The Wegmans Effect

The Thinker by Rodin

Last year I wrote about the Wegmans grocery chain, which opened two stores within ten miles of me. Shopping at Wegmans, a grocery chain that is just now starting to expand out of its northeastern roots was a real eye opener. Mainly, I had not realized that I had settled for grocery mediocrity for so long.

We continue to visit Wegmans regularly, even though it is hardly our closest grocery store. No other grocer in our area comes close to delivering its variety of products. The quality of its store brands often exceeds those of the national brands. For example, their Country Wheat bread is a staple in our house. My wife will only reluctantly eat something else. Since I do not necessarily visit Wegmans once a week, when I do go I make sure to stock up on their Country Wheat bread. I typically buy a half a dozen loaves at a time, much of which ends up in our freezer. In addition to superior store brands like their excellent strawberry jam, their meat, much of it served by actual butchers from behind a butcher counter, is truly a cut above the competition. Add their excellent store layout, their friendly clerks always happy to serve you, their bountiful and fresh produce, their in store food courts (which amounts to being a restaurant in a store) and the fact that they actually pay their employees a living wage then Wegmans is your logical grocery shopping destination. It seems counterintuitive that their prices should be competitive with the discount grocers, but they are.

In the Washington metropolitan area where I live, communities are clamoring Wegmans to open stores near them. Largo, Maryland recently became the first predominantly African American community to get a Wegmans. (It presumably got this honor because it is likely also the most prosperous African American community in the country.) Baltimore wants a store. Frederick, Maryland wants one too. In addition, rich, upscale Montgomery County Maryland has been petitioning Wegmans for a store too. Why, they wonder, does Fairfax County, Virginia across the Potomac River get one and we have none?

As for the rest of the grocery business, they are belatedly playing catch up. With a few exceptions, traditional grocery stores are trying to turn themselves into something that resembles Wegmans. Our local Giant Food was one of the first to sense they needed to look like Wegmans. They apparently convinced the owners of their shopping center to move the renters next to them somewhere else. The wall came down and the store was expanded and remodeled. Now our local Giant bears a more than passing resemblance to a Wegmans. (The Giant also has a Starbucks inside, even though there is a Starbucks literally less than a hundred feet away in the same shopping center.)

I really knew that the times were really a changin’ when the Wegmans effect struck our local Food Lion. Food Lion is perhaps the stodgiest grocery brand out there and its least exciting. The Food Lion in our prosperous neighborhood always seemed out of place, as demonstrated by their parking lots that never came close to being full. Over the course of a couple months, the Food Lion turned into a Bloom. Bloom is apparently Food Lion’s new and trendier grocery store designed for higher income areas. There is however a wee problem. It is only about one-third the size of a Wegmans. Even after all that remodeling it still feels like a Food Lion. They have more of the gourmet foods but its harsh industrial fluorescent lighting remains. Moreover, rather than having a customer friendly staff like you expect at Wegmans, they staff it with mostly minimum wage high school kids. No wonder I cannot stop calling it Food Lion. Bloom is merely putting lipstick on the Food Lion pig.

Change is also coming to the discount grocer Shoppers Food Warehouse. Apparently, its management concluded that its stores, in addition to having such limited selection (which is presumably how they keep their prices low) are seriously ugly. The result is an improvement but it too is no Wegmans. Shoppers Food Warehouse is now where Giant was before it upgraded its stores.

Other smaller and newer grocers seem less affected. Wegmans may have studied Whole Foods or visa versa because their layouts seem similar. I found a Whole Foods in Denver that was so huge it was nearly indistinguishable from a Wegmans. Out here in the Washington metropolitan area, the Whole Foods stores tend to be smaller. Trader Joes continues to market itself as a less expensive version of Whole Foods, emphasizing natural foods but with a more limited selection.

Will all this catch up help these traditional grocers retain their customers? It remains to be seen if this will be the case. Many of us will always prefer convenience to variety. A Wegmans requires a lot of real estate, so they tend to build in emerging upscale communities. I doubt the District of Columbia residents will ever see a Wegmans even though if any community needs a top-notch grocery chain, DC does. Many of its residents depend on substandard produce from liquor stores.

It is clear who is leading the grocery business and who is following. Wegmans is a leader. It is a shame they expand so slowly, but it may be for the best. It could be impossible for Wegmans to replicate its success across the country too quickly. In any event, if you are fortunate enough to get a Wegmans in your community, you will be wondering why you put up with substandard grocers all these years.

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