Grocers: the new pacesetters

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Wegmans, arguably the finest grocery retailer the United States has to offer, opened its first supermarket in New York City late last month, a 74,000-square-foot store in Brooklyn. So significant was the opening that The New York Times, often referred to as America’s newspaper of record, devoted the back page of its first section to the event. The Times didn’t so much evaluate the new store as discuss its inevitably. Here, after all, was a homegrown supermarket retailer (Wegmans is based in upstate New York) making good on a commitment many years in the making.

The event coincided with the opening that same weekend of a new Nordstrom department store, located in the heart of Manhattan, at 57th Street and Broadway. The Nordstrom store received all the initial attention. Several preopening events drew thousands of attendees — the curious, the committed, the people who cover such events as their vocation and, of course, those who came to see and be seen.

But in this era of mass retailing, it was the Wegmans unveiling that became the big deal — and received most of the plaudits. Indeed, the supermarket was lauded for its merchandise assortment, for its emphasis on the customer, once assumed but recently lost amid the ascent of price, value, convenience and the varied customer inducements that have crowded out that most basic of retailer priorities: serving the customer by providing that customer with products he or she needs, wants and appreciates.

All of which leads to a larger, more encompassing observation. Grocery retailers, at least the best of them, are eclipsing their drug and general merchandise counterparts, in the ability and desire to serve the customer. In market after U.S. market it is the homegrown or regional food retailer that increasingly draws customer scrutiny, approval and shopping preferences. Supermarkets today set the agenda, the pace and the tone for everyday shopping. It is not only food that draws today’s shopper, it is variety, excitement, diversity of offerings, innovation and an ability — and a willingness — to try new products, new approaches to selling those products, new and often radical departures in presentation, layouts, diversity of surroundings and multiplicity of inducements that has customers expressing their satisfaction by frequenting grocery retailers more often and more completely than they ever have.

None of this is to imply that such proven mass retailers as Walmart, Target, Walgreens, CVS, Dollar General, and a host of local or regional mass retailers are yesterday’s news or in danger of becoming so described. Many continue to set sales and earnings records. Many continue to open new stores that are more glamorous, more innovative, more surprising and more successful than those that have preceded them. But the talk these days, predominately if not exclusively, is of Kroger, Albertsons, Safeway, H-E-B, Publix, Hy-Vee and, yes, Wegmans. These have become the retailers that produce the traffic, draw the rave reviews, produce the record sales and earnings, and have nonfood competitors struggling to catch up.

Perhaps it is true, as so many legendary retailing executives have stated so often in the past, that food is the draw, the catalyst, the primary reason everyday shoppers shop, the traffic producer that leaves competitors searching for those sales that grocery retailers either do not need or do not want.

Yet food has been around as long as the grocery store. And the merchandise assortment that features food as its anchor has not changed all that much. The word “grocery” has never been exciting as an inducement to shop — nor is it intended to be. Food is the stuff of everyday shopping lists, as necessary to the typical American as it is vital to the success of today’s grocery retailer. No. Rather it is the merchandise assortment today’s grocery retailers have built around food that have made them so compelling, so exciting, so necessary to today’s shopper.

But if grocery retailers have raised their game a notch or two, they couldn’t have done so without the tacit compliance of their general merchandise competitors. This isn’t to suggest that Walmart, Target, Walgreens, CVS, et al. have lost their ability to compete. Rather, let’s say that they’ve lost a step — by playing it safe, by relying on the premise that what was good enough for yesterday’s customer remains good enough for today’s. As everybody knows, or should know, that has never been the case. Nor will it be going forward.

Mass retailing today is more competitive, more serious, more cutthroat (if that’s the right word) than it has ever been. As a result, just being good is no longer good enough. And that lesson needs to be learned quickly, or mass retailing will soon come to mean food retailing — to the exclusion or minimization of all others.


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