September 2, 2013

Northborough Wal-Mart Adds To Crowded Grocery Store Competition On Rte. 9

Two years ago, Northborough became the first Massachusetts community to host a huge Wegmans supermarket. Now, Wal-Mart has expanded its store in town into a "supercenter" with groceries.

Local shoppers have plenty of other grocery shopping options, including two Stop & Shops and a Roche Brothers store in neighboring Westborough, Price Chopper and Shaw's just down Route 9 in Shrewsbury, and Target stores in Marlborough and Westborough.

The dense landscape among food sellers in that section of MetroWest is likely to keep some store managers up at night, but it's also providing a wider range of benefits to local shoppers.

Industry analyst Leon Nicholas, senior vice president at Kantar Retail, said Wal-Mart's transformation of its Northborough store into a nearly 180,000-square-foot supercenter with a deli, bakery and produce, could be disruptive to traditional grocery stores.

"Certainly Stop & Shop and Shaw's are vulnerable — they're making kind of a price-driven argument to the consumer."

Wal-Mart is well known for its ability to use its huge scale to keep prices down, and Nicholas said the large number of products at supercenters expands its geographic markets.

Expect More Supercenters

Wal-Mart's supercenter is the primary format nationwide and is busily expanding existing stores to include a full range of food products, according to spokesman William C. Wertz.

"In addition to Northborough, we opened expanded stores in North Adams in May and Fall River in July," Wertz said in an email. "We've announced a grand opening of our expanded Orange store on Aug. 28, and we're working on expansions of stores in North Dartmouth, Swansea and Gardner."

Target has been rolling out grocery offerings since 2009, adding items like eggs and vegetables to its big-box stores.

"We expanded our fresh-food assortment at general merchandise Target stores in (Central Massachusetts) to offer our guests a more convenient, one-stop shopping experience," said spokeswoman Stefanie Mohr in an email.

But Stop & Shop spokeswoman Judy Palmer said the long-time New England-based chain doesn't see the expanded big-box stores as a major threat.

"Wal-Mart supercenters are everywhere. We compete with them in many areas."

Palmer said Stop & Shop is innovating in its own ways. One program it's rolled out recently in MetroWest is grocery pickup. Customers can phone in an order and pick it up. Roche Brothers has a similar service in Westborough.

Palmer said the service is available in about 50 of Stop & Shop's approximately 214 New England stores. Because shoppers can easily pick up groceries in the community where they work, or on their commute home, she said the service widens the store's geographic market.

For local supermarkets, Walmart is not a new threat. The retail giant has been the nation's No. 1 food retailer since 2001. The company is not taking the industry over without a fight, though. Nicholas said some players, including major grocery retailer Krogers and Market Basket, have figured out ways to compete on price.

Overall, U.S. supermarkets gained share in the market from superstores and warehouse clubs in 2012, going from 58.9 percent of grocery sales in 2011 to 59.3 percent, according to a study by DSR Marketing Systems.

DSR found the growth for grocery stores came partly from companies offering a different spin on food shopping, like Whole Foods and Wegmans.

Nicholas said stores like Wegmans differentiate themselves in other ways.

David Orlovsky, store manager at the Northborough Wegmans, said the store keeps its prices low — particularly for the basics — but it also prides itself on service and selection, to draw customers from a wide area.

"I know that people visit us from quite a distance," he said.

Barbara Clifford, president of the Corridor Nine Chamber of Commerce, a Wegmans shopper, said the store's entry into the marketplace in October 2011 seems to have spurred new efforts from local supermarkets.

"Even though we have a lot of food stores I think they're all serving a good customer segment and they're all thriving," she said.

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