Not your father’s grocery store
Many Lehigh Valley supermarkets are at record-breaking sizes as merchants compete with themselves and discounters.
Tyrone Richardson / The Morning Call
Shopping carts in the Lehigh Valley are getting more miles to the gallon of milk these days.
That’s because some of the region’s supermarkets are expanding to record sizes and loaded with everything from cafes to gas stations, allowing grocers to compete with discounters encroaching on their turf and feeding consumer demands for added convenience.
Earlier this month, Giant Foods opened a new store on Hamilton Boulevard in Trexlertown. The store boasts 74,000 square feet and a gas station, making it the largest Giant in the Lehigh Valley and eclipsing the chain’s 67,000-square-foot store on Town Center Boulevard in Forks Township.
Giant spokesman Chris Brand said the Trexlertown store’s expansive grocery departments and technology, such as kiosks that help shoppers locate products, are driven to improve the customer experience.
“Our customers expect a broad variety and selection of products — an example is increased demand for healthy and natural — and to deliver on this commitment, when possible, we have increased our store square footage,” he said.
Giant, Weis Markets and Wegmans are stretching the Valley stores beyond the nation’s 50,000-square-foot median grocery store size, according to Food Marketing Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based trade group.
Contributing to the trend, experts say, is reasonably priced land, fierce competition and consumers’ demand for one-stop shopping.
As a result, cafes with prepared foods, expanded produce, health and wellness, bakery, pharmacy and meat departments, and even gas stations and six-pack beers are all becoming more common at Valley supermarkets.
Cash-strapped consumers can cut back on luxuries, but groceries are essential — leading to more competition from non-traditional grocery merchants such as Walmart and Dollar Tree. Discount grocery stores like ALDI also have multiplied and Bottom Dollar Food, a North Carolina discounter, has opened six stores in the Valley in the last 14 months.
Some supermarket chains like Pathmark and ACME have shuttered stores, while others have responded by expanding in hopes of luring customers with as many selections as possible — mirroring the one-stop-shop concept popular with Walmart.
“What we are seeing is a blurring of retail formats. Larger stores offer the one-stop convenience that many consumers want,” said Denise Ogden, a retail expert and assistant professor of business administration at Penn State Lehigh Valley. “Consumers gain because supermarkets are introducing retail formats that differentiate their offerings.”
Giant’s new supersize store in Trexlertown is just perfect for Kellie Bartholomew, who recently moved back to the Lehigh Valley after several years in the Atlanta suburbs.
“This store is nice. I’m used to big grocery stores like this because the stores down South like Publix and Kroger are big,” the Fogelsville resident said while putting groceries in her car Friday. “The big stores offer more selections.”
More grocers pledged to invest in new stores and update existing ones compared to 2010, according to the 2010-11 annual financial review by Food Marketing Institute. Roughly 52 percent of chains planned to remodel stores and 37 percent planned at least some new stores this year, up from 40 percent looking to remodel and 25 percent with new stores in the works in 2010.
One retail expert says new stores and upgrades keep grocers competitive. And, in the case with the new Giant in Trexlertown, it’s going head-to-head with the nearby Wegmans.
“Giant figures that we have to go head-to-head with Wegmans, we can’t afford not too,” said Jeff Green, president and CEO of Phoenix-based retail consultant Jeff Green Partners. “They’re going after them and their prepared food market that Wegmans is known for.”
Wegmans recently announced plans to one-up the competition. In November, The Rochester, NY-based high-end grocer announced plans to add a pub as the centerpiece of a 15,000 square-foot expansion to its 110,000-square-foot Allentown store next year.
“As our business evolves and we discover new things that customers are interested in finding in our stores (like more prepared foods), it’s sometimes necessary to expand a store in order to introduce that feature,” Wegmans spokeswoman Jo Natale said in an e-mail Tuesday.
Natale added that the chain’s pub concept has been a success in Collegeville and Malvern, so it should be equally successful in the Valley.
Giant and Wegmans aren’t the only grocers keeping Valley construction firms busy this year.
Weis Markets opened its 63,400-square-foot store on Sullivan Trail in Forks Township in June, and work is underway on a 65,000-square-foot store at Route 100 near Tilghman Street in Upper Macungie Township.
Weis’ new store models include expanded grocery departments and more prepared foods, earth-friendly refrigeration and gas stations.
Weis spokesman Dennis Curtin said the larger stores are because “customers are looking for more variety and services.”
“We’re also building the right size stores — 63,400 — they’re big, expansive stores but you don’t have to pack a lunch to shop them like you have to when you shop a 200,000-square-foot supercenter,” Curtin said.
Curtin has said the 161-store chain increased its budget for new stores and upgrades this year. That has meant renovating some of its 16 stores in the Valley, including recent improvements to the produce and bakery departments at its Coopersburg and Landsdale stores.