Grocery store opening spurs market madness

Shoppers camp out, stand in line for Maryland's first Wegmans


Terry Wilson of Cockeysville and her 12-year-old daughter, Lauren, were first, arriving at 11:25 p.m. Saturday and napping in their Dodge Intrepid. At 3:30 a.m., others arrived, and a line began to form. Within the hour, four Towson mothers joined in, and by 6:40 a.m., several hundred shoppers stood in yesterday's pre-dawn coolness - a peculiar grocery-cart traffic jam outside Hunt Valley Towne Centre.

Apparently, there's no beating the rush of a Wegmans Food Market grand opening.

When the doors to Maryland's first Wegmans opened four minutes early yesterday at 6:56 a.m., 500 employees were huddled inside shouting the company cheer - "W-E-G-M-A-N-S. What does it spell? Wegmans!" - in a scene that appeared scripted for a TV commercial.

Even its first customers appeared to come from central casting. "It's just the most amazing shopping store ever, anything you ever wanted they have, and their customer service is great," said Mary Olofsson of Towson, who arrived at 4:30 a.m. yesterday with three neighborhood friends.

She swore that her gushing endorsement was not part of a Wegmans promotion. "I was born and raised in Rochester," said Olofsson, referring to Wegmans' headquarters in New York. "I grew up on Wegmans. I've been waiting for them to open a store here since I moved 12 years ago."

Hunt Valley's 140,000-square- foot Wegmans is the East Coast grocer's 69th store. It's about three times larger than the typical supermarket and nearly three-quarters the size of a Super Wal-Mart.

The chic Wegmans stores are known for their refined variety of products and prepared foods - such as kosher Pareve Atlantic Smoked Salmon costing $24 a pound and jumbo crab cakes the size of a man's fist for $7.99 each - and for its attentive customer service. There are cappuccino bars, sushi bars, comfortable couches and a Wegmans Web site where customers can make grocery lists and sort items by aisle according to each store's floor plan.

Most notably, perhaps, is Wegmans' pledge to hurried shoppers: Any time there are more than two customers in a checkout lane, another register will be opened.

Yesterday morning, that proved a difficult promise to keep. The Hunt Valley store was so congested that one shopper remarked, "They need stoplights."

Still, even during the peak grand-opening hours of 7 a.m. to noon, there were generally no more than four carts seen in any of the store's 28 checkout lanes. Several employees worked like traffic cops, directing shoppers to the shortest lines.

"On a grand-opening day things can get very busy, but day in and day out, our customers will not have to wait," said Mary Ellen Burris, the company's senior vice president of consumer affairs.

Burris, who has missed only one grand opening in her 34 years with Wegmans, said the christening of Maryland's first store appeared to attract the largest opening-day crowd ever. Before yesterday, the store's largest opening drew 18,000 customers to a Wegmans last year in Sterling, Va., near Washington Dulles International Airport. Official numbers for Hunt Valley will not be known until later this week, said company spokeswoman Jo Natale.

But "the lines today are the longest I've ever seen," Burris said, looking toward the broad entrance, where a crush of grocery carts inched forward 30 minutes after the opening. "They are still coming in. This is just amazing."

Lisa Radov compared the excitement to that of a Ravens game. Radov, her husband, Jay, and their two children, ages 8 and 10, woke up early just to attend the opening. Usually, she said, the family's grocery list would require trips to a regular supermarket, an organic grocery and a kosher deli.

"Now I only have to come here," she said. "This raises the bar for shopping in this community."

Customers can browse Wegmans with $3.75 caramel latte supremes or $3.10 fruit smoothies placed in cup holders attached to grocery carts. If they purchase flowers, there's a separate holder on the cart for those. And if they just want to kick back, there are chairs and fluffy couches in an upstairs dining area that overlooks the store floor.

That's where Kathy Fox could be found yesterday, reclining on a sofa and no longer a skeptic about the upscale grocery shopping experience. "I came here because I wanted to see if this place could cut the mustard, so to speak, and it has," she said. "So far, so good."

The Fox family visited Hershey Park on Saturday and arose early for the Wegmans gala yesterday. The only difference between the two, said 11-year-old Adam Fox, "is the rides."

Presumably, Wegmans had none, unless, like Kathy Fox, you rode the publicity wave that preceded its Hunt Valley opening. The company did such a blanket job of selling the event that Fox said her family's refrigerator is covered with Wegmans fliers.

"They promise something that you have never seen before," she said.

Days earlier, she told her husband, "This place sounds like Las Vegas."

"Only if you're talking about the Venetian or the Bellagio," he replied, referring to the most upscale of Vegas resorts.

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