On days when she takes care of her 4-year-old twin granddaughters, Ann Henry likes to visit the new 24-hour SuperFresh Supermarket at the junction of Baltimore National Pike and Ridge Road in Ellicott City.
The twins, you see, like to race the mini shopping carts the store provides to keep youngsters happy while their mothers and fathers -- and grandmothers and grandfathers -- take care of business.
It's a small touch, those little carts, but an important one. The SuperFresh is one of eight supermarkets -- soon to be nine -- in a 7-mile stretch of U.S. 40 that starts at Rolling Road in Catonsville and ends at the Enchanted Forest Shopping Center in Ellicott City. With so many supermarkets so close, store managers are scrambling to find ways to set themselves apart and keep customers coming.
For customers, the glut of supermarkets on U.S. 40 provides an embarrassment of riches. On days she doesn't baby-sit her granddaughters, Henry does what thousands of other price-conscious shoppers do: She hops from market to market, pursuing sales advertised in the newspaper.
"I do price comparisons," she says. "I make my list when the ads come out on Sundays and I go to each one depending on what's on sale."
Under normal circumstances, that might require an inordinate amount of driving, too much time stuck at traffic lights with on-sale ice cream melting in the trunk. But Henry says it's not like that on U.S. 40: "The stores are so close together, it's not a lot of time spent traveling."
At Rolling Road in Catonsville, the supermarket stretch begins with a Giant and a SuperFresh across the street from each other. Both are older markets with narrow aisles, built in the 1960s. Several miles west, in the Normandy Shopping Center, there's a Safeway, built in 1978. Then, less than a mile down the road, there's an explosion of markets, starting with the new Ridge Road SuperFresh that opened in December.
Across the street, there's Lotte Plaza, an Asian supermarket that opened last spring. A Metro Food Market, planned just east of the SuperFresh, will open by Easter. There's a Valu Food (opened 1982) in St. John's Plaza and a Giant (opened 1973) in the Chatham Mall. Another Safeway in the Enchanted Forest center, built in 1992, rounds out the mix.
"It seems like it's a battle of the behemoths," said Jeff Metzger, publisher of the Columbia-based trade journal Food World. He said U.S. 40 has a slightly higher concentration of supermarkets than the average, but it's especially obvious because they are all along one road rather than being tucked away on side streets. In such a tight market, he predicted, the newer stores will prevail while the older stores with limited shelf space and narrow aisles will bite the dust.
It probably doesn't take an expert to figure that out. The new SuperFresh, for example, has not only kiddie carts but a coffee shop, an impressive salad bar and lots of ready-to-go options for the shopper with no time to cook dinner. Instead of just putting a price atop the vegetables, the store offers a picture and a line or two about their nutritional value. The beans are not only 68 cents a pound, for example, but they're also fat-free, sodium-free, cholesterol-free and a good source of fiber. There's a natural foods section, an international aisle and self-checkout lanes.
But not all shoppers are falling for the SuperFresh.
If Henry is a price-conscious shopper who follows the sales, her neighbor Maryellen Harper is a different breed altogether: a loyal customer who picks a market, in her case the Chatham Mall Giant, and sticks with it. She doesn't care that the market is almost 30 years old and has narrow aisles and a floor that has turned to a shade of off-white.
"I'm a creature of habit," Harper says. "I know where everything is."
Although she has visited the new SuperFresh and was impressed, Harper says she thinks she'll avoid it in the future for the sake of her pocketbook if nothing else.
"I went in there for the first time two weeks ago, and I thought I would spend four times as much as I normally spend because this is so cool," she said.
Mike King, general manager of the Chatham Mall Giant, says he depends on people like Harper who aren't lured away by fancy new markets.
"We have a lot of loyal customers," he said. He believes the elderly, who are used to smaller markets with narrow aisles, are the most loyal.
But Metzger, publisher of Food World, said the loyal customer is a fading commodity these days.
"Consumers are cross-shopping more than ever," he said.
A recent cross-shopper was Willie Polk of Catonsville, who popped into the Ridge Road SuperFresh recently to see it and experiment with the new self-checkout lanes.
"The self-checkout is one of those things that looks like it would be very convenient as long as there's not a long line, and people know how to use it," he said, adding that he didn't like it enough to make the SuperFresh his regular market, especially because other markets are closer.
But Polk returned soon after that visit for "some nice-looking rib-eye steaks" and he said he'll certainly come back again to partake of the fresh fish offerings in the seafood department.
Lillian Allman, an Ellicott City resident, also recently came to the SuperFresh to try the self-checkout. Usually, she said, she's a loyal Safeway customer -- "You go there for so long, you know everybody," she said -- but she's considering switching to the newer and fancier market. She knows she'll find her way around eventually.
In the meantime, as she described it, "You go into a grocery store to get a week's worth of groceries, and you end up getting frustrated and going home with half your stuff."