We here at Carbon-izer (actually just me) have shown a long favorite toward large square-footage superstores that stock both food and general merchandise, dating back to the Two Way Roads days when I idolized Meijer, the Michigan-based food-and-everything else retailer, simply because it was the only "real" thing left. I disliked Walmart Supercenters (a terrible grocery operator, and generally a trashier place), and SuperTargets (never got to explore the grocery section that much, but they cut a number of departments from the GM side, and from what I've heard, the grocery department is amateurish, even in full SuperTarget stores). Kroger Marketplace and H-E-B Plus have some right ideas but aren't really close. Super Kmart I've actually been in, and it was probably one of the best operators in terms of a complete supermarket (not a pared-down food mart) and a complete selection of general merchandise products. Their stores were modern and clean-feeling, even the ones built in the mid-1990s (imagine what they could've looked like today). But they're all but extinct today...
Instead, we focus on an even bigger store, something that would've been marvelous to be in during its life. I am, of course, talking about Auchan. I have written about Auchan in the past at Two Way Roads (where it's mostly third party articles), but here I can talk about it more. Articles at the time of Auchan's opening say that Auchan carried 60,000 items, which I'm not sure is SKUs (stock keeping unit, basically a distinct item, like a specific brand and size of peanut butter) or not. At least before an ill-fated "SKU reduction", Wal-Mart stores carried 150,000 SKUs, over twice as much as Auchan (it's now, according to recent estimates, about 120,000). However, that only accounts for the beginning, as Auchan did change its product mix over time.
The other nice thing about Auchan, at least initially, was that it stocked a variety of exotic meats. An article mentioned that it stocked "buffalo, goat, alligator, lamb, veal, elk, venison, and rattlesnake", which is of course intriguing (I have yet to eat buffalo, veal, elk, or rattlesnake). Auchan was designed to be primarily a large supermarket (hence, "hypermarket") with a large (but not very deep) general merchandise selection, something almost unheard of at the time, or at the very least, not attempted on such a scale as Auchan did (GEMCO and FedMart did make similar stands in the area).
The page below is something I photocopied and rescanned from the archives at downtown Houston. It includes part of an article (referenced but not shown in this article), but also a map of the store.
Great Map! It's helped to spark a bunch of memories. At the time of closing everything was basically in the same locations as displayed on the map. Starting off with the Bakery: The large square was a mix of short shelves and cool cases for cakes and such. The actual bakery area was open and visible to customers. You could see the ovens and such back there. From what I remember, certain items were out in the open (french bread, pre-package Mrs. Bairds stuff), but smaller things like cookies and small pastries were behind the counter and you had to get a number to wait in line for the next available person. The bakery also had moveable shelving not unlike what Walmart uses for their produce these days for other items. The deli was similar in that you had to get a number and wait until you were called. I don't specifically remember an Pizzeria. They might have sold pizza early on, but I'm quite allergic to dairy products, so I wouldn't have been eating any of it. The Seafood department was similar in that it also used numbers. They had a tank with live lobsters in it that you could buy, and behind the seafood department was a small area in which they prepped the fish. This was initially out in the open, and smelled really bad. I think it was eventually walled off. The meat market also used the number system. They had the cooler out front and you could see the meat cutter in the back. There was a wall for this section, with windows that let you see inside, almost identical to what Costco does now. You can see where the doors were with the breaks in the lines on the map. Returning to the front area, the produce market was huge. to the front. the produce market was huge. On the right was fruit and left veggies. With the refrigerated coolers being the last two rows in the produce market. (the one without a break in it and the one to the right of that) There was a faux roof that hung down over the produce market. It was wooden, and had fake grape vines among other fake fruit hung from it. It also had spotlights hanging down that were pointed at endcaps. The styling very much matched the Wine Cellar. Moving towards the back. The second location that uses Deli was the cheese section, later in life this would be shrunk down and the meat cutting part of the original deli would be moved to the back half. The coolers shown inbetween the cheese deli and original deli were fullsized open front coolers. On the cheese side they held pre-sliced cheese, wheels of cheese, cheese sticks etc.. on the right side it was pre-cut deli meats. You can just barely make out where the people who "cut the