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Shoppers win with more grocery competition

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Weston Davis/Texas Tech Public Media
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Marissa Malakian said her refrigerator is the fullest it’s ever been. The Lubbock mom has cut coupons for years and has a blog called The Darling Dime.

“I enjoy going shopping,” Melakian said. “It’s kind of like a treasure hunt for me, when I’m looking for these little free items.” 

After combining a discount, a coupon and a rebate, Melakian recently made money when she bought a tub of whipped cream. She’s looking for recipes with avocados right now. Melakian found such a good deal, she stocked up and froze some.

“You get a bag of seven avocados for 97 cents. Yes, please,” she said with a laugh. “The biggest way to save money is to stock up, stock up, stock up when stuff is super cheap.” 

The couponer plans her family’s meals based on weekly sales, then adds on coupons and other money savers. In Lubbock, she says that hasn’t always been so easy.

“We don’t have, like, the Kroeger, the Rite Aid,” Melakian said. “A lot of the big brand chains that have been known for their amazing coupon deals.” 

But since H-E-B opened its first store in Lubbock back in October, and hometown brand United Supermarkets promoted discounts to compete, Melakian said she has spent less money on groceries. Other customers should benefit, too.

“Even if you put the price issue aside, the fact that there’s more choices, more ways of presenting your store, slightly different assortment or selection of products,” said Michael Noel, an economics professor at Texas Tech University. “All of these things are beneficial to consumers.”

Noel said there is plenty of grocery store competition in Lubbock. There are big-box stores, membership clubs like Sam’s and Costco. A few specialty stores and smaller markets. But on the South Plains, one company stands out. 

“It’s not unusual for a supermarket to have a very strong regional presence,” Noel said. “And in the Lubbock area we have United Supermarkets, which has a number of different brands.” 

The United Family stores have served the Lubbock area for over 100 years. The stores were acquired by Albertson’s in 2013, but operate as an independent unit. They have 11 stores in Lubbock, with another in development. It’ll be about a mile away from the new H-E-B.

H-E-B, another Texas brand, was rumored to come to Lubbock for decades. They officially announced a store in the southern part of town last year, at a site the grocer owned since 2013. The company owns other land in town. H-E-B declined an interview request for this story.

“For those consumers who are looking for what we’ll call a smaller, more neighborhood experience, there will be one extra choice,” Noel said about the brand addition to the market.

It may be new for Lubbock, but the two brands already operate in some of the same communities. For example, Abilene and Midland.

Sidney Hopper, president of The United Family, said as Lubbock’s population steadily grows, it makes sense for more companies to eye the city.

“Obviously for us, Lubbock is home,” Hopper said. “But if Lubbock wasn’t our home and we weren’t here, I guarantee you we’d be looking at the Lubbock market.”

Hopper said his stores will continue to competitively price products and offer new merchandise, but also focus on the customer experience. 

“Our model has never been to be the low-price leader in the market,” Hopper said. “But what I feel like we’ve done a very good job of is making sure that we do have value.”

Which is exactly what customers like Melakian want.

“I think it’s those three things,” the couponer said. “The better pricing, the better customer service and actually being able to buy the products in-store.” 

Even after the new of H-E-B wears off, Noel said customers will benefit from competing prices, especially when it comes to home staple items.

“Knowing that it’s there is not going to keep your consumers over time,” Noel said. You have to know they’re there and you have to continue to provide good service, a good selection and good prices. So the long-term outlook for consumers is positive.”

Disclosure: The United Family and H-E-B have been financial supporters of Texas Tech Public Media, a nonprofit media organization that is funded in part by donations from members and corporate sponsors.

Have a news tip? Email Sarah Self-Walbrick at saselfwa@ttu.edu. Follow her reporting on Twitter @SarahFromTTUPM.

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