Grocery chains adjust to changing market

Loyalty is harder and harder to come by for the supermarkets of yesteryear, as more grocery stores e
Stephen Muzio makes lobster rolls at the Market Bistro by Price Chopper in Latham in February.
Stephen Muzio makes lobster rolls at the Market Bistro by Price Chopper in Latham in February.

Walmart is closer to home and a new Hannaford recently opened nearby, but still Missy Lawyer chooses to shop at her local Price Chopper in Cobleskill.

It’s not just the frequent sales, she says, or the remarkable couponing successes she’s racked up over the years, starting with that time her husband lost his job and she managed to spend very little stocking up on three months worth of food from Price Chopper for a family of nine.

ShopRite has great coupon deals, but if one opened up in her backyard, you wouldn’t catch her shopping there.

What clinched her loyalty to the Schenectady-based supermarket chain was the time eight years ago when she and her seven kids threw a local charity walk for St. Jude’s. Price Chopper, Stewart’s Shops and Hubie’s, the pizzeria down the road, were the only local businesses to donate to the cause.

“It wasn’t a big event,” Lawyer said. “It wasn’t a bunch of people. But the fact that a few places in our community were willing to help out for this little walk meant everything. So for me, Price Chopper stands for more than just good deals. It’s community.”

Loyalty like hers is harder and harder to come by for the supermarkets of yesteryear, as more grocery stores enter the Capital Region market. Lawyer lives on the outskirts of the region, in rural Schoharie County, where so often the grocery store of choice is the one that’s closest. But even her distance from the epicenter of the so-called grocery wars hasn’t left her immune from the dizzying array of new choices in the area. She admits to being tempted once to drive the 40 minutes to Schenectady to check out the new ShopRite in town.

“It was their triple coupon deals,” she said, her voice tinged with guilt.

Price Chopper, a chain of more than 130 grocery stores born in Schenectady 82 years ago, announced this week it was cutting 80 administrative positions within the company. It was the second time in as many years the chain announced sizeable layoffs. In a statement, President and CEO Jerry Golub lamented the decision, citing narrow margins, rising health care, commodity and fuel costs, fewer people spending fewer food stamp dollars, and competition from new food stores and even non-food stores that have added food to their offerings.

The local grocery landscape has changed drastically since ShopRite returned to the region three years ago. Hot on its heels were newcomers like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Healthy Living Market and Ideal Food Basket. The Fresh Market, which opened in Latham in 2010, added a second local store in Saratoga Springs just last month. Smaller players, like Honest Weight Food Co-Op in Albany and Four Seasons Natural Foods in Saratoga, expanded their offerings at bigger locations. Even Walmart, which has always been a competitor with the grocery selection in its Supercenters, upped the ante with the fall 2013 opening of a grocery-only Neighborhood Market in Niskayuna.

In response, traditional supermarkets like Price Chopper and Hannaford began investing heavily to upgrade their stores. Price Chopper took it to the next level with the grand opening this year of Market Bistro in Latham, a reimagined grocery store that will serve as the prototype for its next generation of stores.

Industry analysts believe this week’s layoff news is a sign of the changing grocery times, which is simultaneously trending toward health food offerings like organic, non-GMO and gluten-free products and quick and convenient grab-and-go foods. Price Chopper’s reimagined concept store, they say, could help it keep a leg up in the increasingly competitive supermarket game.

“You will find that retail, in general, is about renewing yourself,” said Jon Springer, retail editor at Supermarket News, a national weekly trade magazine. “Every once in a while you’ve got to find ways to stay current with what the shopper is doing or you’re going to be irrelevant.”

In Price Chopper’s case, that has meant trying a little bit of everything. Market Bistro still has the bones of a supermarket, but it also has a restaurant, cooking school, 17 made-to-order food stations, a growler station, smokehouse, coffee house, fromagerie, three delis, a hydroponic tomato display and expanded selections of ethnic specialties and gluten-free and natural organic options. On top of that, it’s become a convenient pit stop for the ill, with the addition of a walk-in health clinic next to an in-store pharmacy.

