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New Grocery Options Move into Express Lane at Local Supermarkets

by on September 30, 2012 6:31 AM

Fifteen years ago, State College-area residents could choose to do their grocery shopping at Weis, Bi-Lo, Giant, a brand-new Sam’s Club, or the food section of O.W. Houts.

Bi-Lo and O.W. Houts are long gone, but other supermarket options have grown. By the end of this year, full-service choices for local shoppers will include three Weis stores, two Giants, two Wal-Marts, a Wegmans, a Sam’s Club, and a Trader Joe’s.

At some grocery stores, shoppers also can buy beer and fill up their gas tanks, and organic and gluten-free sections have become popular. Meanwhile, a new Weis in Bellefonte is attracting shoppers from the edges of State College, and most local supermarkets have been renovated recently or have upgrades in the works.

Ahoy, Trader Joe’s!

Trader Joe’s expects to open its North Atherton Street store later this year — the California-based company’s ninth in Pennsylvania. At 12,500 square feet, the store will be just 20 percent of the size of most local supermarkets. “What makes us a little different from the traditional grocery store is that more than 80 percent of what we carry is under the Trader Joe’s label,” says Alison Mochizuki, director of public relations. “We consider ourselves a neighborhood grocery store.”

In the highly competitive North Atherton Street grocery “neighborhood,” Trader Joe’s will set itself apart with its “adventure in shopping” theme. Employees wear brightly colored Hawaiian shirts, walls are cedar-planked, and hand-painted murals reflect the local community. A demonstration booth operates all day, every day so shoppers can try different products, none of which have artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives.

Trader Joe’s bills itself as maintaining low prices because it generally buys in volume, directly from suppliers. “We don’t do sales,” Mochizuki says. “It’s a great price every day.” The chain doesn’t have a “shopper’s club” discount card, but it does accept coupons at face value for the branded items it carries.

Giant Renovations

Although Trader Joe’s small store size means it attracts a different kind of shopper than the average large supermarket, the new State College store still will pull in a definite “share of stomach,” according to Chris Brand, Giant Food corporate spokesman.

“We view everyone as competition. We compete against Trader Joe’s in Philadelphia and quite a few markets, but we just focus on what we do best.”

On North Atherton Street, Giant is doing just about everything. In April, it opened an eight-pump gas station at its Northland Center store, and in August it began selling beer.

“We try to stay cutting edge by listening to our customers,” Brand says. Shoppers usually earn 10 cents off each gallon of gas with every $100 of groceries purchased through their rewards card. “Our gas-extra-rewards program is popular,” he notes.

Built in 1989, the 65,000-square-foot Giant store has been undergoing extensive renovations that will add several thousand square feet by the time the remodeling project is finished in mid- November. For several months, shoppers have pushed their carts through temporary entrances and ever-changing aisles as crews remodeled one section at a time.

On August 30, the store opened its new deli section and its beer garden and eatery, thanks to its purchase of the Eutaw House’s liquor license when the Potters Mills restaurant closed in 2009. The new beer section carries both domestic and imported beers with an emphasis on craft and specialty beers, explains store manager Scott Stephens. Customers can create their own mixed six packs.

Among other new features when renovations are complete will be a 32-seat indoor café with WiFi access, 20-seat outdoor café, enhanced natural- and organic-foods section, new hot-foods bar and updated salad bar, dedicated gluten-free section, and two separate store entrances instead of the previous shared vestibule.

Brand notes that Giant strives for remodeling or refreshing its stores every seven to 10 years. That would mean the East College Avenue store, which opened in 1999, is due for an update, but the spokesman said last month that he had no announcements for that store. At 62,900 square feet, that store is slightly smaller than the Northland Center store but features a more open layout. “We like to provide shoppers with a bright, modern, clean, inviting place to shop,” Brand says.

Wegmans First With Beer

Giant is the latest supermarket in Centre County to add beer sales, but Wegmans was the first. With 80 stores in six states, the Rochester, New York-based company already sold beer in many non-Pennsylvania stores when it began the practice in 2009 at its State College store, located in the Colonnade shopping center off North Atherton Street.

“Beer is just an accompaniment to our great meals and our great food options,” says store manager Todd Strassner.

Supermarkets selling beer in Pennsylvania must have a restaurant where customers can drink their purchase with a meal; the restaurant must be separately defined from the rest of the store and seat at least 30 patrons. Carryout beer purchases must be made at the restaurant registers and are limited to a little more than a 12-pack.

The Wegmans store itself opened in 2002 as the largest supermarket in the area, at 110,000 square feet, with an 80,000-square- foot grocery area. The store features “extras” such as a wood-fired brick oven in the bakery, a sushi-demonstration booth, and a miniature train that travels a track suspended from the ceiling. Strassner says Wegmans has a reputation for being the store where “food enthusiasts” go when a recipe calls for an unusual ingredient; if the store doesn’t carry an item, he says, managers will try to get it for a customer.

