitor, she added a straightforward warning:

"Just get the products that I like and keep the store stocked."

Michele Matassa Flores' phone message number is 206-464-8343. Her e-mail address is: mmflores@seattletimes.com

Joe Heim's phone message number is 206-464-3328. His e-mail address is: jheim@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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