Indianapolis is losing its last, and its largest, local grocery-store chain. Marsh Supermarkets declared bankruptcy in May and last week closed deals to sell some of its stores. The rest will close.
Although Marsh was founded in 1931 in Muncie, Indiana, its largest market has always been Indianapolis and its surrounding counties. At its height, Marsh operated 86 stores around Indiana and other businesses as diverse as a chain of florists, a popular convenience-store chain, and a catering company. The company was owned by the Marsh family until 2006, when it was sold to a capital investment firm. The Marshes said that the competitive environment was becoming much more challenging, and it seemed like the right time to exit.
In recent years, Kroger, Walmart, and Meijer have all invested in Indianapolis, building new stores and renovating old ones. Meanwhile, Marsh’s new owners largely left their chain to molder. They did rebrand Marsh’s budget LoBill Foods stores as Marsh, a welcome change. But a few years later the company rebranded again, with some stores branded Marsh The Marketplace and others Marsh Hometown Market. It wasn’t clear to shoppers what the names meant. (It turns out that The Marketplace stores were full-line and full-service stores, and Hometown Markets were budget stores.) And then, strangely, all new stores built were branded just Marsh with a new logo. Most existing stores kept the old logo. It was a confusing mishmash.
But the confusion ends soon. A subsidiary of Kroger bought 11 locations, and an Ohio supermarket operator bought 15. That leaves 18 stores behind, which should close for good by the end of the month. All Marsh stores are liquidating, selling goods at up to 30 percent off.
From where I sit, Marsh’s demise has three major reasons.
First, its owner failed to match its competitors’ investments in their chains. Few new stores have been built and old stores hadn’t been refreshed in ages. Most stores retain a distinctly 1990s shopping experience.
Second, its confusing branding may have alienated shoppers. When my nearby Marsh converted to a Hometown Market, I shopped there far less frequently as it stopped carrying many of the nicer grocery items I enjoyed, several of which you could buy locally only at Marsh. (Such as delicious, but expensive, Stewart’s coffee. How I miss it.) Actually, thanks to items it no longer carries I can’t do all of my weekly shopping there anymore.
Finally, Marsh was the most expensive supermarket in town, full stop. I’m no fan of Walmart, but when they opened a Neighborhood Market grocery near my home a few years ago its far lower prices were impossible to ignore. I do my weekly shopping there, or drive past this Marsh to go to Meijer. So, I imagine, do most of my neighbors.
But it’s a shame to lose the last local grocery chain, a name that was so heavily identified with central Indiana. When prominent local businesses close, a piece of local identity dies. Kroger, Walmart, and Meijer are fine stores, but you can find them anywhere. When you shopped at Marsh, you knew you were in Indiana.
I’ll miss Marsh. But my life won’t change much, as I’d already moved on. Clearly, too many others in central Indiana had as well.