“Market Bistro addresses some of the ways they see customer demands changing,” Springer said. “The old model was basically a warehouse with shelves and products. But people today are eating in such a way that incorporates these different things that supermarkets haven’t traditionally paid attention to — prepared foods, grab and go stuff, health and wellness stuff. You go to a typical old Price Chopper, and even if they started offering those things, the store itself doesn’t scream that it’s offering those things. Market Bistro sends the message loud and clear.”

Price Chopper employs 22,000 people. Of that, more than 700 were working out of its corporate headquarters on Nott Street a year ago. The last two rounds of layoffs affected these workers, as well as some staff at its distribution facility in Rotterdam. The chain has tried to keep store-level positions away from the chopping block as it focuses on “elevating the shopping experience for our customers, modernizing our brand and inventing our next generation of stores,” Golub said in his statement.

This comes as no surprise to Springer, who points out that many of the new competitors in the Capital Region market have won easy points with customers for their signature shopping experience — think that free cup of coffee to sip while you shop at Trader Joe’s or The Fresh Market.

Sammie Marcello, of Averill Park, said one of the reasons she stopped shopping at Price Chopper was the lack of good service at her local store.

“I was a loyal customer for over 20 years,” she said. “And as the prices kept climbing and the service declined, I have taken my business elsewhere. Most of my shopping is now done at Hannaford, which was always a no-no before, because I was very loyal to Price Chopper.”

Marcello’s evolving shopping habits are part of another trend that’s hurting the big players. She doesn’t shop for groceries at just one place anymore, but goes to Hannaford for staples, Route 66 Meats & Smokehouse in Wynantskill for fresh, local meat and The Fresh Market in Latham for fresh fruits and vegetables.

The trend toward niche grocery stores is a good thing for customers, but not so good for traditional supermarkets, Springer said.

“There are some very good retailers who have found success by operating in particular niches or targeting a particular kind of shopping trip,” he said.

He pointed to Trader Joe’s, which has garnered such a cult following that a determined group of people successfully brought it to the Albany area in 2012, as a popular shopping spot for people throwing parties. About 80 percent of items found in a Trader Joe’s are house brands that can’t be found anywhere else.

New grocery options are also trending smaller. Urban markets are friendlier to supermarkets who promise smaller stores, like the new Price Chopper Limited in Saratoga Springs. Even the carts have gotten smaller.

People no longer want to traverse aisle after sterile aisle in warehouse-like supermarkets, Springer said. That’s one of the reasons Walmart has committed to opening more of what it calls “neighborhood markets” — or grocery-only Walmart stores that are about a quarter of the size of a typical Walmart Supercenter. One of these opened in Niskayuna last fall, a neighborhood long dominated by Price Chopper that in the last three years has seen the opening of a new ShopRite, an expanded selection of groceries at the Niskayuna Co-op and the addition of a grocery section at Target.

“The reason that you’ll see a lot of alternative retailers like Target adding food is because food is the kind of thing that brings a person back to your store,” Springer said. “It’s something you need every day, every week. So you’ll see dollar stores with fairly large grocery selections and modern drug stores that are well stocked with a good selection of groceries. A lot of different retailers are using food as a draw.”

Union College economics professor Stephen Schmidt came to the region 20 years ago, when the only grocery stores in town were Price Chopper, Hannaford and Grand Union.

“That was pretty much it, at least in Schenectady and Niskayuna,” he said. “You didn’t have these boutique stores that you do now.”

When ShopRite announced its return to the region after a decades-long absence and Target started offering groceries, Schmidt was convinced the concentration of grocery options in Niskayuna would be so great that at least one of them wouldn’t survive.

“But, in fact, they all have,” he said. “People want choices, and if you don’t adapt, you don’t survive.”

Categories: Business, News, Schenectady County

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