Ten years after it opened, Wegmans is undergoing renovations, including adding an outdoor seating area to the restaurant as well as expanded food bars featuring “homestyle” foods, vegetarian foods, and Italian selections. A new “veggie market” will showcase chefs chopping and preparing vegetables. “The vegetables will all be cut — from veggie trays to fresh salsa to your most challenging vegetables, already cut up for you,” Strassner says. “There’s definitely a demand for convenience.” Next up on the remodeling list is an expanded organics and specialty department, with a larger gluten-free section.

“Home Run” for Weis

The newest grocery store in Centre County is the Weis supermarket at the Route 550 interchange with Interstate 99 just outside Bellefonte; the store opened in February. Although the store is removed from the competitive State College market, spokesman Dennis Curtin says it draws customers from a large area and showcases features that may be on the horizon for the Sunbury-based chain’s other stores.

“It’s been a home run for us,” Curtin says. “It was one of the most successful grand openings we’ve ever had, and the store continues to do extremely well. For most of the past decade, we had struggled to find the perfect site, and we finally did.”

The 67,000-square-foot-store replaced a smaller one at 945 East Bishop Street in Bellefonte, near the high school. Curtin calls the Route 550 store the “next generation” of Weis markets, featuring a gas station, large produce and deli sections, pharmacy, pet center, baby center, and 35-seat café. The store prides itself on selling local baked goods and produce and on having an energy-efficient design, he says. Among its features are skylights, LED lighting, and an ionized concrete floor that can be disinfected using just water.

The Spring Township store is one of 14 Weis markets to sell beer. “Customers tell us they appreciate the convenience,” Curtin says. “It’s a natural extension of our business.”

Weis operates three stores in State College: a 59,500-square-foot store on Rolling Ridge Drive, off South Atherton Street; a 52,000-square-foot store on Martin Street, off North Atherton; and a 38,000-square-foot store on Westerly Parkway.

The company remodeled the Martin Street store two years ago and hopes to begin upgrades at its other two State College stores later this fall, to be completed during the first half of 2013, according to Curtin. Both projects will expand the usable display space within the existing store footprint, expand the produce section, add more food-service options, make the stores more energy efficient, and update the décor to reflect the look of the Martin Street and Bellefonte stores, he says.

Everything Under One Roof

Weis has been in the State College market longer than any of the current major supermarket companies. In 1998, Bi- Lo, which was a mainstay of local shopping 15 years ago, sold its two stores to Jubilee, which closed them in December 1999. The former Bi-Lo/Jubilee at Hills Plaza is now Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, and the former North Atherton location was demolished when Walmart expanded its existing discount store into a 182,000-square-foot supercenter.

Wal-Mart’s entry into the local grocery market dates back to 1995, when it opened the members-only Sam’s Club on the Benner Pike. In 2002, the chain turned its North Atherton Street Wal-Mart into a supercenter by adding a grocery department of about 75,000 square feet and then did the same at the Benner Pike store in 2005.

As a result, the Arkansas-based chain grabbed a large chunk of the State College area grocery market, just as it has done elsewhere. Nationwide, Wal-Mart is the largest grocer in the country’s approximately $630 billion food market.

Future Plans

None of the major grocery chains already in the State College market have announced plans for new stores here, so Trader Joe’s may be the last new grocery option for a while. However, long-term plans are in the works for at least two smaller stores.

Developers Tom Songer II, Bob Poole, and Johnson Farm Associates would like to see a grocery store of about 20,000 square feet included in the 130,000 square feet of commercial space planned on Bristol Avenue between The Landings and Stonebridge residential developments, Songer says. In 2007, the developers had asked Ferguson Township for a variance to allow a 75,000-square-foot supermarket, but before plans could move any further, the economic downturn hit, and the project was put on hold.

The developers now are looking to build a “community village-type shopping center” that would include a smaller grocery that Songer says would be the size of a Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Aldi, or O.W. Houts & Son, a local department store that included a small grocery until it closed in 2008.

“Wouldn’t it be great to bring back an O.W. Houts?” Songer suggests, perhaps including a pharmacy, hardware store, and grocery store, all of which would serve nearby residents. “It’s hard to find someone to do that because it’s a low-margin business.”

Meanwhile, a grassroots group is conducting a feasibility study for a different type of local grocery store. Friends & Farmers Cooperative would like to develop a “community owned” grocery store here that would sell locally grown and produced foods, says Elizabeth Crisfield, steering- committee member. “My husband and I had been wishing there was a wider variety of local products available” in stores here, the Boalsburg resident says.

The cooperative has a steering committee of about 20 people and an e-mail list of about 200 people interested in the concept, she says. For more information, e-mail info@ friendsandfarmers.coop.



Tracey M. Dooms is a freelance writer in State College and a contributor to Town&Gown.
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