The Thinker

Wigged out at Wegmans

Future food shock is here. It’s happening.

There was a time, oh so quaint a time, when our grocery expectations were modest. Be it the Food Lion, or the Winn Dixie, or the Krogers, what’s for dinner likely was purchased there. They call themselves supermarkets. Hah! What a joke! These stores, which still populate much of our grocery landscape, are beginning to be what neighborhood grocers were to my parent’s generations, and the country store to the generation before them. These chains do not know it yet, but they are obsolete.

Wegmans is America’s grocery future. Here is a supermarket that puts the “super” in supermarket. You might say it is a super-duper grocery market. It is the ultimate grocery store. While you are there looking over the hundreds of brands of herbal teas or pondering which of the dozens kinds of olives to bring home from their olive bar, you can also pick up patio furniture. Moreover, you can buy pharmaceuticals, dinnerware, enjoy a cappuccino, take home a fresh pizza, browse the cheese shop, select meat from the Kosher deli (or sushi from the Sushi bar), or peruse the extensive wine shop on the lower level. Yes, Wegmans has a lower level, albeit a modest one, at least at the Wegmans that opened here in Fairfax County, Virginia recently. Actually, we have two Wegmans in Fairfax County now. One thing we do not have a lack for in Fairfax County are upwardly mobile people with good paying jobs. If our tastes are not yet fully refined, we are darn well working on it. Ordinary food will no longer do. Limited selection no longer suffices either. We want variety. Part of living large means sampling the incredible selection of food that is out there, much of which you had no idea even existed. Chances are if some exotic food is what you want and it is not at a Wegmans, it is not available.

Wegmans is to the grocery business what is to online retail. By being probably the first of its kind, it is likely to be a category killer. It is what we lusted after in a grocery store but could not imagine until one opens near you. The Wegmans I went to today, for example, is so large it has its own underground parking garage. I did not even bother to count their number of checkout lanes. I am sure there were more than two dozen.

The hardest problem shopping at Wegmans is getting out before your food spoils. So save the refrigerated and frozen foods for the end of your visit. Meanwhile let you jaw drop as you ponder and try to select from the plethora of available products. For me it is not just too much, it is way too much. Admittedly, it is a neat and attractive store, pleasing to the eye and about as fancy as a grocery store can get. Nevertheless, it still boggles my mind. I am having a hard time getting my mind around the sheer size and variety of products that Wegmans sells.

In retrospect, Wegmans was bound to happen. Haughty grocery chains have been finding plenty of customers here in Fairfax County. We have our Whole Foods, our Harris Teeters and our Trader Joes and they nearly outnumber the traditional (or dare we say “classic”) grocery stores of the past. Most of this newest generation of grocery stores places their emphasis on organic foods. At Wegmans most of the foods are organic and many of them carry the store’s label. Yet they are not beyond selling ordinary toilet paper or Hostess Cupcakes either. We yuppies may prefer organic, but Wegmans’ patrons are not beyond buying a box of Twinkies now and then, which are also conveniently available. After all, you can only eat so much organic food before you get a Twinkie attack. That is when you get the craving for those sugary, processed carbohydrates loaded with high fructose corn syrup and deadly partially hydrogenated oils. Wegmans understands its customers are human beings with certain failings and provides a limited set of classic junk foods when 100% organic simply will not do.

Those Trader Joes and Whole Foods stores though are modest places. Wegmans is grand; it is about Texas-sized supermarkets. It is surprising then that its stores are all in the northeast. In fact, the Wegmans store I was at today in Fairfax is its southernmost store. The heart of Wegmans is in New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania. However, I can easily predict that this chain will keep spreading out. While you are unlikely to see Wegmans in Wal-Mart country, if you live in an upwardly mobile area (particularly on the East Coast), you may find one popping up in your neighborhood one of these days.

Even with its dozens of registers, you may need to learn some extreme shopping cart tactics to wend your way through the store. Chances are it will be crowded. In fact, if the store has just opened up you might want to do yourself a favor and wait six months or so for the hoopla to die down. Although Wegmans may be too big for me to get my brain around, you are likely much less intimidated. In fact, if you take one trip into a Wegmans, you are likely to be rethinking your grocery store choices.

