In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic years, Laura Karet sounds fully confident about the prospects for Giant Eagle today.
“We have big aspirations to grow,” said Karet, who spoke Tuesday before a sold-out audience at a VisionPittsburgh luncheon at the Duquesne Club downtown.
Amid an ever-crowding competitive climate in which everyone from Aldi to Amazon.com Inc. is selling groceries, Karet spoke as the CEO and chairwoman of a retailer that has grown to more than 470 stores and annual revenue of $11.1 billion for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2022.
In a fireside chat led by Pittsburgh Business Times Publisher Evan Rosenberg, Karet talked about Giant Eagle’s origins. The company was started by five families during the Great Depression and its ownership continues on today in a retail industry often dominated by publicly traded national chains.
Karet’s story of Giant Eagle’s ongoing growth and expansion came in two distinct parts, the first fueled by petroleum sales and the company’s decision to diversify its store types, the second by the pandemic.
“Twenty-five years ago, we realized customers were starting to change their shopping habits,” she said.
She recalled how about 20 years ago Kroger, the Cincinnati-based grocery chain that doesn’t operate in the region, started putting gas pumps in their parking lots and how quickly Giant Eagle decided to do so as well.
The result soon led to the launch of the company’s GetGo convenience store chain.
Karet recalled how quickly establishing gas pumps at Giant Eagle stores as well as for the new GetGo locations resulted in major boosts in sales for everything else.
“We started buying gas pumps as fast as we could,” she said.
She added GetGo is now differentiated by its approach to food, noting there are now more GetGo locations than there are traditional Giant Eagle stores for what’s become a major growth vehicle for the company.
Giant Eagle also was able to benefit from the major societal disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, a global health crisis in which the grocery chain operated as one of the few places people were allowed to shop amid the wave of government-required shutdowns.
“When Covid happened, our business grew enormously overnight,” she said, adding Giant Eagle quickly worked to roll out an online delivery service that had been in the works.
That was as much of a challenge as an opportunity.
With GetGo expanding and the company also rolling out more and more Market District-branded stores, including in smaller formats, Karet sounded as though Giant Eagle has carved out a sustainable niche and territory for itself.
That’s despite sometimes jarring industry consolidation.
“When Amazon bought Whole Foods, it was like a bomb went off in the industry,” she said at one point.
Yet Karet doesn’t expect any changes to the competitive landscape to come any time soon from the proposed merger between Kroger and Albertsons. Roughly handicapping it as a 50/50 proposition to go forward, Karet expects such a merger to take years to fully pull off and integrate.
“We’re pretty big but really small compared to them,” she said of the two chain grocers.
She sees lots of opportunity for Giant Eagle to grow and expand as it becomes more difficult for smaller operators to compete.
“There’s too many opportunities, which, by the way is a good problem to have,” she said.
Karet noted how the company is active in converting established Giant Eagle stores into Market District stores, establishing new smaller-format Market District locations, as well as expanding its WetGo car wash business along with GetGo as a now proven store model.
“We’re pretty convinced we have a unique model that will allow us to compete in this hard changing world against people who are much bigger than us,” she said.
Karet recalled her early days in her career when she said she had “no interest in coming back to the company,” wishing instead to chart her own course, working early in her career for such companies as Procter & Gamble and Sara Lee.
Now, after taking on the title of chairwoman at Giant Eagle last year, Karet expects she’s worked in just about every position at the company, outside a few, such as chief information office and in the real estate department.
However, none of them equaled the kind of grounding she received actually working in the stores.
“The best training by far was working in the stores growing up,” she said.
Article from Pittsburgh Business Times: https://www.bizjournals.com/pittsburgh/news/2023/03/14/laura-karet-giant-eagle-vision-pittsburgh.html
Many exciting things happening in Downtown Pittsburgh at your Star Lofts Pittsburgh home next to the Benedum Theater. http://www.starloftspgh.com