Reluctant goodbye to Hiller's Markets in metro Detroit

Kroger buys out local family-owned grocery stores

METRO DETROIT – Hiller's Markets started in Southwest Detroit in 1940 as a meat market on Michigan and Cecil.

Those were Detroit's glory days. About 10 years later they turned it into a full service super market. From there, over the years the chain grew, building in Berkley and as time went on growing to eight stores with two in Commerce Township.

In one of the Commerce stores, that used to be a Farmer Jack, they've put up a couple of tables with chairs and installed a Sander's ice cream parlor. It's a small reminder and celebration of Detroit's storied business past. Hiller's did much to try and survive against the major grocery chains: there is an ultra-modern store in South Lyon with a microbrewery and much more. The other thing the Hiller family did was to make certain it carried specialty grocery items you wouldn't find in those other stores. That, along with a specialty meat counter, meant the company stayed true to its roots.

Jim Hiller's talents as a good grocer were actually eclipsed by his marketing skills. The founder's son produced monthly radio ads on WWJ for his chain over the years that came with passion, calm confidence in unique product delivery and pride in the superior quality of his stores. There was also a wonderfully understated sense that a carnival barker may have been lurking underneath that soothing delivery.

Whether you'd ever shopped in a Hiller's there was the sense metro Detroit was a better place with such a caring shop-keep maintaining the small family business for generations. Perhaps even more impressive is Hiller was able to keep his small chain going when major stores like Meijer and Kroger popped up within yards of his locations.

At the corner of Union Lake and Commerce roads in Commerce Township, Kroger moved in across the street starting with a small store that outgrew its walls and then moved into what was an old Kmart location with a 92,000 square foot store with a gas station attached. That Kroger has done a gangbuster business since opening just before Thanksgiving in 2013 with the gasoline station doing especially well because of the points/rewards program.

Hiller's tried to match that with a Speedway points program. But when you are seven stores trying to compete against the nation's largest grocery chain with 2,600 stores and a regional chain with the heft of Meijer's, getting volume discounts just isn't in the cards. Often, Hiller's had higher prices, and even though customers we spoke with today told us you always got what you paid for, in most any business lowest cost matters. Thus it is that metro Detroit will lose its plucky, classy, well-liked little grocery chain.

Kroger says it can learn from Hiller's and will, over the next couple of weeks, look more closely at the ethnic and gourmet food offerings Hiller's stocks with an eye toward adding them to their stores. Kroger also says it will assume the lease of the Union Lake and Commerce roads store but close it when the deal closes in July. The other six Hiller's locations will morph into Kroger stores. Kroger also says it wants to keep as many of the Hiller's associates as it can. There are 600 of them. They will start interviewing soon.

The reaction was mixed when we spoke with shoppers today. All were surprised by the announcement and some were so emotionally attached to this historic Detroit business icon they were taken aback. When we visited the Hiller's headquarters in Southfield this afternoon they were doing a good job keeping a stiff upper lip, but you could tell that underneath there was a lot of pain.

This certainly had to be an exceptionally difficult decision to make and deal to negotiate. The hard numbers were likely not in Hiller's favor but a local grocery store is so much more than stacks of fresh produce and custom cut meats. It's part of the family. Hiller's customers will have to reluctantly say goodbye and move on and learn the aisles in the larger Kroger or Meijer stores nearby.

Yes, for these people life will go on, but there will no doubt be something missing. We wish the Hiller family and its employees the best in this next chapter.

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