Supermarkets as escape

Supermarkets as form of escape

Gigantic: Wegmans, the family-owned supermarket chain that's building an outlet in Hunt Valley, has found success in huge stores.


EASTON, PA — When Tom and Lorraine Decker want to get away from it all, to catch a little peace from their three teen-age sons, they head to the supermarket. They drive right past neighborhood grocers in Phillipsburg, N.J., and across the Pennsylvania line, 15 miles out of the way, to Wegmans.

For the Deckers, a trip to Wegmans is no ordinary trip to the grocery store. It's an escape, where the harried parents can grab a cafe latte, relax over lunch - with made-to-order salads, subs and sushi among the takeout or eat-in options - then stroll a European-style marketplace bursting with baguettes and Italian bread, raspberry puff eclairs, shark, shrimp and mackerel.

"We're splurging," Lorraine Decker said as she peered over the bakery counter at workers sliding bread baked in brick ovens. For her husband, the huge store with its patisserie, cooking station for demonstrations and endless cases of most known varieties of meats and seafood has been a welcome contrast to the elbow-room-only supermarkets he remembers struggling through with small children.

Shoppers in the Lehigh Valley in eastern Pennsylvania have wholeheartedly embraced Wegmans, a Rochester, N.Y.-based chain that is steadily moving down the East Coast.

Less than four years after Wegmans entered the Lehigh Valley market, the family-owned grocer has grown into the area's fourth-biggest supermarket operator, doing twice as much per-store business as its rivals. And that's with just three stores. As shopper preferences have shifted, supermarket names that once dotted the landscape have faded away.

Supermarket chains in the Baltimore area will likely feel similar pressure, industry experts say, once Wegmans opens its first Maryland store at a redeveloped Hunt Valley Mall by early 2005.

"They're definitely going to be a factor wherever they go," said Jeff Metzger, publisher of Columbia-based trade journal Food World, adding that the Wegmans store will cut into business at supermarkets within five miles of its doors.

Part cafe, part farmers market, part mega-supermarket, Wegmans has built a reputation and a loyal following by building some of the biggest grocery stores around (rivaling some Wal-Marts), stocking them with hundreds of varieties of produce, cheese and prepared meals and staffing its departments with scores of employees who can answer questions ranging from where to find diapers to what to substitute for guacamole.

At the Easton store, some shoppers come for the market-inspired atmosphere in one sprawling end of the sprawling store.

Others who came to nibble on samples of boneless leg of lamb or fruit tarts, or soak up a "pan-searing" lesson from cooking coach Van Whitmore, stationed in the vast produce department surrounded by each ingredient needed for his featured meal of the week. Yet others come for good prices on cereal or fabric softener.

"Wegmans has one of the best supermarket formats in the country, no doubt about that," said Meg Major, fresh foods editor of Progressive Grocer trade magazine.

"Wegmans has developed a really strong formula that is really, really hard to beat, for its perimeter departments, wonderful prepared foods and good customer service. I think Wegmans in years to come will be from here to the West Coast, without any doubt."

Wegmans now operates 64 stores in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The company is opening two stores this year, including one outside Philadelphia today and another in New Jersey this fall. A store is under construction in Sterling, Va., and another is planned for Fairfax, Va.

In Maryland, the Wegmans at Hunt Valley is the key anchor of a planned upscale Main Street-style shopping and entertainment center.

Grocery experts say there's no doubt about Wegmans stealing business from local grocers, though just how much and to what effect remains to be seen.

Because the company runs fewer stores in a given area than many competitors, Wegmans may not necessarily become a shopper's primary grocery store, experts say.

But Wegmans has become a shoppers' destination, one of the few grocery stores that inspires gushing adulation as well as long drives, industry watcher says.

In the Lehigh Valley, an area of more than 600,000 people with an average household income of $59,875, Wegmans has tripled its market share from 4.3 percent with its first store in 1998 to more than 13 percent with the opening of its third store last year, according to Trade Dimensions International Inc.

By contrast, market leader Giant Food Stores of Carlisle, Pa. - which is separate from Giant Food Inc. in the Baltimore-Washington market but also owned by Royal Ahold NV - represents more than a third of the market's grocery store sales with 13 stores, Trade Dimensions says.

Wegmans' Lehigh Valley stores, in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, averaged nearly $40 million in sales each last year, while Giant of Carlisle had average per-store sales of $22 million, according to Market Scope, a publication of Trade Dimensions.

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