Officials of the fast-growing Aldi's supermarket chain say they've long had their eyes on Towson as a market with appealing demographics and potential for growth.
At a preview event on Thursday for the chain's new store on Taylor Avenue in Loch Raven Plaza, the crowd outside waiting for an 11 a.m. ribbon-cutting seemed to suggest they'd made a good choice.
"I think a lot of people in the community are welcoming us really nicely this morning," said Jeff Baehr, vice president of Aldi's Frederick division, as the doors opened and dozens of people came in for the sneak peek. "There's a need for Aldi in this community, and we're excited to be here to fill it."
Thursday's event had been billed as a chance for people in the community to stroll through the store and try samples of Aldi brand foods. The store's official public opening is 9 a.m. Friday.
Aldi is joining an increasingly crowded grocery market in the greater Towson area. The community already has two Giant Foods, a Safeway, Trader Joe's and Fresh Market, with a Weis supermarket on its way for the Towson Place shopping center.
Baehr said he's not worried. He called the area's development and population density appealing, and said he's confident Aldi will gain a foothold.
"Generally, when there's a lot of competition for shopping, Aldi does extremely well," he said.
Store manager Melissa Gerry said she expects the store to draw a diverse clientele, particularly with an opportunity to tap college students from Towson University and Goucher College.
"I definitely think that it's going to be a market for that," Gerry said. "I just think of all the savings we can give for them to come in and bulk up to take back to the dorm, snacks and all that."
Gerry said she's been turning away customers eager to get in the door all week.
"Every day this week, people have been trying to get in to shop," she said. "Most of them are regular Aldi customers, so they're just really happy we're coming to the area."
The Towson location is Aldi's fifth in Baltimore County, with stores already in Dundalk, Randallstown, Essex and Middle River. Another store is planned in the county in Catonsville, and there are also three Aldi supermarkets in Baltimore City.
Parkville resident Tiara Brown, who works next door to Aldi, was among those checking out the new store on Thursday, and said she was impressed enough with prices and smiling faces to consider becoming a regular.
Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, said she might be another convert.
"I was pretty amazed," Hafford said. "I've never been in an Aldi grocery store before. I walked around and looked at the prices of the different items they had, and I've never seen lower prices."
Officials said the chain undertakes initiatives aimed at reducing overhead, including a 25-cent cart rental system that refunds the quarter when the cart is returned, a smaller store footprint, and open carton displays in lieu of shelves. According to information provided by the company, ALDI opened 75 stores in the U.S. in 2011 and was slated to open about 80 more in 2012.
Hafford said it's a feather in Towson's cap that it is attracting new grocers to the area, even in a soft economy. She said Towson's reputation as a "mini-city in the suburbs" is well-founded, and will help Aldi and other stores thrive.
"Because of the dense population ... they're not going to have any trouble," Hafford said.
"Each grocery store offers something different," she said. "There's some things you can buy at discount, and other things you go to the upscale grocery stores. It's nice to have a lot of options like that."
Aldi opens to the public on Friday, Nov. 30 at 9 a.m., and will be open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.