With the grand opening of the new Wegmans store in Columbia getting closer, company officials say they have already been preparing for the crowds expected in the first days and weeks of business.
The store, located off of Snowden River Parkway and McGaw Road, will open at 7 a.m., on June 17. Wegmans' executives say between 12,000 and 20,000 people are expected to show up on the first day alone, including a handful who will camp out the night before.
They also expect parking might overflow out of the store's nearly 900-space garage and into nearby lots, and plan to use an additional 550 workers from other locations during the first month to help the 700 regular employees handle the rush.
"I want to open," Wendy Webster, manager for the Columbia store, told Howard County Times editors in an interview Tuesday, two months before opening day. "I think Howard County's wanted a Wegmans for a really long time."
Company officials are timing the traffic lights and have spoken with county police about a traffic plan and talked to nearby building owners about using their parking lots during the busiest first month in business. Employees will park off-site at first and be shuttled to work. Drivers will get help finding parking spaces. A primer will be put on the store's website to help customers navigate the store and garage.
"Bad traffic is not good for us," Wegmans spokeswoman Jo Natale said.
Demand for a Wegmans in Columbia started to surface with the opening of the Hunt Valley location in Baltimore County in 2005.
"We got inundated with requests to open up a store in Columbia," Natale said. "It was the No. 1 requested location for months and years on end."
Columbia had been on the company's radar from the time it began to expand into the area, she said.
Howard County has desirable demographics and a sizable population in the surrounding area. The Columbia store is expected to attract customers from outside of the immediate community, Natale said.
"We look for places that will draw regionally and have good access," she said.
The 135,000-square-ft. Columbia store will be Wegmans' fifth in Maryland, its 80th overall. Its other stores in the state are in Bel Air, Frederick, Hunt Valley and Landover.
Shops in Crofton and Germantown are slated to open in October and next year, respectively. No opening date has been set yet for an eighth store, in Owings Mills.
"The thing about our stores is they are destinations," Natale said. "What will happen is you'll get people who live within a three- to seven-mile radius who will begin to shop there all the time every week, multiple times a week. And then you get folks from as far away as 25 miles who will come and shop once a month, once every other week. You've got that mix of occasional and frequent shoppers."
The shoppers will park in a garage, then pick one of 850 shopping carts that are specially designed for use on special escalators that ferry the carts between the garage's two levels. There will be a total of 48 checkout lines, including self-checkout machines and the lines in the cafe.
Weekends are expected to be particularly busy, as are meal times when residents and area workers can come for prepared lunches or dinners. The store will be open seven days a week, from 6 a.m. to midnight.
But first the managers need to finish hiring. The company has received more than 8,000 applications. About 650 of the 700 positions will be new hires. A total of 250 employees will be full-time. There are still a couple hundred openings remaining, Webster said.
About $2 million is being spent on training alone for these workers before the doors on the Columbia store even open.
Natale would not disclose the amount spent on the entire project, saying only that the price is in the tens of millions.
Meanwhile, Wegmans has already been involved with community efforts, working with organizations such as Grassroots, the county's shelter, and the United Way.
Despite the size of the store and the amount of buzz and business coming with it, Wegmans officials say other retailers will benefit from this shop's arrival.
"We do see other retailers sharpen their game a little. We usually see service initiatives and lower prices and renovations happen before we come to a market," Natale said. "We bring new business into communities.
"Retailers and other businesses who are near our sites usually have a very good story to tell. Ultimately everyone wins, really."