RETAILERS IN OPERATION ON GULF COAST GET SALES SURGE

NEW ORLEANS -- Business was brisk last week among supermarkets on the Gulf Coast -- at least at those stores still in operation after Hurricane Katrina had abated.

Close to 100 stores remained closed, however -- most of them in areas that are still inaccessible to the public two weeks after the catastrophic storm hit.

As evacuees from here and other cities along the Gulf moved inland, supermarket operators reported a surge in business, although the product mix was slightly skewed to meet the demands of people without homes or those starting over, operators told SN.

"It's not a perfect world right now and not everyone's supply needs are being met," Jay Campbell, president and chief executive officer of Associated Grocers, Baton Rouge, La., told SN, although the situation is improving day by day, he added.

"When you move over 1 million people from one area to another, those people all need to eat, and the markets in the outlying areas where they moved to are seeing increases of anywhere from 25% to 100%," Campbell told SN.

Although 35 of AG's member stores have not reopened, sales increases among other members are so strong that volume was running close to normal last week, Campbell said, "because of so many new people in different markets across Louisiana and Mississippi. Some of it is catch-up volume as the stores refill their needs, but some of it is volume from people who can't get to their regular market."

That shift, combined with the uncertainties of the new volume needs of individual customers, has put added stress on AG's distribution operations, Campbell noted.

Of the 35 member stores still closed, Campbell said he expects 30 to reopen eventually, while only five will probably never reopen.

Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla., said 28 stores remained closed last week, but business was brisk at its other stores open in the area. Terry Derreberry, director of communications, said those stores included 16 operating at full power and five on generator power, which means they were selling only non-perishables.

A&P, Montvale, N.J., said seven Sav-A-Centers here have reopened, for a total of nine in operation -- "and those stores are busy, with volume increasing," a spokeswoman told SN. She said the company has not yet determined how many of the other 19 Sav-A-Centers will be able to reopen.

She said A&P's grocery and perishables distribution centers here will not be operational "until further notice. Both are located in Jefferson Parish, in an area that's closed to the public, and it will be a few weeks until that area reopens. But the facilities appear to be in good condition."

Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark., said all but 15 of its Gulf Coast stores -- 10 supercenters, three Sam's Clubs and two discount stores here and in Biloxi, Miss. -- have reopened. Marty Heires, a corporate spokesman, said demand for product has been high at Wal-Mart stores serving evacuees, with a total of 2,245 shipments going out of Wal-Mart's distribution centers in the last week, "which is several times the normal number of shipments," he noted.

Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, said two of its three Louisiana stores -- here and in Metairie -- will remain closed indefinitely. "Based on the best information the company has available, it is assumed both stores have suffered severe wind and water damage, resulting in significant structural damage as well as a complete loss of inventory," the company said.

Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons said it has reopened nine stores, including six Albertsons and three Super Savers in Baton Rouge and Hammond, La., that were closed temporarily as a result of the storm.