Wegmans Food Markets Inc., which stirred up regional grocery shopping last year with its first Maryland store, in Hunt Valley, is expanding further into Maryland, with plans to open an outlet in Columbia.
The grocery chain said it submitted site plans to Howard County planning officials yesterday for a 160,000-square-foot store at Snowden River Parkway and McGaw Road. The store could open as early as 2009 and is expected to have 650 employees.
Wegmans, with headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., is one of several retailers that have taken market share from longtime supermarket chains such as Giant Food.
Wal-Mart Stores plans to open several of its grocery concept stores this year, while high-end chains Trader Joe's and Harris Teeter have announced expansion into the market.
The Hunt Valley Wegmans had $96.2 million in sales last year, according to the trade journal Food World.
The retailer -- whose stores feature European-style cafes, French patisseries, sushi and gourmet cheeses -- has since announced that it is also building stores at the Village of Waugh Chapel in Gambrills, in Anne Arundel County, and in Prince George's County.
"I think it's going to make the competition more fierce," said Geoffrey L. Mackler, a principal with H&R; Retail, a Baltimore-Washington area commercial real estate brokerage.
"Wegmans is a fantastic operator. Because of amenities like their high-end cafe and because of the reasonable price points on their groceries, it makes it very hard for other operators to compete with them."
"They will continue to take a chunk out of existing grocery sales," Mackler said.
Wegmans looked at the Columbia site three years ago but was told it wasn't zoned for a grocery store. The county later changed its position.
The site is now designated "employment industrial," and a variety of commercial uses that are ancillary to, or compatible with, permitted industrial uses also are allowed, Marsha L. McLaughlin, director of the county Department of Planning and Zoning, wrote in an e-mail.
"It's a logical next step for us in terms of location," Wegmans spokeswoman Jo Natale said. "We often look at areas where we have other stores. And everything about the community and the site meets our criteria."
Some people worry that Wegmans' popularity will hurt Columbia's smaller retail areas, called village centers.
Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, Columbia Association Board member from Owen Brown, the village where the Wegmans store is to be built, said, "I'm certainly concerned, because I think it eventually is going to have an impact on the village stores. ... It will eventually have an impact. Not just Wegmans but all the big-box stores."
Bill Woodcock, chairman of the Oakland Mills Village Board, said the impact might not be too great.
"Wegmans is filling a niche in the market that no food stores in Howard County can match," he said. "People who shop for staple food products are still going to go to Food Lion, Giant, Safeway. A specialty item, gourmet item, they'll go to other places."
Grocery chains have been upgrading their stores, opening bigger outlets and closing underperforming businesses as the competition has increased.
Giant Food, which recently closed some older stores in the Baltimore area, said yesterday that it is completing plans to lease a larger prototype store at Timonium and York Roads, in the Timonium Shopping Center in Baltimore County.
A Giant spokesman said its decision had nothing to do with competition from the nearby Wegmans in Hunt Valley or a Wal-Mart grocery store that will also open nearby.
"Any new store that we build is never in direct response to any specific competition," said spokesman Jamie Miller.
The larger stores Giant is building include some of the amenities that have made Wegmans popular, including a larger natural foods selection and more prepared foods.
Other supermarkets will lose market share, said Mark Millman, president of Millman Search Group, an executive search firm in Owings Mills that specializes in the retail and shopping center industry. "The question is how to minimize it. "
"The war of the food retailers is just heating up in the Baltimore market," he said.