cheese" (pardon the pun) would have stood behind the cooler that overlaps with the second Deli location. This cheese shop also used the number system. Moving to the left now the Frozen Food section had open top coolers in the center and full sized freezers with doors on the outer aisles. The dairy section had full sized coolers with doors. Also if you wanted American cheese singles or Velveeta etc.. it was over here. Also the eggs were kept in the end cap across from the right dairy aisle (in the end cap for the aisle that had the coolers in the produce market). Moving further left again I don't remember much about Beverages and Snacks. There was an in aisle water dispenser where you could fill up gallon jugs, and those water cooler bottles. I guess I was incorrect about my placement of the Wine Cellar in my memory. The Beer Cooler was just that, just a giant refrigerated room full of beer. They had those plastic flaps over the door to keep the cool air in. Moving along again I don't remember much about the center of the store. The clothing as you said was originally in tall aisles, however eventually they opted for half height shelves with manikins on top "modeling" the clothing". All around the store were giant murals done by local high schools. I remember above luggage was one done by an art teacher my mom was friends with from Elsik High School in Alief ISD. She worked with the teacher at the time. I'm not sure what happened to the murals when the store was sold but I think they were trashed. Housewares had vacuums and such and also use the half height shelf idea in reverse however. they used the bottom for product display so you could touch the vacuum, blender, etc.. then placed the boxes above them, or to the side. Seasonal usually had garden supplies in it. Although it was also the Christmas section, Halloween section etc.. This is also where they stocked school uniforms and those pre-packaged school supply boxes in early August. Electronics eventually was given a separate checkout and you weren't allowed to bring carts inside. It doesn't look like this was the case in the map.
Despite the initial small number of SKUs, it did change. As the economic situation in Houston began to warm up, within a year, Auchan started to improve its GM departments. By May 1989, the consumer electronics had reached a selection equal to most specialty stores. A 1992 Houston Chronicle article notes that Auchan had more types of olive oil than Kroger, Fiesta, or AppleTree carried (19) and comparable types of honey or caviar to them as well, indicating that the grocery store was similarly well-stocked.
Unfortunately, the store was not profitable and Auchan's dreams of expansion in the United States would end as quickly as it started. In 1989, Auchan opened a second store in Chicagoland, a smaller 70,000 square foot store (later expanding to 162,000 square feet), though it eschewed the "mini mall" area as well as apparel, citing good sales in non-food to make up for the loss of apparel (which had higher profit margins).* However, within a few years, the store was sold to Dominick's, which slowly converted it to an Omni Superstore (scaling it down to 130k square feet), and eventually a full Dominick's, before closing it altogether.
The second store was a much smaller store that opened in South 610 (see the Two Way Roads link above for more). I really don't know how well the other store did initially. I know for a fact that by the time the second store opened, not only was it substantially smaller than the first but by that time, huge stores were not a major thing anymore. By this time, Wal-Mart Supercenter had proliferated outer belt Houston, and even today, the Walmart name lines up perfectly with the driveway that runs along the front of the former Auchan. Any talk of growing Auchan immediately ended after September 11, 2001, which not only damaged an already soft economy but was especially bad to businesses like Auchan, which were "foreign" businesses. No doubt Wal-Mart's "Made in America" push in that time did further damage to the already-struggling store. The other major economic thing going on was the collapse of Enron, which had filed for bankruptcy in summer 2001 and already shed 4,000 jobs.
In mid-2002, Auchan decided to call it quits, with plans to liquidate or sell off both stores, but they never found a buyer. Barring the fact that the stores were both massive, and it was a tough sell. H-E-B was just starting out in the region, besides, they had stores nearby. Kroger wasn't in the non-food biz back then, and Randalls, which had opened large stores in the past had been bought by Safeway, which was already on the decline. Safeway didn't operate large stores and had closed down the massive store in Besides, Albertsons and Kmart started to pull out at the same time.
The most obvious choice would seem to be Fiesta, which did have a greater selection of non-food items than anyone else, since it had a small store nearby to the South Loop Auchan and no store particularly close to the West Belt Auchan, but probably still haunted by their failure with a 200k square foot store in Webster that featured hydroponics gardens and their noted difficulty in trying to market to a mainstream audience.
