Wegmans doesn't release sales by store but confirms that it operates the highest per-unit volume stores in the country, which it chalks up to the typically larger store size and variety, quality and service.
Wegmans has taken advantage of, and in part prompted, some of the changes in the Lehigh Valley's grocery store landscape, experts say.
Grocery retailing has been in flux over the past few years, with some longtime players disappearing altogether and the rest shuffling for their own share of the market as newer players emerged, including Wegmans and Wal-Mart's Supercenters, which include grocery stores.
For years, Laneco, a family-owned discount chain that sold both groceries and general merchandise, led the way in the Lehigh Valley. The family owners eventually sold the chain to food distributor Supervalu, which later shut down the chain.
In 2001, Giant of Carlisle, which was already operating in the area, bought four of the vacant stores, catapulting Giant to market leader. With the new stores, Giant's market share grew from 17.7 percent in 2000 to 28.2 percent of the market in 2002, according to Food World.
Some chains have pulled out of the market altogether, including Acme Markets Inc., which had seven stores in Lehigh Valley as recently as five years ago. Other chains have closed stores, such as Shop Rite co-op supermarkets, a division of Wakefern Food Corp, which was the No. 3 chain, with five stores, in 2000.
Two vacant supermarkets, one a former Laneco, the other a former Acme, sit within a few miles of the Allentown Wegmans. Both closed before Wegmans opened. "[Since then] it's been very difficult to get any grocery stores to look at either of those sites," said James J. Balliet, a sales and leasing agent for Legend Properties Inc. in Allentown, who represents retail property owners and tenants.
The property owners "have simply realized it's time to shift gears here because we are not going to get a grocer to replace who we lost."
A Staples is expected to open in the former Acme.
Other retailers have viewed the changing landscape as an opportunity. Wal-Mart has begun opening Supercenters, which include grocery stores.
And then there's Wegmans.
Lori Wintz, a special education teacher who moved to the Allentown area just before the first Wegmans opened there, remembers hearing her co-workers talking about the new store.
"It was the buzz in the town, `You have to go to Wegmans,' because there hadn't been a place like that before," she said.
Since then Wegmans has become one of her regular stores: Sam's Club for paper products in bulk; Super Fresh for quick, convenient trips or special brands Wegmans doesn't carry and Wegmans for specialty items, meats and produce she can't find elsewhere. Even, sometimes, for a night out.
"Typically, we wouldn't go to a grocery store for dinner, but there it's fun," Wintz said. "There's such a variety, and you're not rushed. We've even had sit-down lunch meetings for school."
Glen Fritts, director of development and retail sales for Hawley Realty in Allentown, Pa., calls Wegmans an "experience. They've brought in such an array of international flavors and products that it really has added a whole new dimension to the grocery industry."
Despite the intense competition for customers, the area is still viewed as profitable and fertile for expansion.
"It's been a very good market for us, it still is a great market for us despite Wegmans and its greater presence there. We've done well," said Erik Keptner, a spokesman for Giant of Carlisle. "Any time you get a new competitor into a market, there's some volume they initially take. We've been able to grow back the volume and gain even more."
Wegmans opened its first Lehigh Valley store in Allentown in 1998 and drew 10,000 people on its opening day. A second store in nearby Bethlehem opened in 2000. The Easton store opened in September.
After having first built stores in western Pennsylvania, said Jo Natale, a Wegmans spokeswoman, Lehigh Valley "was an obvious next step for us. The market had all the things we look for in terms of demographics. We felt we could bring a unique shopping experience to the market that didn't exist at the time. The stores have exceeded our expectations."
The retailer looks for sites ranging in size from 15 to 18 acres, with 50,000 people living within three miles, or 75,000 people within five miles, or 100,000 people within the metropolitan area, according to real estate sources.
The sources said Wegmans also likes to see average household income in excess of $65,000 in prospective Maryland and Pennsylvania markets. Wegmans would not comment on its specific demographic requirements, but said it generally looks for higher income areas and dense populations while considering nearby competitors and road accessibility.