Giant still on top among local retail grocers


Giant is still a giant, only a little bigger.

Otherwise, all is essentially unchanged in the Baltimore supermarket hierarchy, according to a widely followed annual survey published today by Food World, a Columbia-based regional trade publication covering the mid-Atlantic.

"The Baltimore market is really in gridlock," publisher Jeff Metzger said. "There are very limited opportunities to grow in leaps and bounds anymore."

Annual sales in the Baltimore supermarket universe inched up 3 percent from $3.42 billion to $3.52 billion for the 12 months ended March 31. The market comprises about 2.5 million people in Baltimore City and the counties of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Queen Anne's.

From April 1994 through December, sales improved modestly, then dropped off, according to the survey. The lackluster performance was attributed to a glut of stores, the rising cost of real estate and a diminishing amount of land available for construction.

"Growth has come when a retailer could open a new store," Mr. Metzger said.

That didn't happen too frequently, particularly among the area's top 10 supermarkets, who had a combined net gain of one store. Giant Food, for example, did not open a new store, but maintained its dominance with 42 stores and broke the billion-dollar barrier with $1.01 billion in sales, an increase of nearly $18 million over the previous year.

Despite a minute drop in its market share, from 29.03 percent to 28.7 percent, Giant still holds a lead of nearly 20 percentage points over the second-ranked supermarket, Metro/Basics, which controls 8.87 percent of the Baltimore-area pie.

"Business is strong, but the market itself wasn't strong," Mr. Metzger said of Giant. "There wasn't a lot of room for maneuvering, but now they are poised to move in different directions." The Landover-based retailer is expected to open a store in Owings Mills and expand and remodel other stores in the coming year, he said.

Metro/Basics, the retail division of Super Rite Foods, is building its base by converting two Basics stores into the more upscale Metro groceries on Fort Avenue in South Baltimore and in Towson.

Although the chain shed three stores, selling two in the city and closing one in Harford County, Mr. Metzger said, "Metro is now really poised to be a prime-time player."

With 14 stores and $312.3 million in sales, Metro boasted the highest increase -- 10 percent -- in same-store sales of any food retailer in the market, the survey found.

Same-store sales, a comparison between the current and previous 12 months of stores open at least a year, increased at a 2 percent average for other supermarket retailers. Same-store sales were flat at Super Fresh, ranked No. 3 with 27 stores and $286.9 million in sales. But the addition of two stores, in the Hampden and Bel Air areas, boosted its market share from 7.67 percent to 8.15 percent.

Fourth-ranking Valu Food took the biggest leap in market share, rising from 5.79 percent to 6.57 percent, on the strength of a new store in Edgewood, aggressive pricing and promotions, Mr. Metzger said. The supermarket registered $231.1 million in sales at 15 stores.

Safeway, Mars, Farm Fresh, Weis Markets, Food King and Klein's rounded out the top 10 in the Food World survey.

Rite Aid and Wal-Mart, two other major retailers in the area, performed well, but they were the exception among nontraditional food sellers. Food sales were flat among club stores, discounters and drug chains, including Sam's Club, Kmart and BJ's Wholesale Club, according to the survey.

"Their impact is there, but supermarkets have learned how to better defend their turf," Mr. Metzger said. "They've been neutralized."

Food World's survey, in its 17th year, is based on interviews with retailers, brokers, manufacturers and, in the case of uncooperative chains, sales representatives, retired employees and others familiar with the supermarket.

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