The closure of Auchan happened at around the same time Kmart effectively ended Super Kmart stores in Texas, and by this time, Wal-Mart was already cutting corners in regards to its supercenters, specifically, getting rid of serviced meat counters (even service delis are rare at Walmart stores these days).
The two Auchan stores would never be utilized properly again. The larger one on Beltway 8 would be utilized as a Food Town in part of the store (however, the store was remodeled) with the rest of the cavernous space being used for a variety of other purposes including a restaurant supply store and a GED school. The smaller one would sit mostly vacant for several years, with its last use being used as a hurricane evacuation center in 2008, and eventually became home to a scaffolding supply company.
Of course, you can read most of the above through newspaper archives. Now onto the fun part. While the South 610 store is closed, you can still go inside the original Auchan building on the Beltway. The most unusual thing to me is that they weren't kidding when they said mini-mall. I was imagining something along the lines of what they have at most Wal-Mart stores today, a small concourse between the checkouts and the front wall with small shops, usually the Walmart hair salon and optical department, along with a fast food establishment (usually Subway or McDonald's) with not much more.
It's not like at the Beltway 8 Auchan. Auchan's mini-mall really does feel like a mall (admittedly a narrow one) with a high ceiling (with a unique fabric-coated skylight) and the opening to Auchan to the right, and the shops to the left (or vice-versa, I entered from the north/right side of the building). I'm wondering if the building ever really closed, as the shops in the front could operate semi-independently. I imagine that if they did stay, they withered away by the end of 2003.
I'm also not sure if the shops changed during Auchan's time. Because I don't have directories, I don't have any record if the stores stayed or left.
|1||First Aid & Security||Core function, likely survived until the end|
|2||University Savings||Did not last long. Was insolvent by February 1989 but likely reopened by another bank|
|3||Things Remembered||Common mall store. No idea how long it lasted but was likely closed some time before the end.|
|5||Fabulous Cuts||This probably either stayed most of the time or was replaced by another haircut place.|
|6||Auchan Exchange/Refunds||Core function.|
|7||Chateau Jewelers||Either store was a branch of a New York jewelry store of the same name or was a one-shot. Probably the latter since the only hit of its Houston connection is this store. This suggests that it stayed toward the end but it might be the New York one. Possibly.|
|8||Houston Shoe Hospital||Other locations in Houston.|
|9||Hyperoptical||May or may not have been operated by Auchan.|
|10||Optometrist||Listed separately. May have been the actual eye examination center instead of glasses.|
|11||Farmers Insurance/Winkler Agency||Might've stuck around until the end or after the end.|
|12||Ace Cash Express||Might've stuck until the end|
|13||Tropik Sun Fruit & Nut||Ah, Tropik (with a K) Sun, it was also commonly found in malls with bagged dried fruit and other snacks. They tended to disappear from malls about the time Auchan closed up shop, though I wouldn't be surprised if it closed sooner.|
|14||Taco Bell||This wasn't listed in the MarinersGuide.com restaurant listing. It probably closed due to lack of business. I doubt that Auchan was able to support as much food establishments as it did.|
|15||China Belle||Replaced with "China Choy" by the mid-1990s. This still appears in some contemporary Internet listings.|
|16||Pizza Hut Express||See #14. Given that PepsiCo owned both at the time, I'm guessing they pulled both out at the same time though I'm unable to acertain what year.|
|17||TCBY||Unknown when it pulled out.|
|18||McDonald's||Seems to have stuck around until the very end.|
Another article I have mentions a key engraving shop as part of the stores, which isn't listed above, and there was a mezzanine level above (likely offices). I wouldn't be surprised if there was a dry cleaners that moved in at some point (and certainly a video rental store).
(Auchan closing local stores to leave U.S. market behind - French chain a hit in other countries Houston Chronicle - Tuesday, January 7, 2003)
* "Auchan scraps apparel plans; adds seasonals; Windy City hypermarket adds 30,000 feet." Discount Store News 17 Dec. 1990: 15. Business Insights: Global. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.
LAST UPDATED SEPTEMBER 1 2017