Just days after Baltimore-based Mars Super Markets went out of business in July, five of its stores reopened as Weis Markets.
The new name may be unfamiliar to some area shoppers but likely won't be for long. The Weis brand has proliferated around the state in a matter of weeks. Besides acquiring five stores from Mars, a family-owned fixture in Baltimore since the 1940s, the company acquired 38 Food Lion locations in the Mid-Atlantic and is converting those stores, including locations in Columbia and Elkridge on Friday.
The rapid push into the Baltimore area and elsewhere in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia represents one of the Sunbury, Pa.-based grocer's biggest expansions.
"It's a big move for us," said Kurt Schertle, chief operating officer for Weis Markets, which had some stores in Maryland but none in Delaware or Virginia. "We had been wanting to expand our footprint in the Baltimore region. [Former Mars stores] seemed like a natural fit. This was the year they were ready to move on, so it just worked out for us."
As competition in grocery retailing heats up, Weis is among a handful of grocers eyeing the Baltimore area for expansion or new stores.
Wegmans, with stores in Columbia, Hunt Valley, Abingdon and Gambrills, opened a much-anticipated eighth Maryland location a week ago in Owings Mills, when store officials said more than 23,000 people showed up. Lidl, a German discount grocer much like Aldi, which grew rapidly in the Baltimore region, is poised to make its own push soon.
Lidl announced plans in August to invest $100 million to build an 800,000-square-foot distribution center in Perryville to gear up for its first U.S. stores by 2018, the first of which could be in Maryland, including one reportedly in Aberdeen.
And mass merchants Target and Wal-Mart continue to expand food offerings — Wal-Mart now ranks as the third-largest seller of groceries in the Baltimore-Washington market, according to trade journal Food World.
Weis officials said they saw an opportunity with both acquisitions to move into prime locations in a strong — if crowded — market, even though the acquired stores are smaller than new supermarkets.
In Baltimore County alone, Weis increased its presence from four stores to 11 through the Mars and Food Lion acquisitions. Thanks to the Food Lion conversions, Weis now has four stores in Carroll County, three in Howard, and four in Anne Arundel. The chain had two already in Harford. The final Baltimore area conversion from Food Lion to Weis will be completed by Thursday.
Weis acquired the Food Lion supermarkets as Food Lion owner Delhaize Group and Giant Food parent company Koninklijke Ahold sought approval of their July merger from antitrust regulators. The Federal Trade Commission and attorneys general in Maryland and five other states required the parent companies to sell off 76 stores nationwide to satisfy those concerns, including 26 in Maryland. Weis purchased 21 of the Maryland Food Lions.
Mars closed all of its 13 stores this summer, laying off hundreds of employees amid declining sales and intense competition. Mars Chairman and CEO Chris D'Anna blamed declining sales and said the company fell short in efforts to cut costs while trying to preserve jobs and benefits. Analysts said Mars also struggled to keep up with emerging grocery retail trends.
Weis, which has built a reputation on price and service, will offer more prepared, fresh and natural products than the previous operators, said Jeremy Diamond, a director of Diamond Marketing Group, a Baltimore-based food retail consulting firm.
"Weis is one of the few large supermarket chains that are still family-owned and private," Diamond said. "As the chain expands in Maryland, they're going to use that to their advantage."
Weis likely faces heavier competition in areas around the newly acquired former Mars stores, Diamond said.
"Most of the Mars stores were built so many years ago, when we didn't have Target or Wal-Mart in this area, and other grocers kind of moved in to the Mars neighborhoods," he said. Food Lion, newer to the region, "did a better job of selecting their locations."
Schertle said Weis is well aware of the region's stiff competition. While Mars had "a great history, great locations and great associates," it was "fighting with one hand tied behind its back," going up against competitors such as Giant Food and Safeway, which offer private-label products, loyalty programs, gas rewards programs and greater variety in fresh food departments.
Weis plans to bring those services to its newly converted stores along with more than 3,000 private-label Weis products and about 300 new produce items — for example, greater varieties of tomatoes. Meanwhile, it will keep some of Mars most popular items, such as its deli shrimp salad, and is rolling out the former chain's popular sugar cookies in all Weis stores.
Already it has opened full-service pharmacies in three former Mars, one in Essex and two in Dundalk. Weis also is adding sushi, which will be prepared by chefs in the stores.
"It doesn't take up a lot of space, but it's what consumers want," Schertle said.
Shoppers are noticing the changes.
At the Essex Weis, a former Mars, the store layout and signage looks the same as under the previous owner, and most workers and managers are former Mars employees. But in-store pharmacists now fill prescriptions, the floral department has been expanded and hundreds of Weis-brand products line the shelves.
Alice Mays, 60, a retired screen printer from Essex, had shopped at Mars for nearly two decades.
But "Mars was always higher-priced," and she shopped the sales, she said Wednesday during one of her three weekly stops at the Essex Weis. "Mars didn't have your off-brands."
Schertle said the company is striving to hold on to loyal Mars shoppers while attracting new customers who may never have shopped Mars or Food Lion.
Shopper Kenya Sykes, a 37-year-old mother of two from Essex, said she goes to different supermarkets for different items and shopped at Mars only occasionally. She also saw it as "pricey."
"There are so many grocery stores around here," said Skyes, a teacher at a before- and after-school facility who said she has started coming to the Essex Weis because of the private-label brands and offerings such as the sushi bar.
"I like Weis," she said. "I was happy they switched."
A habit built over 34 years keeps Marlin Van Ells returning to the former Mars that now bears the Weis name. For years, he said, he shopped only at Mars, first on Philadelphia Road, then in Essex, because of "prices, quality and I loved their meats."
Now, the retired tractor-trailer driver splits his grocery shopping among several area stores. But he still comes to the newly converted Essex Weis almost every day.
"I made a lot of friends with Mars employees," Van Ells said. "I come to see them."