Do not expect to find Wal-Mart prices at Wegmans. In fact, I doubt you will find many Wal-Mart shoppers at Wegmans. It is not their kind of place and I do not think Wegmans shoppers frequent Wal-Marts either. However, do expect an attractive looking store. The Fairfax store has a harvest brown theme to it and lacks the garish florescent lights more typical of Supermarkets. Instead, we get little touches like a produce rack with an attached mist machine that artfully comes on periodically, so no customer has to deal with dry produce.

If America continues to prosper, stores like Wegmans should mean the death of traditional grocery stores. Why buy Wonder Bread at the local Food Lion when you can choose from hundreds of breads at the local Wegmans instead? (Are you still unsatisfied with the bakery aisle? Try the European Bread Bakery.) Why hunt for the Kashi cereal at the local Shoppers Food Warehouse when you can choose from a dozen Kashi cereals at Wegmans? On the other hand, you may want to save a few pennies and buy the Wegmans’ brand instead. If you are watching your grocery bill bottom line, you will probably keep shopping at the local Food Lion or Costco. If you are more concerned about quality and variety than lowest price, you will likely quickly convert to a lifelong Wegmans customer.


4 Responses to “Wigged out at Wegmans”

  1. 9:06 am on March 20 2006, Molly said:

    Great entry! It took my breath away to read about my passion from someone else;) I have loved grocery shopping for years and years and had the wonderful opportunity to visit a Wegmans in upstate NY about 10 years ago. It is an experiance not to be missed. At this point I have a very limited number of products to choose from, but when back in the States I am completely overwhelmed by how many choices we Americans have and take for granted.

  2. 10:11 am on March 20 2006, Aubrey Weese said:

    “In fact, I doubt you will find many Wal-Mart shoppers at Wegmans.”

    You’ll find at least one. I buy everything else at Wal-Mart so I can afford to get my food at Wegman’s! Hey… the dinner is way more important than the plate I’m eating it on.

  3. 7:25 pm on April 20 2006, Cheryl Painter said:

    Hi Mark,
    I enjoyed reading your comments about your experience at Wegmans. I just started working in their bakery this year (2006) and as a matter of fact the store I work in just opened on the day you posted this -March 19,2006. I came across your post while searching yahoo for Wegmans articles since Mr Wegman (the 89 year old family patriarch) died today. I was happy that I got to meet him and that he got to see our store (mt. Laurel, NJ) open last month. He looked so proud when he addressed our store employees the day prior to opening, and rightly so. Its a great place to work and shop.

  4. 12:47 pm on May 8 2006, Jeff said:

    All hail Weggies!!!

    I grew up in Corning, NY and helped open the store there during high school in the ’80s. I continued to work for them in College (Ithaca). It was a great place to work then and an even greater place to shop now (that I’m making decent money!)

    Since then I’ve lived for many years in the DC area and was ecstatic when I learned about Wegmans’ plans for the Sterling store. I went on opening day and left $400 poorer, having spent 3+ hours trying to work my way out. I now shop every week at the Fairfax store.

    The wine shop is the one thing that is particularly thrilling to me. New York is one of those states with overly-restrictive blue laws – you can’t buy wine at any NY Wegmans (beer and wine coolers are OK but not wine – go figure…). Buying wine at Wegmans has a hint of the forbidden to me … making every trip that much more fun.

    To all those who complain about the ‘cultiness’ of Wegmans followers – you just don’t get it. There are many Northeastern (particularly Western NY state) transplants who live in places like DC and New Jersey to whom Wegmans represents a little slice of their upbringing. Its like if you were from Philly, living as an ex-patriot in Japan and suddenly Pat’s Steaks opened a cheesteak stand in downtown Tokyo. Would you be thrilled? Would you go there all the time for a taste of your homeland? Of course you would. Its the same feeling for me.

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