Over the next two hours, Congdon walks me around, pointing out all the things that make it, as he says again and again, “unique and different.” There are 70,000 products here, nearly twice as many as in most supermarkets. The store employs some 600 people, two to three times more than other places. So Congdon’s sushi bar can be staffed by not one chef whipping up made-to-order lunches, but by three — and this on a Monday morning, one of the slowest times of the week.
Any grocery company today has to do a little bit of everything that the competition does. So at Wegmans there’s a pharmacy, a florist, and shelves of groceries with signs touting low prices. In a back corner, near the enormous beer and wine section, bulk products like paper towels are stacked on Costco-like steel shelves. The idea is to make people feel like they’re in a club store, says Congdon, then surprise them with even lower prices.
But Wegmans’ fresh food areas are its showstoppers. There’s charcuterie, some 300 types of cheese, people cutting up custom veggie blends for stir-frys, and a fish department on its way to buying the entire catch of its Boston supplier. And then there are prepared foods.
“Consumers have evolved,” Wegmans spokeswoman Jo Natale had told me before my visit. “They’re still asking what they can cook for dinner, but more and more ‘What can I pick up for dinner?’ ” The Market Cafe is designed to offer several hundred answers to that question.
It takes up about a quarter of the store’s floor space and requires the work of nearly a third of its employees. There are all the usual counters to get pizzas, subs, and coffee, but there’s also an island with dim sum, a stir-fry station, and row upon row of salad and hot-food bars (most of it for $8.49 a pound). It has a 200-person seating area with fireplaces and flat-screen TVs, and a handful of registers for people who want to get in and out quickly, rather than brave the store’s 30 regular checkout lanes.
Standing in the Market Cafe, Congdon gestures toward the meat and seafood sections, each with its own ready-to-cook meals. “The way the store was designed, the farther back you go, the more preparation is needed in your food,” he says. “So if you’re standing right here, you don’t have to do anything but eat it. The farther down we go, we’re going to start to see all the ingredients.” This is choose-your-own adventure grocery shopping, which is exactly the point.
The same kind of philosophy is evident in the Fall 2012 edition of Wegmans Menu, a 134-page glossy magazine of recipes, tips, and coupons. Congdon flips to the page with the chicken Parmesan he had for dinner last night. You can cook it from scratch, which would take 45 minutes, serve four, and include ingredients Wegmans makes sure to sell at competitive prices. But if you don’t have that kind of time, the magazine points out the dish is also available in the meat section, where it’s packaged in an oven-ready aluminum tray. Still too much work? Then buy it already cooked for $9.99 a pound at the Market Cafe.
Wegmans Menu, which comes out five times a year, represents one last big thing that’s unique and different about Wegmans: Unlike most stores, it doesn’t advertise with weekly circulars, only placing ads in newspapers about once a month around events like the Super Bowl. Instead, when it arrives in a new community, it mails coupon books and copies of the magazine to households within about 15 miles, then entices more people with periodic mailings. The chain’s best customers then get new copies mailed to their homes.
The company prefers to do things like periodically compile lists of products families buy most, then freeze bargain-basement prices on dozens of them for months at a time. “It could be any family’s shopping list,” Natale says of the most recent one, which includes foods like chicken breast and bananas. “It appeals to everyone.”
The system works for Wegmans, in part, because its stores tend to be in relatively affluent areas, and people are willing to travel farther than usual to visit one. Wegmans shoppers spend more per trip than customers of any other chain.
But Stop & Shop has more stores — 404 at last count — and a more income-diverse clientele. So to appeal to its entire spectrum of customers, the company has been doing something counterintuitive: Trying to figure out exactly who each one of them is.
BEFORE MICHAEL CULLEN CAME ALONG, it was easy for the clerk in a neighborhood grocery store to know who was the loyal customer and who was the occasional one. But that personal connection disappeared once supermarkets started serving super-sized populations. The loyalty card — which allows stores to connect each purchase to the person doing the buying — finally offered a way to get it back.Continued...