In recent weeks, the soon-to-open Harris Teeter store had to station an employee at the front door to ward off would-be customers because many were walking in, grabbing a cart and shopping for groceries.
Around the Kings Contrivance village center, where the supermarket will replace the former Safeway, anyone wearing a Harris Teeter shirt is fair game for questions about the opening date and the products the store will carry.
The other day, a woman called and wanted to order a cake.
Clearly, there is excitement over the arrival of the North Carolina-based chain. The 24-hour store is set to open at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, and will offer a "Taste of Teeter" sampling until 8 p.m.
It will take up 55,000 square feet of space in the village center that has been without an anchor grocery since Safeway left in June 2006. Out front, an enormous sign counts down the days until the store opens.
"It's been really difficult," said Kings Contrivance resident Shirley Evans about the absence of the village supermarket.
"We have to go to other sections of Columbia and Ellicott City. My co-workers are familiar with the store from other states, and they say it's a great store."
Evans said she will be comparing its products and prices with the Silver Spring Whole Foods store that she patronizes, and with the Trader Joe's in Columbia's Gateway Overlook.
Village merchants also are glad to see an anchor store return.
"It means we're going to get the 15 or 20 percent back that we lost, and we hope more," said Jim Wiley, manager of Kings Contrivance Liquor and Smoke Shop. "I think people are excited already. I haven't seen our lot this full in a long time."
Around the village center are signs of renewed energy. The parking lot is freshly blacktopped, and merchants are touching up paint and trim inside and out.
The 40,733-square-foot Safeway and the adjoining structure, which once housed a Friendly's restaurant, were demolished to make way for the Harris Teeter that will feature olive, fresh fruit and Asian hot food bar; sushi; a Starbucks; a pharmacy and a large frozen-food section. The store used space it would dedicate to wine and beer in other states to make specialty sections larger, including a frozen-food section with separate Kosher, Asian and organic foods sections.
The Columbia location is the second Harris Teeter for Maryland.
The first one is in Darnestown, and others are planned for Maple Lawn in winter 2009 or early 2010, and for Locust Point in South Baltimore in 2010, a store official said.
"We built the store for the on-the-go shopper and the traditional shopper," said Jennifer Panetta, a spokeswoman for Harris Teeter. "If you're on the go, or you love to cook, we have all the options for you."
As customers grow increasingly health conscious, grocery stores are increasing their offerings of organic foods along with prepared items.
Earlier this month, Giant had grand re-openings for its stores in Columbia's Owen Brown village center, which is a few miles from Harris Teeter, and in the River Hill village center. Multimillion dollar improvements were made at the 60,000-square-foot Owen Brown store, which opened in 1978 and at the 63,000-square-foot Clarksville store, which opened in November 1997, according to Giant officials.
"Everyone is so time-starved that they are looking for convenient products that they can come in, pick up and take home and prepare for their families within 30 minutes," said Jamie Miller, a spokesman for Giant in Landover. "Competitive pressures are always a factor for any big decisions we make. But we're doing this in 100 stores in the next three years."
With the new Trader Joe's and a proposed two-story Wegmans planned in Columbia at Snowden River Parkway and McGaw Road, grocery competition is heating up.
"Over the years, there has been a lot of new competition and even old competition that's stepped up the game," Miller said. "It forces us to be that much more responsive to our customers. It's a competitive business and a competitive local market."
Roberto Dellaragione, manager at Trattoria E. Pizzeria in Kings Contrivance, is optimistic about what the new Harris Teeter will mean for his business.
"After the [Safeway] closed, we lost a lot of business," he said.
Lunch business that could bring in $1,200 dwindled to $500 with no anchor store, he said. But on a recent afternoon, the pizzeria was dotted with people in Harris Teeter shirts and other workers associated with the grocer's opening.
"I am optimistic," Dellaragione said. "I hope we will pick up for lunch and dinner. Otherwise, we can't afford to pay rent and the food costs, and electricity."
Pedro Bogran has owned The Kings Cobbler shoe repair franchise for a year and a half - never when the village had an anchor.
"As soon as they open, I know I am going to be very busy," he said. "I think it's going to increase by 100 percent once the store opens. Six months from when they open, I may have two guys to help me. It's going to be good."
Bogran is planning his strategy to boost business.
He says he will paint the inside of his store, add a key-making machine and institute a while-you-wait service for people who may want to drop off their shoes while they grocery shop.
"I'm happy," he said. "I know as soon as they open there, I'm going to be very hopping."