www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-county/towson/ph-tt-grocery-stores-war-0313-20130311,0,4077461.story

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Glut of grocers fight for share of Towson

Stores stress uniqueness, expert sees oversaturation

By Jon Meoli, jmeoli@tribune.com

12:15 PM EDT, March 12, 2013

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Kurt Schertle paid his tuition at Towson University by working full-time at the Shoppers grocery store on Goucher Boulevard.

The job launched a career and last week Schertle returned as executive vice president of sales and marketing at Weis Markets to open a pair of the grocery stores in Baltimore County —one in Woodlawn and one in Towson.

The new Weis is the third new grocery store to open in Towson in the last 25 months. The Fresh Market opened in August 2011, and Aldi opened in November 2012. Now about 10 different grocery store chains serve the area and another — Harris Teeter — wants to open there, leading some to wonder if the market may be saturated.

Towson's desirable upper-middle class demographics have attracted all types of stores hoping for a piece of the business, said Jeff Metzger, publisher of Food World, a Columbia-based regional grocery trade magazine.

"I think that what's happened in the entire food industry is in most urban markets, particularly in the northeast, there's too many stores," Metzger said. "Right now in Towson, there are too many stores, but you're seeing a real diversity in style."

Giant Food boasts two locations, one on York Road and one on the corner of Taylor Avenue and Loch Raven Boulevard. Safeway has a new store north of downtown Towson on York Road, less than a mile away from the Trader Joe's at the Towson circle. The Fresh Market opened in the summer of 2011 in Dulaney Plaza, and the new Weis Market shares Towson Place shopping center on East Joppa Road with Shoppers.

Local staples Eddie's on North Charles Street and Graul's Market in Ruxton serve their communities, while mega-chains Walmart and Target also offer groceries.

And, last month, a developer representing Harris Teeter said that the store will submit a bid on the Towson firehouse property at York Road and Bosley Avenue — right between Safeway and Trader Joe's.

Metzger said that Towson attracts chains that believe that a wider selection of perishable goods will help tap into the disposable income of area residents.

With its expansive fresh produce section, Metzger said, Weis fits this archetype — a trait Schertle said distinguishes the Sunbury, Pa.-based chain's stores from other traditional supermarkets.

"There hasn't been a ton of innovation in that conventional supermarket operator, which is our sweet spot," said Schertle, citing the store's larger-than-average produce section and fresh-rolled sushi.

He said that innovation will stand out in the face of other stores in the area. Weis now has more than a dozen stores in the Baltimore region.

The other operators have been "resting on their laurels" and "taking the consumer for granted," Schertle said.

The recent influx of grocers has been driven in part by the available space.

The Fresh Market and Weis moved into retail spaces that previously housed Super Fresh stores but became vacant after the chain declared bankruptcy and closed its Towson stores in 2011.

Rob Koch, senior director of real estate for The Fresh Market, said the company had targeted Towson to serve communities east of Falls Road. (It also has a store in Pikesville.) Entering a vacated grocery space built to serve the community five decades ago was just a bonus, he said.

The Greensboro, N.C.-based chain of gourmet supermarkets chose Towson after "a lot of research to understand whether or not our target customer exists, and essentially, in what quantities," Koch said.

The Fresh Market's customer "appreciates the customer service aspect of buying food," as well as high-quality and healthy options, Koch said. The Whole Foods in Harbor East and the nearby Trader Joe's served the same base, he acknowledged, but Towson was still viable for The Fresh Market's approach.

"We're all sharing the pie in one way or another," he said. "In Towson, we felt like certainly our customer was present. We felt like they were there in appropriate density and, while competition existed, we thought we had something to offer that market that's not currently being offered."

At the other end of the spectrum, Aldi, the low-price grocery store that reduces overhead in an effort to lower prices, set up shop in late November on Taylor Avenue, where it can serve both the Towson and Parkville communities.

An Aldi spokesman said the U.S.-affiliate of a German grocery chain has "no qualms about locating next to other grocers in retail corridors," as it targets no specific demographic. Aldi, which opened a Catonsville location last month, now has about 20 Baltimore-region stores, which offer fewer items, focusing on staples, in a much smaller space than typical groceries.

"We attract smart shoppers who trust Aldi to consistently provide great quality at low prices every single day," the representative said. "People who appreciate a simple, efficient approach to grocery savings are likely Aldi customers."

Desite the new competition, the region's longstanding stores seem to expect that they will continue to thrive.

"We look forward to serving Towson for many years to come," said Jamie Miller, a spokesman for Landover-based Giant, in a statement.

"We opened our store on Loch Raven Boulevard in 1959, and together with our York Road Giant, have proudly served the Towson community for nearly 100 years," Miller said. "Giant continually enhances our stores through remodeling and capital investment projects, while also focusing on the initiatives that have ensured our success for more than seven decades."

Representatives for California-based Safeway could not be reached for comment.

The Safeway on York Road and the Shoppers in Towson Place "have both felt the pinch of the newer competition," Metzger said. Safeway, in particular, is affected by the multitude of alternatives farther north on York Road in Timonium and Cockeysville, he said.

But what could become a challenging market for the retailers offers Towson consumers a variety of grocery options allowing them to pick and choose which aspects of each store most appeal to them, he said.

"You're really looking at a market, in general, that's overstored," Metzger said. "Everybody's got their style, but which style is most appealing?"