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Watch the Throne: Can Wegmans Become King of New York?

G/R

Crowds at NikeTown to cop new Jordans. Queues for cancellation tickets to Hamiliton. Lines for cronuts (remember when those were A Thing?). Waiting is the bane of every New Yorker’s existence. So it came as a surprise to the uninitiated when hundreds of ‘Wegmaniacs’ waited in cold, rainy weather in Brooklyn’s remote Navy Yard for the grand opening of Wegmans’ first NYC location. 

18 years have passed since Whole Foods arrived from Austin in 2001. SoCal native Trader Joe’s opened in 2006. Both newcomers, along with local favorite Fairway, raised New Yorkers’ expectations of what a good grocery store should be. Can Wegmans still wow and rise above a bar that’s already fairly high? Two months after the much hyped opening, accompanied by dozens of mostly fawning press pieces, I visited Wegmans to find out. 

 

What Stuck Out

Service: Everything on my list was in stock and easy to find with one exception: turmeric. A store associate saw my furrowed brows intensely scanning the spice section. He quickly found where turmeric was supposed to be, but it was empty. That’s where this type of exchange would end in most supermarkets. But this associate sprinted somewhere and returned, turmeric in hand. This is the level of service that creates Wegmaniacs. 

Dinner for One: Cooking for one sucks. Wandering through the aisles to track down ingredients, trudging home with bags, cooking while fighting off hanger, and having to clean up afterwards seems impossible. Wegmans gets it. Many grocers offer meal kits. But not many have a section devoted to ready to cook meals that looks like this:

“What a selection!”

Wegmans offers a bounty of single entrees of real-deal meals. The meals are packed in an oven-ready tray that doubles as a dish once it’s  out of the oven for pure convenience. 

The Little Things: A picture is worth 1,000 words. Here are 35 (of the many) details Wegmans gets right.

Wegman's Brooklyn In-Store Dining
Your challenge, should you choose to accept it: Find me a nicer dining area in a supermarket. 

Wegman's Brooklyn Fresh Product
Hot or not?

Wegman's Brooklyn cart
A smartphone holder so you can check your shopping list (or catch up on Mindhunter) as you walk the store

It’s clear that Wegmans set out to build the best damn grocery store in NY. Did they succeed? It depends who you ask. It’s indisputable that the Brooklyn Navy Yard location is worthy of consideration. 

 

Wegmans as an urban grocer

Put 10 Americans in a room and you’ll find that eight of them live in an urban area, with six of those eight living in cities not suburbs surrounding cities. In that context, what’s more interesting than an arbitrary ranking of Wegmans amongst NYC grocers is considering how successfully Wegmans fits into the NYC lifestyle. 

Grocery shopping here is different. The majority of residents are car-less, meaning they walk, bike or take public transportation to the supermarket, schlepping as many bags as they can carry in two hands. Eating out or ordering in is criminally easy so cooking is very much a Sometimes Thing and very often a spur-of-the-moment decision. New Yorkers lead the US in eating out and in Manhattan  single-person households account for 46 percent of the total population vs. 27 percent nationally.

 

The Easy Run and the Out-of-Your-Way Run

All of this factors into the two types of grocery runs city dwellers typically make:

First, there’s the Easy Run, commonly known as the “quick stop” when you just need to grab a few items. For this purpose, there are tens of thousands of bodegas, delis, and vegetable stands that are literally next door or downstairs. Joining them are entrenched local players like Key Foods (270 locations) and CTown (140 locations). These stores don’t offer the massive assortment and delightful experience of a Wegmans. However, their operators have had decades to snap up prime real estate. Many have upped their game by offering the niche packaged goods and organic produce once only available at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. With one location in a somewhat remote corner of Brooklyn, Wegmans isn’t competing for Easy Run dollars. 

The second type of grocery, often referred to as the “bit shop,” involves some combination of planning ahead, going out of your way, and buying more. If we’re talking about the out-of-your-way run, I expect Wegmans to succeed in their current location and soon move to Manhattan to compete for these dollars. When cost isn’t a concern, you’ll go out of the way to Whole Foods for the best organic bok choy/antibiotic & hormone free, grass fed, free range beef/sustainably wild caught seafood. Trader Joe’s is the go-to for everything bagel seasoning and dark chocolate peanut butter with the added bonus of being easy on the wallet. I’d put my money on Wegmans also inspiring New Yorkers to go out of their way. Wegmans private label  products are great values. Health conscious shoppers and those who prioritize sustainability will find plenty to love about the experience as well. 

 

Same-Same, but Better

A lot of what people love about Wegmans doesn’t shine as bright next to the lights of the big city. Take the prepared foods for example. I love Danny’s Favorite but if Wegmans opens in Chelsea, am I sacrificing the shekels and stomach space that would normally go to a coconut tiger shrimp sandwich from Num Pang?

I’m sure Wegmans sushi is… okay. But in my decades living here I’ve eaten supermarket sushi maybe once. In a city where mediocre to excellent sushi is a click,call, or walk away, what would inspire someone to grab premade supermarket sushi from a cooler?

Wegmans has built a loyal following for having restaurant quality prepared foods, and they can pull this off here. They just need to account for the bar for restaurant quality being a bit higher in New York and other densely populated cities (Denver, Atlanta, Austin, etc.) What would that look like? Perhaps a partnership with a popular local sushi restaurant like Kazu Nori to bring in their made-to-order hand rolls. If that happened, I’d make Wegmans my primary grocer and run, not walk, to the sushi bar every single visit. If local restaurants turn their collective noses up at the idea of a partnership, declare war and feature Wegmans brand versions of local favorites. For example, a pastrami sandwich made with the premium ingredients available at Wegmans that could compete with the ones at Katz’s or a burger that tries to best local king Shake Shack. Launch a spicy omnichannel marketing campaign thumbing your nose at these local institutions. 

Would that be enough to inspire NYers to become Wegmaniacs? Maybe. There is one thing that Wegmans can do that would undoubtedly make them urban legends. End the era of two types of grocery runs and plant stores throughout the city that capture the magic of Wegmans in a much smaller format. They undoubtedly have mountains of data and the technology is here to help grocers figure out which products shoppers at each location love the most. 

I picture a small store where Wegmans has expertly culled their massive assortment so that locals can almost always find what they need during an Easy Run. Shoppers who need to make a Thanksgiving or dinner party scale run can order for delivery or BOPIS at their local mini Wegmans, aided by reinforcements from a larger mothership Wegmans like the Brooklyn Navy Yard location. 

This is a largely selfish vision which, if fulfilled, would make life far easier for me. Ultimately if Wegmans follows the same blueprint laid out by other invaders, they’ll be A-okay. But it would be much more fun to see them swing for the fences and become the toast of the town.

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