Dropping gas prices and a strengthening labor market powered consumer confidence levels to an 11-year high last month, which by all indications, is panning out splendidly for the retail food industry at the outset of what appears to be an intriguing year in the works. But make no mistake: As the economy continues to build up steam amid a rosier consumer spending vibe, competition in the supermarket business continues to intensify, as does the sense of urgency among progressive grocers to press forward with new initiatives and fortify growth plans to gain an edge.
To that end, new developments are under way at some of the retail leaderboard’s most influential players, which are entering a new era of transformative diversification to test, learn, explore — and ultimately seize — new opportunities to meet consumers’ needs and expectations. Among those that catch my eye:
- After a decade of perfecting its highly tailored midsize and larger-store formula, H-E-B is poised to open its first combo small-format market/gas station in its downtown San Antonio stomping grounds in fall 2015. The 12,000-square-foot concept store will be a proving ground for H-E-B to experiment with new offerings, delivery methods and inventory management for a smaller box.
- Following two years in the works, Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Meijer is in the home stretch of construction of four new supercenters — two of which will feature a c-store and gas station — that will open this summer in the greater Milwaukee area, to be followed by two to three additional Wisconsin stores to open annually for the next four years.
- Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market’s expansion of in-store dining and bar options, beginning with four new stores set to open in Chicago (here’s looking at you, Mariano’s). The Streeterville location, which cut the ribbon as we went to press with this issue, is the first of seven former Dominick’s converting to Whole Foods and the first to feature an in-store venue offering raw and vegan foods via a partnership with Chicago restaurant Raw.
- Giant Eagle is gearing up for its debut in the Hoosier State with a Market District and GetGo c-store in the fast-growing suburb of Carmel, Ind., which will be home to some first-ever features like a blowout bar and nail salon, a juice bar, and a banquet facility. Another first for the multichannel Giant Eagle is a table-service restaurant inside its newest Market District, located in close proximity to its Pittsburgh corporate headquarters and boasting an array of all-day options, including weekend brunch.
“Food stores continue to evolve beyond the traditional grocery store [boundaries], with offerings that cater to both the meal planner as well as the seasoned diner,” Market District SVP/GM Tom Devries relayed during my visit to the new store on grand-opening day in late January. Complemented by an expansive beer department and a full-service wine and draft beer bar, the 100-seat restaurant at the grocer’s fifth Pittsburgh-area Market District “reinforces our goal of being a purveyor of both the world’s latest culinary trends as well as classic recipes with a modern twist,” according to Devries.
Giant Eagle has the same setup in three Ohio stores, and plans to replicate the restaurant and bars in future locations, for which Devries and his team will remain focused on “creating an inviting environment that encourages both exploration and relaxation in a welcoming atmosphere. The dishes created in the restaurant are intended to spark the same culinary creativity in customers when they shop the full store.”
The decision to expand Giant Eagle’s grocerant prowess, adds Devries, has not been taken lightly, particularly when it comes to staffing expertise: “Our Strongsville (Ohio) and O’Hare Township Market Districts feature chefs with a dedicated restaurant focus, and team members with serving experience, to ensure quality dining and service.”
Indeed, with fresh meals representing the biggest opportunity for traditional food retailers to expand their brands and meet or exceed consumers’ expectations, a menu of change — and companion rewards — awaits those committed to creating new vehicles for experimentation and growth beyond their conventional comfort zones.