Not Your Mother’s Grocery Store

By Frederick Jerant

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember neighborhood grocery stores that carried a bit of everything on racks of shelving. The smiling owner often knew you and your parents by name. And if you were a little short on cash…well, you could catch up on your next visit.

Today, most of those homey little places have been replaced with sprawling complexes that offer vegetables and fruits from around the world, a dazzling array of meats and fish, dry goods of every sort, ethnic foods, small appliances, cookware, movies, music, pharmacies, banks and floral shops all under one roof.

We take these centers pretty much for granted – but how did they get so big? And WHY?

Basically, major stores simply responded to the wants and needs of their customers.

“We’ve long been a customer-centric company,” says Christopher Brand, public and community relations manager for Giant Food Stores, LLC, headquartered in Carlisle, PA. “We’re known for listening to our customers, who aren’t shy about expressing their opinions.” And their desires were for more products and services, and
more convenience.

When gas was cheap, driving from one store to another – to capitalize on meat bargains here, picking up a prescription there – didn’t dent your wallet too badly. Today, a “one stop” location makes more economic sense.

We’re also time-crunched. With long work hours, civic commitments and hauling the kids around, who has the time to navigate a multi-stop shopping trip? Or spend a lot of time in the kitchen?  “When you’re really in a hurry,” says Dennis Curtin, public relations director for Weis Markets, Inc, headquartered in Sunbury, PA, “you can go out for fast food, or pick up a rotisserie chicken, sandwiches, salads and other heat-and-serve meals at a grocery store.”

Our tastes have become more cosmopolitan as well. “A lot of it has to do with travel – they’ve been to more places, and have been exposed to more things,” says Mike Kier, manager of the Wegmans store on Tilghman St. in Allentown.  And with a more diverse population, “home cookin’” often requires special ingredients. As a result, big grocery stores often devote entire aisles to multi-cultural foods.

And, Kier says, “You can’t overstate the impact of [cable TV food programs] on what consumers are exposed to.” A keyword search of my TV for “food” produced Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” Andrew Zimmern’s “Bizarre Foods America,” “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” even “Bacon Paradise” – a redundancy if I’ve ever heard one – and hundreds more programs.

So what, exactly, will you find in these grocery stores? Let’s take a look.


Wegmans’ selection of about 70,000 items includes Italian, Asian, Indian, Latino/Hispanic, British, and German goodies. The store also boasts of “Nature’s Marketplace,” a broad line of natural foods, supplements, herbal remedies, and special-diet foods, some of which were developed in-house.

One of Wegmans’ key differences is the stores-within-the-store concept, such as a coffee shop, a fresh-food bar, a pizza shop and a 150-seat café.

Kier adds that the café will soon double in size, and have more of a pub atmosphere – a perfect complement to the hundreds of brands of beer available in the store. “When we have more space, we plan to add another 150 varieties,” he says, making it one of the best selections in the Valley.

Shoppers also find fresh-cut vegetables and fresh-squeezed juices, along with an assortment of chef-made ready-to-cook meals.  On-the-go consumers can pick up dinner for the family and just pop it in the oven when they get home. “They can save time and money,” he says, pointing out that the entrees range from $4 to $10 per plate.


Although no Valley locations offer Giant’s “superstore” design (such decisions are driven by real estate, shopping patterns and other factors), Christopher Brand offers the newly remodeled Tilghman St. store as an example of the chain’s evolution.

The “Shopper’s Solutions” kiosk offers plenty of time-saving information. With just a swipe of the store’s customer card, you can get a quick update on in-store specials, track your gas-discount and “A+” school points, zero-in on product locations, pre-order deli meats and cheeses, and even get menu suggestions with complete recipes.

The store also offers a bakery (featuring scratch-made doughnuts), complete pharmacy service, a floral shop that provides simple arrangements up to wedding packages,
and more.

Brand says the store has also taken pains to keep prices low. “Big stores eat a lot of energy, “he says. “At Tilghman St., we replaced much of the incandescent lighting in display cases with LEDs. We’ll save money and can pass the savings along to our customers.”

The chain’s gas points program also offers substantial savings: accumulate enough points and you can take a lot off your next fill-up at a Giant-run station (we’ve saved a dollar-a-gallon several times).


The chain’s new “superstore” in Fogelsville covers nearly 66,000 square feet, and features a broad variety of heat-and-serve meals, sushi, organic produce, plenty of gourmet and ethnic products and a bakery. One big winner is fresh-cut fruit. “Most grocery stores outsource that product,” Curtin says. “But we cut and pack it ourselves. It’s a big commitment of time and effort, but it’s worthwhile. Our customers tell us it tastes better, and we sell a lot of it.”

Its 35-seat in-store café complements the store’s array of ready-to-eat foods – everything from sushi to strombolis – and serves up 300 varieties of beer.

The new store also is also extremely “green,” Curtin says. By using natural lighting, motion sensors and other conservation techniques, the store hopes to use 22% less electricity and reduce refrigerant emissions by 60%. “Fogelsville is expected to be our first store in the Valley to earn LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certification by the U. S. Green Building Council. And in early 2012, we received a gold certificate from the GreenChill Advanced Refrigeration Partnership,” he adds.

Does of all this mean the neighborhood grocer is doomed? Not at all! For example, consider The Heights Market in Bethlehem; it’s alive and well – and competes in ways that the “big guys” can’t.

What sets them apart? Manager Gary Miller clues us in. “We offer personalized service,” he says, “with a family-friendly atmosphere. We know many of our customers by name. If they want a particular brand of cigarettes, or a certain edition of a newspaper, we’ll get it for them, and store it behind the counter.” The same goes for special requests. The Heights will seek out items from its primary and secondary suppliers, and online sources. Looking for a brand-new product? No problem. “We can probably get it for you within 48 hours,” Miller says.

Most large chains sell pre-cut or pre-packed meats, but Miller’s meat cutter is on duty seven days a week, and can work to your specifications. Need a 2-1/2”-thick Delmonico steak? Just ask! The store also makes sausages, ground beef and chip steak, and smokes its own meats.

“We also use local vendors whenever possible,” Miller says. The store’s baked goods come from Egypt Star, and Kohler Farm provides produce. “The customers get great products, and they know they’re local.”

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