New stores bring variety to Greater Williamsburg's grocery store landscape

rarriaza@vagazette.com

As the new Publix store in James City County's Monticello Marketplace shopping center opens for business Wednesday, Greater Williamsburg’s grocery store offerings are more varied than ever.

The new 62,000-square-foot store is Publix’s first location on the Peninsula, and joins 15 other Publix stores that are either open or are planned to open across Virginia, according to the store locator on the company’s website.

Store highlights include full-service meat and seafood departments, select products from state and local vendors including Williamsburg’s Alewerks Brewing Company and a cooking demonstration station offering customers two new recipes per week.

Williamsburg, James City and upper York counties are home to 16 grocery stores. Recent shake-ups in the local supermarket landscape, such as the closure of a Farm Fresh, store have been offset with the addition of organic grocer Earth Fare, which opened in the city’s new Midtown Row development last June, and Publix, which opened its doors Wednesday morning.

As the local grocery scene grows, James City County’s Grove neighborhood is still considered a food desert by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Grove community members lack easy access to fresh produce and other healthy foods. Amy Jordan, the county’s economic development director, said Tuesday there hasn’t been any progress in bringing a grocery store to the neighborhood.

Market trends in the area also have shifted, according to Food World, a grocery industry publication that tracks sales in select markets from central Pennsylvania to North Carolina. According to the publication’s 2018 market study released in June, Walmart’s two area locations led the pack in market share for Greater Williamsburg, with $63.40 million in sales. The big-box retailer saw a $12.7 million increase from sales figures reported by Food World in its 2017 market study.

In last year’s study, Farm Fresh was number one in the area, with $61.90 million in reported sales. Since the release of that study, however, Farm Fresh parent company SuperValu Inc. divested itself of the brand, selling the Farm Fresh store on John Tyler Highway to Harris Teeter and its Norge Lane location to a private investor.

Williamsburg area stores vary in focus and targeted audience, which industry experts and local economic development authority leaders agree is a good thing.

David Fikes, vice president of communications and consumer/community affairs at the Food Marketing Institute, said today’s grocery store consumer market is split down the middle between shoppers looking for the most cost-effective options and others who are drawn to specialty items and sustainable practices.

“You’ve got half of your grocery shopping clientele that are really wanting to have that personalized experience, and then you’ve got another half that are saying ‘I want the most food I can get for the dollar that I’ve got,’ and so the diversity of those grocers are starting to address all of those concerns,” Fikes said.

The divide is reflected in the area’s grocery offerings, which range from German grocer Aldi’s commitment to stocking low-price store brands, to specialty stores such as Earth Fare and Trader Joe’s. Most stores in the area find themselves somewhere in the middle, however.

Non-traditional stores including CVS, 7-Eleven and Rite Aid also placed in the top 10 grocers by sales in Food World’s study, with CVS bringing in $25 million in food sales last year.

“There is access to a large variety of products at local grocers,” Jordan wrote in an email. “Many stores offer in-store bakeries, delis and hot food bars, (and) there are also more affordable options, particularly through weekly sales at stores. Overall, our market is well positioned with a variety of stores to meet every shopper’s needs.”

Jim Noel, York County economic development director, said grocery stores in the upper part of the county tend to do well because of a combination of tourism and a high median household income. Despite the healthy local supermarket scene, Noel said he feels the Historic Triangle may have an overabundance of grocery stores given its population.

“With respect to the population and the total number of square feet of groceries, I think we probably would be considered over-grocered compared to most markets,” Noel said. “Some of that is the tourism and the timeshare industry that drives more sales than you would have in a typical area without a tourism draw.”

Michele Mixner DeWitt, the city’s economic development director, said the abundance of stores is common in similar markets. She said the four grocery stores in the city adequately serve the majority of Williamsburg’s population.

“It’s so weird here because of the jurisdictional boundaries, but we feel that we have them in each area of the city. The one exception is the northeast triangle area of the city,” she said. “I think we’ve got a great mix (of stores). Harris Teeter has that premium side and the Aldi is definitely filling the affordable niche, and Earth Fare hits the organic premium market.”

Publix is new to the region but has 1,201 stores in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia, according to a release from Publix Media and Community Relations Manager Kim Reynolds. These stores combined for $34.6 billion in sales last year.

Reynolds said the chain chose Williamsburg as the location for its newest store in an effort to continue expanding across the state.

“It’s a natural extension for us as we look to aggressively grow throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia,” she said. “We hadn’t previously been serving this area, so we’re just excited to be here and to bring something different to the community.”

The 62,000-square-foot store is staffed by 155 employees, Reynolds said, with plans to continue hiring. Jordan said Publix expressed interest in moving into the market and the county’s economic development staff reached out to the company’s real estate team following the closure of Martin’s Foods in the shopping center last year.

Fikes said Publix fills a niche in the market with its blend of specialty products and attention to service.

“They’re going to specialize in customer service and being the grocery store that meets your needs,” he said. “They provide you with a variety of products that meet a lot of the more esoteric qualities and the ethical values to give you a wider range of products than most of your more cost-effective stores, but they’re also going to give you incredible customer service.”

Check it out

The new Publix grocery store is at 4660 Monticello Ave., and is open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Top 10 local grocery chains by sales in 2017

  • Walmart: $63.40 million
  • Harris Teeter: $60.90 million
  • Food Lion: $59.70 million
  • Farm Fresh: $58.20 million (Accounts for three local Farm Fresh stores open at the time of the study)
  • CVS: $25.50 million
  • Target: $20.70 million
  • 7-Eleven: $19.10 million
  • Rite Aid: $18.30 million
  • Trader Joe’s: $15.30 million
  • Fresh Market: $11.80 million

Top 10 local grocery chains by sales in 2016

  • Farm Fresh: $61.90 million
  • Walmart: $50.70 million
  • Food Lion: $49.30 million
  • Martins: $42.90 million
  • Harris Teeter: $25.20 million
  • CVS: $23.70 million
  • Target: $20.90 million
  • 7-Eleven: $18.90 million
  • Rite Aid: $17.90 million
  • Trader Joe’s: $15.50 million

Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.

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