Metro won't open at Ellicott City site

Decision means chain has no Howard store

April 14, 2001|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

After months of delay, an executive at Metro Food Markets has conceded that the grocery chain will not move into a store it built but never occupied on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City.

"We're not going to open the store as Metro," said Bill White, president of Metro Food Markets. "We do not see that as a good location. There's not good access to the store."

White said the company was "exploring what alternatives there might be for the store" including selling the building, which was built in 1999-2000 as part of an aggressive expansion campaign by Richfood Holdings Inc., which then was Metro's parent. The chain has since been acquired by Supervalu Inc. which re-evaluated the Ellicott City location, causing the delay.

White's comments come just a few weeks after he announced that the company was closing its store in the Oakland Mills Village Center - its only operating store. The decision not to occupy the Ellicott City building means Metro is pulling out of Howard County altogether. Metro executives also have been focused on invigorating flat profits and changing the stores' focus. Once an upscale, high-end food retailer, marketing and pricing has switched to focus on value and bargain shopping, much like its sister store, Shoppers Food Warehouse.

Although Supervalu has the option of opening the store under any of its other grocery store names, the key disappointment with the location is user access - a factor that won't change.

The building is less than half a mile east of the U.S. 29 and U.S. 40 intersection, high on a hill, beside one of the most traveled roads in the county and surrounded by dozens of neighborhoods. A few years ago, it must have seemed like the perfect location to Richfood executives who were eager to push their brand into the Baltimore market and challenge competitors such as Giant Food.

But access was part of that picture "from day one," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county planning director. The issue was apparently never considered as heavily as it has been over the last year, while Supervalu executives held off on expanding into the new building.

Drivers heading east on U.S. 40 must turn left on Ridge Road and drive behind the SuperFresh, a neighboring grocery store, or make a U-turn several blocks away on Rogers Avenue to get to the store. Because of the hill it sits on, the store can catch drivers barreling down U.S. 40 by surprise, Rutter said.

"By the time you can see it westbound, you've already passed the entrance," Rutter said. "If you're eastbound, by the time you see it, you don't realize that you have to go to Rogers Avenue to make a U-turn."

Another problem with the location is that it is in a saturated market. Eight other grocery stores dot U.S. 40 in a seven-mile stretch between Rolling Road in Catonsville and the Enchanted Forest Shopping Center in Ellicott City.

"Route 40 is over-stored," said Jeff Metzger, who publishes Food World, a Columbia-based trade magazine. "One of the real challenges with Howard County is finding locations."

The Metro building also is several thousand square feet smaller than SuperFresh, its next-door competition, a factor the newest kid on the block could not afford.

"They have all the departments. The only difference for us would be pricing," White said.

One local economist said he is not surprised that Metro has pulled back from the county. Although a value store would be rare and could have a good chance for success in Howard County, retailers have been increasing their size far too quickly, he said.

"As good as the economy has been, the [retail] expansion has outpaced economic growth," said Anirban Basu of Towson's University's Regional Economic Studies Institute.

"To the extent that [Metro] is going to succeed, they're going to succeed in a particularly advantageous location, and my guess is they haven't found that in Howard County yet," he said.

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