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Barrasso, Albertsons CEO visit Casper stores amid Kroger merger concerns

Sen. John Barrasso, left, exits the Albertsons store on East Second Street with Albertsons CEO Vivek Sankaran, center, and store director Dan Hittle after the two met with store employees in Casper on Tuesday, June 27, 2023. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Sen. John Barrasso met with President and CEO of Albertsons Vivek Sankaran on Tuesday at both Casper Albertsons locations to meet with local employees and managers months after a proposed merger between Albertsons and Kroger was announced.

Sankaran and Albertsons representatives declined to meet with reporters during and after the tours, and store employees said they were asked not to talk to media.

Barrasso told reporters after the tours that he invited Sankaran to Casper after hearing concerns directly from employees here.

“When it was first announced that there was going to be a merger, people I know who work at both stores have said to me, ‘What does this all mean,’” Barrasso said, adding that he first met Sankaran when he visited D.C. and suggested the meeting.

Albertsons operates two stores in Casper, one on CY Avenue and one on East Second Street, pictured here. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)

The merger proposal, which was announced last October, involves Kroger taking over Albertsons in a deal worth $24.6 billion.

According to NPR News, Kroger, which owns the Smith’s brand, among others, employs some 420,000 employees and runs 2,700 stores. Brands include Ralphs, Fred Meyer and King Soopers.

Albertsons is the country’s second-largest grocery retailer, with 2,300 stores including the Safeway and Vons brands.

Barrasso said they spent a few hours on Tuesday talking to people around the stores on CY Avenue and East 2nd Street. “They have concerns about their jobs, their work, their wages, what all this means, and of course food prices for people in Wyoming,” he said, “so all of these things are concerns, and I think it was a great opportunity for workers to meet the CEO, and for the CEO to see the work they do.”

“Many of these people have been with the stores for 20 or 30 years,” he added.

Barrasso said Sankaran “assured them … their idea is to grow the business, to grow the size of the stores.”

When asked if he foresees stores closing in the Casper area or Wyoming, he said federal approval of the merger won’t be decided until at least next year, adding he believed the stores would stay open.

“Even if this merger goes through, they’ll still only be the fourth largest [grocery chain].” Grocery stores have been under increasing pressure as Walmart and Amazon grow and control an increasing part of the market.

A spokesperson with UFCW Local 7, the union representing grocery store workers, disagreed with Barrasso’s optimistic take.

“Our members were glad to see Senator Barrasso visit their stores and hear directly from workers about their serious concerns about the Kroger–Albertsons merger,” they said an emailed statement to Oil City News.

“Any reassurances from Albertsons that workers will not be impacted by the merger due to store closures and/or divestures is not accurate, as we witnessed in the previous merger between Safeway and Albertsons when there were multiple closures throughout the state and workers lost their jobs, including two Safeway stores in Casper.”

The Safeway brand was retired in Wyoming when Albertsons bought the company in 2015. The Casper Safeway stores were sold to Ridley’s, which eventually closed the CY Avenue location.

Albertsons operates two grocery stores in Casper, and Kroger-owned Smith’s operates one store. Kroger also owns King Soopers, which operates one store in Cheyenne.

Trade publication Fresh Fruit Portal said the companies have offered to offload up to 300 stores to ease concerns from consumer groups and lawmakers.