SOCIAL SUSTAINABILITY Kroger Empowers and Enables Employees to Engage with Their Communities

Taking it to the Store…

Where Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Visiting Kroger’s Cincinnati, OH, headquarters, one might expect this mammoth supermarket conglomerate to brandish an attention-wielding flagship store with an engraved plaque indicating it is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified store. But that wouldn’t fit in the spirit of Kroger’s philosophy to sustainable development. The firm actually takes a decidedly unpretentious approach, coming at sustainability from the social side, a community-centric, charity-rich platform at the core.
It’s not that Kroger rejects LEED attributes —many of its stores incorporate sophisticated initiatives that exceed the LEED checklist. In fact, Kroger has many multifaceted, yet targeted strategies to reduce energy and carbon footprint, slash waste, and switch to eco-friendly products, explains Carl Bosse, expense, sanitation and sustainability manager for Kroger’s retail operations. He, along with Keith Oliver, vice president of facility engineering, and Denis George, energy manager, were on the scene during a trip to Kroger’s Harper’s Point and Loveland stores in the suburbs of Cincinnati to highlight accomplishments and share innovative on-going research to increase efficiencies.

Kroger’s engineering, logistical and technology-savvy feats underlie a broader sustainability policy and guiding principle intimately tied to the communities it serves.

“This year, we are elevating the engagement of our division, embracing our customers and associates,”says Terry Coughlin, store manager of the Harper’s Point store, in Montgomery, OH.

“Two years ago, Kroger razed and rebuilt the Harper’s Point location, doubling square footage to 106,000-square-feet, the largest conventional store we have in the enterprise,” he says. Employees mirror the multi-ethnic and religious makeup of the community.“They speak the languages and live the cultures, helping me to better understand our customers,” says Coughlin, noting a vibrant Jewish community and pointing out that one of the largest Catholic churches graces the neighborhood. “We also have a sizable population of Asians and Middle Eastern customers as well as a pocket of Russian immigrants. We have a pulse on the community.”

That pulse can be felt shaking up a robust produce department, where customized product selection, promotions and merchandising tap into community needs. “We’re on an ‘Extreme Pro-gram.’ Whatever items are available, we’ll order,” says Coughlin, adding,“The focus is perishables, a trend we’re going to see escalate.”

“Based on customer feedback, we didn’t carry enough organic,” he explains of the dramatically re-merchandised produce department, where dominant organic displays welcome shoppers.

First To React

While Kroger runs a strong centralized procurement operation, it prides itself on creating an infrastructure that allows flexibility at the store level to capitalize on local buying opportunities to support grower communities while connecting to customers.“We do as much local produce and floral as we can. I’m friends with Danny Grant of Grant Farm and Greenhouse, located 15 minutes away from here [in Williamsburg, OH]. He can get ears of corn freshly picked at 8am and delivered to the store by 2pm that day,”says Coughlin, adding, “We’re not taking corn from the backyard; he’s a professional farmer and the quality is out-standing. Local product is encouraged and endorsed from our merchandising team, and food safety is paramount,” he emphasizes. “Our customers want home-grown, and there is nothing fresher than that.”

Environmentally Friendly

While the store’s diverse product selection and employee enthusiasm invite community engagement, the physical plant itself is a work in progress to achieve sustainable benchmarks.“[Ample] use of skylights have become a huge deal for us,” says Oliver. “Our lights will sync on and off depending on how sunny it is outside,” adds George, noting, “On a nice day, we don’t even need them.”

The Loveland store added solar panels last year. While highly efficient, George explains, they only account for three percent of the total energy usage. Solar will remain a niche investment based on numerous factors, including federal and state incentives. “Will we put solar in every store some day? Probably not,” he says.

Other sustainability initiatives are sure bets. Kroger is transitioning to LED lighting across store banners for significant energy savings. “When converting tracks to LED, we have to be careful we get it right for merchandising,” says George. LED spotlights well positioned in the produce department can put the emphasis where needed, according to Jason Hensley, produce manager of the Loveland store, located in Miami Township. Other energy savers include motion sensors and automated systems for turning lights on and off, and re-engineered refrigeration.
Kroger’s nationwide composting initiative translates differently on a store-by-store basis. “Out of 190 stores in our division, 34 are now composting,” says Bosse. Extrapolating the impact, the plan is to increase participation to 75 percent of stores. If product can’t be sold, Kroger’s first priority is donating food when possible through the Perishable Donations Partnership (PDP), Bosse continues, and then to recycling non-food products and composting. “Our goal is to help our communities and send as little product to landfills as we can,” says Bosse.