The Wegmans Effect

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.

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.