CHICAGO (CBS/AP) -- Two grocery giants announced Friday morning they will become one. Kroger – which owns the Mariano's chain – and Albertson's – which owns Jewel – have agreed to a merger.
Under the terms of the deal unanimously approved by each company's board of directors, Cincinnati-based Kroger will acquire Boise-based Albertson's for approximately $24.6 billion, and will assume approximately $4.7 billion in Albertson's debt.
Combined, the two companies operate nearly 5,000 stores, 66 distribution centers, 52 manufacturing plants, nearly 4,000 pharmacies, and more than 2,000 fuel centers in 48 states and Washington, D.C., with more than 710,000 total employees.
"We are bringing together two purpose-driven organizations to deliver superior value to customers, associates, communities and shareholders," said Kroger chairman and CEO Rodney McMullen, who will continue as chair and CEO of the combined company.
The deal will likely get heavy scrutiny from U.S. antitrust regulators, especially at a time of high food price inflation. If approved, the deal is expected to close in early 2024.
Together, the stores would control around 13% of the U.S. grocery market, assuming the sale or closure of around 400 stores for antitrust reasons, according to J.P. Morgan analyst Ken Goldman.
Still, that is a distant second to Walmart's 22% share. Amazon, which bought Whole Foods in 2017, is also a growing player in the space, with 3% share. Warehouse store Costco controls 6%.
Value chains like Aldi and Dollar General, which have a combined 4% market share, have also been squeezing traditional grocers like Kroger and Albertsons, particularly as red-hot inflation pushes people to cut costs.
Goldman said a stronger combined company could possibly help tame food price inflation, since it would have more power to reject food producers' price increases.
Kroger said would reinvest approximately $500 million into price reductions, and spend $1.3 billion updating Albertsons stores and $1 billion on higher employee wages and improved benefits.
Kroger also said the combined stores would provide greater access to fresh food. Together, the stores operate in 48 states and the District of Columbia.
But critics questioned a merger at a time of high food price inflation. Food prices rose 13% in September compared with last year, according to U.S. data released Thursday.
"A Kroger-Albertsons deal would squeeze consumers already struggling to afford food, crush workers fighting for fair wages and destroy independent, community stores," said Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, a nonprofit that supports stronger corporate accountability and antitrust measures.
It was no secret that Albertsons was thinking about selling the company. The chain announced in February that its board was reviewing options to enhance shareholder value, including developing new businesses or a sale.
And both Albertsons and Kroger themselves have grown into huge operations partially through acquisitions.
Albertsons was bought by a consortium of investors including Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm, in 2006. Cerberus helped finance Albertsons' 2015 purchase of the Safeway grocery chain and attempted a failed merger with Rite Aid in 2018. Albertsons became a publicly traded company in 2020.
Cerberus currently holds nearly 30% of Albertsons shares. The merger deal includes a $4 billion dividend to Albertsons shareholders.
In 2015 alone, Kroger purchased four chains: Roundy's, Pick 'N Save, Metro Markets and Mariano's. It bought the meal kit company Home Chef in 2018.
Kroger has long outperformed Albertsons in key areas, including the development of store brands and advanced technology, said Neil Saunders, managing director of Global Retail Data, a market research company. Last year, for example, Kroger opened the first of 20 planned warehouses where robots help fulfill delivery orders.
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