Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co. has been a big part of the Charleston landscape seemingly since forever, but that’s about to change.
Started in 1947, much of the local franchise will soon disappear from some of the biggest population areas in the Charleston region, reflecting the increasingly competitive nature of the grocery business.
“The environment that has heated up dramatically in the past six months in the grocery industry with mergers and acquisitions created an opportunity for us to ensure the value of our employee-owned company,” Piggly Wiggly spokesman Christopher Ibsen said Thursday.
The Charleston-based grocer is selling off 22 of its roughly 100 stores to Bi-Lo Holdings, including several corporate-owned supermarkets in the Charleston area. Among them is the “Piggly Wiggly No. 1” Meeting Street store on the peninsula.
The family-run business also is selling seven Charleston-area stores to Harris Teeter, which is in the process of being sold to Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. Those stores include Piggly Wiggly’s upscale Newton Farms gourmet supermarket on Johns Island and a future location being built on the Isle of Palms.
The sales prices were not disclosed.
None of the acquired stores is expected to be closed, Ibsen said.
Piggly Wiggly will be left with 26 corporate-owned supermarkets in South Carolina and one in coastal Georgia. It will continue to service and distribute inventory to 31 independently owned stores in the franchise, mostly in the Palmetto State, Ibsen said.
The sales mark a dramatic retreat for Piggly Wiggly in its own backyard. It is selling 11 stores in the tri-county area, leaving it with about 10.
Downtown Charleston, where the local supermarket empire got its start just around the end of World War II, will be without a Pig by the end of the year. The same goes for Mount Pleasant, James Island and much of West Ashley, all large suburban residential markets.
Once the deals are finalized, the chain’s nearest stores to downtown Charleston will be near Sam Rittenberg Boulevard and Old Towne Road in West Ashley and on Ashley Phosphate Road and Rivers Avenue in North Charleston.
Other retained area stores are in Hollywood, Moncks Corner, Summerville and St. George. The local chain also will keep a Piggly Wiggly-owned Price Wise location in Hanahan.
“It’s bittersweet for us,” Ibsen said. “There is a certain measure of sadness that the company will have a very different profile in the Charleston community than it’s had in the past 66 years.”
As for Piggly Wiggly’s warehouses near Summerville and in North Charleston, Ibsen said it’s too early to say if one or the other will be closed.
“We ultimately will be a smaller company,” he said. “We are in the process of working on a new distribution model. It is nearly finalized.”
He also could not say what effect the sell-off will have on Piggly Wiggly’s corporate offices in West Ashley except to say, “The overall size and structure of the company will be impacted. We are looking to grow the business as it takes shape in its new form.”
David Schools, Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co.’s president and CEO, said employees in the affected stores will be offered job opportunities with the new owners.
“The departure of employees and stores from the Piggly Wiggly team will be acutely felt, but we know that both Harris Teeter and Bi-Lo will benefit from these outstanding folks,” Schools said in statement.
Schools was not available for further comment Thursday.
Jared Lott, operator of the Meeting Street Piggly Wiggly, who’s been working at the store for the past eight years, said the employees have worked hard to give the store its own welcoming personality, and the place has become a solid part of the neighborhood. The customers are a nice mix of longtime East Side residents, college students and people new to the area, brought here by recent development. “We’ve taken it and ran with it,” he said. “We’re really, really proud.”
Co-operator D’Shawn Smith, well-known for his entertaining announcements over the store’s public address system, said he thinks Bi-Lo is a good company. “But it hurts to see the Pig close,” he said. He grew up not far from the store. “This was the neighborhood store since I was a child,” he said.
And he hopes Bi-Lo allows him to continue to make the announcements. They are one of the ways he contributes to the store, he said. “The inspiration comes from the people I meet on a daily basis.”
The grocery business has been marked by consolidation lately, which has created several large chains and has made it more difficult for smaller, privately owned players to compete on pricing and purchasing.
Kroger’s buyout of Harris Teeter is the latest example. Another is Bi-Lo: It bought out Winn-Dixie and its 480 stores for $560 million in 2011. Bi-Lo then snapped up another 165 stores in May for $265 million, this time from Food Lion parent Delhaize Group.
Bi-Lo’s deal with Piggly Wiggly is expected to close by the end of the year, when the 22 stores it’s buying statewide and in Georgia will be re-branded under the Bi-Lo banner. About 1,200 employees are expected to join the Jacksonville, Fla.-based chain.
After it acquires two Charleston Piggly Wiggly stores, along with one on Johns Island and another in Ladson, Bi-Lo’s presence in the three-county Charleston region will grow to 19 stores.
“We look forward to welcoming new associates in good standing to the Bi-Lo Holdings family and to building on the strength of these stores,” Randall Onstead, CEO of Bi-Lo Holdings, said in a statement. “This agreement will build on the strength of our Bi-Lo stores in South Carolina and coastal Georgia and allow us to provide the freshest foods and the best deals to a broader customer base.”
Harris Teeter’s purchase will be completed in October, when it will close the stores, except the pharmacies, for several days for stocking and training. About 550 employees will join Harris Teeter.
The Matthews, N.C.-based chain already has seven stores in the Charleston area and is adding two more, in Summerville and North Charleston. The Pig acquisition will give the grocer 16 stores locally.
Harris Teeter plans to remodel and expand several of the newly acquired supermarkets.
“These store locations and the dedicated associates who work in them make this an especially attractive transaction for Harris Teeter,” CEO Thomas W. Dickson said in a statement. “Charleston is a growing and vibrant market, and we look forward to continuing to expand our presence in the region.”
Note: The Piggly Wiggly store on Sumar Street in West Ashley will be retained. An earlier version of this story omitted it.
Diane Knich contributed to this report. Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.