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One month after Wegmans opens and the grocer is still causing waves

A month after the new Wegmans opened in Abingdon, its impact on Harford County's grocery business and shopping patterns isn't fully defined, though one competitor has definitely taken notice and is fiercely fighting back.

What is clear is Wegmans, not unexpectedly, has caused some traffic headaches on nearby Routes 924 and 24, the store's customers frequently experience a packed parking lot and it's a huge building for shoppers to navigate, the county's largest in the sense of a traditional supermarket, if Wegmans can really be defined by such a term.

Wegmans in Abingdon received more than 13,000 job applications before the grand opening Sept. 18, Wegmans spokesperson Cynthia Glover said, more than any other new store the regional chain has opened.

The Abingdon store's opening also falls in the top 10 opening days for Wegmans stores opened since 2004, which includes others in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Glover said.

More than 32,500 people registered for a Wegmans Shoppers Club card before the Abingdon store's grand opening, Glover said. This ranks the Harford County store fifth among the chain's 79 locations.

There's also been plenty of buzz about Wegmans' future neighbors at the Boulevard at Box Hill, a group that includes a Joe's Crab Shack, PNC bank and Panera Bread restaurant.

Joe's will be nearly 10,000 square feet and will open in two months, Jim Martin, president of Ward Properties, the developer of the Boulevard at Box Hill project, said.

Martin added that PNC will be 3,750 square feet and open in the beginning of November, and Panera will be 5,000 square feet and open "by the end of the year."

The mystery remains as to what will occupy an 85,775-square-foot retail building at the new shopping center. The lot plan was reviewed by the county's Development Advisory Committee Aug. 3, but the developers would not identify the prospective tenant.

If the shoppers are indeed showing up to Wegmans in the desired numbers, it's less certain how the competition is faring with a new heavyweight in the ring.

But though Wegmans has been open only 37 days, it has definitely caused a stir where one competitor is concerned.

Klein's ShopRite, the long dominant grocery chain in Harford County and long known as a fierce competitor, has been aggressively campaigning to keep customers shopping at its stores.

Klein's, a fourth generation family owned company, has six stores in Harford County, all but one within 10 miles or less of the Abingdon Wegmans, plus a seventh in Jacksonville in Baltimore County that was already competing with the Wegmans in Hunt Valley. No other national or regional supermarket chain has more than two stores in Harford. (Of three Walmart stores in Harford, only two have full grocery offerings.)

Since Wegmans opened, Klein's has run frequent print ads, including in The Aegis and The Record, the county's only local newspapers, which compare ShopRite prices to Wegmans.

In The Aegis Oct. 19, Klein's ran a full-page ad claiming Wegmans, which has run price comparison ads of its own, "showed inaccurate pricing for ShopRite, which was misleading to consumers about our values vs. theirs."

The Klein's ad then listed the products and prices Wegmans ran in its ads for Sept. 25, Oct. 2 and Oct. 9, showing discrepancies in the prices. For each ad date, ShopRite showed a side-by-side comparison with their "lowest shelf price" on Aug. 28, Sept. 4 and Sept. 10. From these comparisons, the ad listed the total amount for the products that Wegmans printed in their ad and "the truth," according to ShopRite, which showed total prices ranging from $2.20 to $16.60 less than what Wegmans ads claimed.

In a statement issued for this article, Klein's said it was "aware of competitive retailers in the market, but we concentrate on our commitment in providing the highest value, the widest selection, the most valuable sales programs and the best customer service of any grocery store around."

The statement ended with a quote Howard Klein made during the Festival at Bel Air store's grand re-opening earlier this summer: "The Klein Family has owned and operated stores here since 1925, and we're not going anywhere!" The Festival store, Klein's closest to the new Wegmans, was expanded and renovated in anticipation of the new competitor's arrival.

Klein's ShopRite spokesman Mike Blum refused to discuss the Wegmans advertisements and other marketing tactics specifically, said that it's his company's policy not to comment on another grocer's ad.

Blum did say, however, that ShopRite "believes that what we're saying in our advertising is 100 percent correct." He added, "Of course, mistakes get made in advertisements all the time."

Blum also cited the frequent occurrence of signs within grocery stores — in ShopRite and other retailers — where there is a correction for a misprinted or mis-advertised price.

"I don't think there's an [industry] more competitive than the grocery store industry," Blum said, referring to the big stores' small profit margins — typically 1 to 2 percent "at most."

Small margins cause a need for volume, and hence market share, and is a major reason why cost comparison ads exist, Blum explained.

He said it's common practice for a representative from one store — he gave Giant as an example — to go into a competitor's store — such as Safeway — as frequently as every day to record what different prices for various products are.

"That's just the way it is," he added.

Where errors occur, such as some listed in a recent ShopRite ad, is usually when a store compares prices for an item — chicken breasts, for instance — on different weeks, Blum said.

"Prices change every week," he said. "All we [ShopRite] ask is that you tell the truth and shop on the same day and the same products and tell what the price differential is."

In response to ShopRite's ads, Jo Natale, director of media relations for Wegmans, wrote in an e-mail: "We contract with a national company to conduct price checks at competitors in each of our market areas, and they have done so with a high degree of accuracy. Their regular process is to record the lowest price shown at the shelf, including sale prices. It appears to us that ShopRite did not consistently post signage at the shelf to indicate an item was on sale. If signage had been in place, we believe the information would have been highly accurate."

"It should be noted that this same company also compared our prices to another food retailer in the area, using the same process, and the other retailer has not informed us of any price inaccuracies," the e-mail added.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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