Popular retailers in four U.S. cities - Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago and Austin, Texas - offer local consumers unique merchandising cues and innovative products that keep them coming back for more during both the best and worst of times.

One of the best ways to get to know a new town is by visiting a local grocery store. Many of the gifts I’ve brought back to family and friends from cities in England, Ireland, Italy and Denmark were purchased at retail chains foreign to many Americans, but common to those who reside there.

Case in point: I once stood in an aisle at a market in Mont-parnasse, part of the 14th arrondissement of Paris, trying to find just the right mustard for my father, a condiments connoisseur. Two American women who had been living in the city for some six months saw my confusion and pointed me in the right direction. The Dijon they recommended has become one of my dad’s favorites.

In traveling the United States, I’ve discovered that the same school of thought applies. Our country might be a melting pot, but different regions have characteristics that sharply distinguish them from one another, including where the locals shop.

This month, we visit well-known retailers in diverse locales to find out how each of them caters to customers through store layout, merchandising, product variety and other tactics.

Our tale of four cities begins inDenver, where it’s good to be king ... King Soopers, that is. A division of Kroger, the retailer is known for its mission: “building strong local ties with its customers.” King Soopers practices what it preaches by offering shoppers products from local brands. It also takes innovative merchandising to heart by showcasing tortilla chips and organic nuts alongside fresh fruits and vegetables in its produce department, for example. Step inside this country market-style store on page 14.

Next, we head out to the West Coast, where a fresh-faced import from England competes with other local grocers inLos Angeles. At Fresh & Easy, a Tesco-owned chain, highlights include a large selection of private label items, creatively prepared meals from the kitchen and One Huge Hunk - we’re not talkin’ bachelors here; turn to page 20 for the scoop.

The third stop on our tour of U.S. cities also is the windiest. InChicago, we go inside one of the nation’s largest drug stores: Walgreens. The beauty of “the pharmacy that America trusts” is that it’s part grocer, part photo-mart, part toy store, part prescription destination and, above all, convenient. Although Walgreens is known the nation over, its roots are in Deerfield, Ill. - my backyard - yet another reason to include it in this month’s issue. See page 24.

Last, but not least, down south atAustin, Texas-based Whole Foods, it’s all about the nuts. Just ask contributing editor Renee Covino. When she visited a Whole Foods store in its hometown, she discovered just how far the retailer is willing to go to offer consumers everything from pre-packed peanuts, cashews and almonds to nuts in bulk to fresh-roasted varieties and fresh-ground butters. Tag along with Renee as she shops “Nut Row” on page 28.

That’s where our story ends ... for now. Check out upcoming issues of Confection & Snack Retailing for additional Local Market Insights on top stores in cities such as New York, Atlanta, Tampa, Fla., and Columbus, Ohio.

Population of a Nation

Denver: 566,974
Los Angeles: 3,849,378
Chicago: 2,833,321
Austin, Texas: 709,893
United States: 303,706,543

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2006, www.census.gov/population/www/