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Ralphs Calls On Founder For Post-Strike Effort

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Hoping to lure back shoppers after a four-month grocery-workers strike that cost the company millions of dollars, Ralphs Grocery Co. seeks a stronger emotional connection with consumers in a new campaign that conjures up founder George Ralphs.

Four TV spots from Heil-Brice Retail Advertising break Wednesday for the 130-year-old chain. The action, which is set during the retailer's early days, shows an actor portraying Ralphs who demonstrates his commitment to service, fresh food and fair prices in ways that "came from historical things George used to say and stand for," said Hal Brice, president and executive creative director at the Newport Beach, Calif., independent.

One spot, called "The Founder," shows Ralphs meticulously arranging items on shelves as he rushes to prepare the store before welcoming the first patron of the day. In another spot, "The Farmer," Ralphs buys a local farmer's entire crop to guarantee the lowest-priced and highest-quality produce.

The commercials, running only in California, use the new tagline, "California's grocer." The previous tagline, "First in California," appears on a flag at the end of each spot.

"We're trying to establish some emotional connection post-strike," said Brice. "We're going back to the core and finding out what makes Ralphs Ralphs."

Ralphs, a unit of the No. 1 supermarket chain in the country, Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., was one of three Southern California grocers hit hard when roughly 70,000 workers walked out last October to protest proposed health, pension and wage cuts. Also affected were Vons, owned by No. 3 Safeway, and No. 2 Albertson's. The strike ended March 1.

The walkout led many consumers to perceive the chains as "big, corporate behemoths that didn't care about them," said George Whalin, CEO of Retail Management Consultants in San Marcos, Calif. "I think [Ralphs' campaign] is a very good idea, particularly with all the bad feelings that [came up] during the strike."

The strike reduced Kroger's earnings by about $156 million, according to the company. In March, Kroger reported a net loss of about $337 million for the fourth quarter ended Jan. 31, compared with earnings of $381 million a year ago. Sources estimated the strike has cost Ralphs, Vons and Albertson's as much as $2 billion combined in lost sales.

Ralphs, which has 460 stores in California and Nevada, pulled the majority of its advertising during the strike. Prior to that, ads focused on the expertise of the chain's grocers, who "are knowledgeable about their jobs and, with their years of experience, make Ralphs a better place," said Brice.

In the weeks after the strike ended, the shop ran an interim effort to inform consumers that Ralphs was getting back up to speed and had various products on sale, said Brice.

Spending for the new effort could not be determined. Compton, Calif.-based Ralphs spent about $20 million on advertising in 2003, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR.