by Kevin Coupe

Ted Williams, it is said, had amazing eyesight, which is one of the reasons he was able to be one of baseball's greatest and most consistent hitters.

When he was at bat, he never took his eye off the ball.

Which is what I found myself thinking about two weeks ago when I had the opportunity to revisit Main & Vine, the single store upmarket format that Kroger opened last year in Gig Harbor, Washington, a half-hour south of Seattle.

MNB readers may recall that I visited Main & Vine in April 2016, and filed a story that you can read here. I liked Main & Vine, finding it to be an effort at channeling elements of New Seasons, Mariano's, Harris Teeter and Lucky's Market; Kroger owns Mariano's and Harris Teeter, and has invested in Lucky's, which meant that Main & Vine needed to be seen as part of a larger puzzle being assembled by Kroger.

Now, a year later, my return visit suggested that the puzzle is missing a few pieces, and that Main & Vine is not living up to its potential.

I was there mid-afternoon on a Saturday, and was surprised to find that the store had almost no energy ... and few customers. But even more concerning was the fact that there were an enormous number of out of stocks, haphazardly displayed product, and empty racks. It wasn't like the store had just endured an amazing rush and the staff hadn't had a chance to put things back together. It was more like nobody cared.

It was, to return to the Ted Williams metaphor, as if nobody had their eye on the ball.

I wondered about what was going on at Main & Vine. Was this a matter of casual negligence? Inadequate management? Or had Kroger simply decided that this was a combination of an ineffective format and a bad location, and that it was time to just ride it out until the end of the lease?

It was my good fortune to have the opportunity to chat a bit about Main & Vine with Mike Donnelly, Kroger's executive vice president of merchandising, and to his credit, he made no excuses for what I'd found. He said that Main & Vine has in general hit its numbers and that Kroger believes that the format has strong potential, especially because Kroger is learning so much from its Lucky's investment ... though he added that the Main & Vine name might not be used in the future.

To me, the Main & Vine situation offers some important opportunities for learning.

In any store, especially at a time of intense and growing competition, management and staff have to realize that there is no room for being lackadaisical. Every time a customer walks into a store, it is not just a chance to make a sale ... it is, in fact, a chance to begin or maintain a relationship, which can be the difference between success and failure in the long term. This is true of every retailer, but it seems to me that it is even more important (if such a thing can be said) in a store that is designed to be a test.

How can you decide whether to walk down a path if you don't put your best foot forward?

Clearly, that's not what is happening at Main & Vine. If it were me (and I'm reasonably sure that Kroger will do just fine ignoring my advice), I'd find two or three great people from Harris Teeter and Lucky's, and I'd parachute them into Gig Harbor to spend 4-5 days getting Main & Vine into shape ... doing a forensic analysis of what isn't working, and setting out the tasks that need to be done to make it a more effective and compelling experience. And I'd make the store's personnel accountable for living up to expectations. No excuses.

There may be those who will take some pleasure in this criticism of Kroger, but I'd be careful about that. There are a lot of food stores around the country where there are an enormous number of out of stocks, haphazardly displayed product, and empty racks. Main & Vine just happens to be the one I was in two weeks ago. (If you are a retailer, can you honestly tell me that you have no such transgressions in your stores?)

If you're a retailer, you need to think like Ted Williams. Keep your eye on the ball, and take nothing for granted.