I may not be a Wegmaniac -- as fans of the Rochester-based supermarket chain call themselves -- but I’ll be watching with interest to see how Wegmans fares at Natick Mall outside Boston.
The East Coast grocer, which hurdled the Capital Region to get to points east and south, has a cultlike following that generates thousands of requests annually for one of the handful of stores it typically opens each year.
The new store at the namesake mall just off the Mass Pike in Natick has a couple of unique characteristics: It’s on two floors and it’s in an enclosed mall, sharing anchor status with the likes of Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom, Macy’s and Neiman Marcus.
Few grocers are on two floors, and few are found in malls nowadays -- those that used to be there left years ago as they bulked up with in-store pharmacies, floral shops, salad bars and bakeries.
Yet the Natick store has bulk: At 146,000 square feet, it’s nearly as big as the largest Wegmans in suburban Syracuse. The space formerly housed a two-story JC Penney store – like the one locally in Crossgates Mall but slightly smaller.
Spokeswoman Valerie Fox said Wegmans wanted a store in Natick and found in the mall location “everything we look for in a site: a space large enough to accommodate a store our size and adequate parking; regional access that’s easy to find and easy to get to; and density of population.”
The last of those is important because “our business model is predicated on high volume – we need a lot of customers to shop in our stores,” she added.
Fox said the Natick Wegmans is the company’s first to have shopping on two floors. A central bank of escalators ferries people and carts between floors; there also are stairs and an elevator.
The first floor has packaged, dairy and frozen foods, as well as wine and beer. On the second floor are produce, meat, seafood, bakery, cheeses and a floral shop. The second floor also has a full-service Mexican restaurant, a casual burger-and-sandwich restaurant, a coffee bar, and takeout stations for pizza, sushi, soups and salads.
Fox called the former Penney space “unique” and said “every decision [on what to put where] was made with our customers in mind.”
But she said Wegmans welcomed feedback on product location and “as we learn how [customers] choose to shop the store, we’ll adjust accordingly.”
I wondered whether the store might become a Wegmans pilot for other two-story stores or if it signaled a return to mall locations.
“Our Natick store is one-of-a-kind because it was designed for a pre-existing space,” Fox said.
“We don’t build cookie-cutter stores,” she added, explaining that the knowledge gleaned from each store becomes cumulative. “We learn from each store we open and apply those learnings to future locations.”
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected].