THE EUROPEAN COAST

Earlier this month, as all SN readers know, Food Lion agreed to acquire Hannaford Bros. Food Lion is controlled by Delhaize Le Lion, the Brussels-based retailer. And, in upcoming days, Food Lion's stock will no longer be listed on Nasdaq, but will be enveloped into a new entity, Delhaize America, which will be listed on the Big Board.These facts bring to mind the increase in European retailers' control

Earlier this month, as all SN readers know, Food Lion agreed to acquire Hannaford Bros. Food Lion is controlled by Delhaize Le Lion, the Brussels-based retailer. And, in upcoming days, Food Lion's stock will no longer be listed on Nasdaq, but will be enveloped into a new entity, Delhaize America, which will be listed on the Big Board.

These facts bring to mind the increase in European retailers' control over the food-retailing business in the United States, particularly that of the East Coast. Indeed, it now is possible to travel from Florida to Maine -- and to take a few jogs as far afield as the Midwest -- without straying too far from a European-owned store.

Delhaize, of course, now contributes more than ever to filling in that geography with its far-flung store banners, principally Food Lion, Kash n' Karry, Cub Food Stores and, soon, Hannaford.

But Delhaize is far from alone. Ahold, the Dutch food retailer, has the most extensive portfolio of American food retailers, all of them along the East Coast. Other European companies with a significant ownership presence in this country are Tengelmann, J. Sainsbury, Marks & Spencer and Aldi. All but the last have grown primarily by acquisition, and along the Eastern seaboard.

The lineup of European owners of food retailers in this country is an interesting curiosity, but it is something more too. It indicates what happens when market saturation is achieved, a condition that will be approached in this country after a few more acquisitions are accomplished, whether by the unification of domestic companies or by investors from outside this country.

Europeans became interested in America's Atlantic-seaboard food retailing when it became impossible to grow much more in their home countries. Market saturation for large-store European retailers was reached more than a generation ago mostly because of the relatively small size of the countries of Europe, but also because of governmental regulation of store locations and operating hours. In the main, the regulations were aimed at preventing small shops from becoming competitively swamped.

It's likely that something near the market-saturation levels seen in Europe await food retailers in this country. Exact parallels can't be drawn. America is vast, so for a long time to come there will remain numerous pockets of geography that aren't served by a major chain operator. And, as Wal-Mart Stores has amply established, no level of government will often prevent big-box retailers from putting small shops out of business.

But there are many areas of this country where saturation has been achieved, and there will be more as retailer consolidation proceeds. And, more than that, it is regional saturation that is fueling consolidation, since supermarket retailers have discovered that it's far more effective to acquire a retailer in a distant market than it is to build a market presence in a distant market.

Here's the key question that derives from all this: where will domestic retailers turn for growth opportunity when domestic saturation is complete? It will be difficult for Americans to duplicate the European-buyout model. Targets are vanishing.