Wegmans: the grocer whose Valentine’s offering has got some real meat on it.

I generally shy away from seasonal postings, but sometimes it’s hard to resist.  And since I’ve got several irons in the fire right now regarding bigger, weightier, more robust posts, I feel compelled to send out some Valentine’s Day wishes…in the form of some choice cuts of meat.

Wegmans Valentine prime rib

While rib-eye steak isn’t everyone’s top pick for an aphrodisiac, I’m sure it’s the main course of more than a few choice candlelit dinners.  So why shouldn’t a grocery store accommodate for those who opt to celebrate by dining at home?

The heart-shaped cuts of meat are, as indicated by the logo on the sticker, courtesy of a Wegmans in Northern Virginia, right there at the entry.  For those living west of the Appalachians and/or south of Raleigh, the name “Wegmans” probably doesn’t mean a great deal—perhaps a vague recognition that it’s a grocery store.  But, much like the Cincinnati-based Jungle Jim’s that I blogged about a few weeks ago, Wegmans has accrued a cult-like loyalty in the relatively small number of metros where it has a presence.  (And, like Jungle Jim’s, it owes its origins as little more than a produce stand, having begun as Rochester Fruit and Vegetable Company in 1916.)  In some ways, Wegmans’ acclaim is a bigger accomplishment than Jungle Jim’s, since Jungle Jim’s owes its cult to its scarcity; it’s easy to achieve a rabid, insider’s-club following when there are only two locations.  As of 2020, Wegmans has just over 100 locations, yet it achieves a uniformly high level of esteem across its seven-state region.  It’s growing very slowly—at a rate of only two to three per year—which helps generate more promotional fanfare whenever a new location opens.  And this conservative growth strategy has allowed Wegmans corporate to make judicious site selection decisions—so cautious, in fact, that I can find evidence of only one branch that has closed over the years: at its hometown’s failed urban mall, Midtown Plaza, back in the 1990s.

But is a slow rollout really enough to explain Wegmans’ success over these years?  Or—corny though it may seem—does it have more to do with the heart-shaped ribeye in the vestibule?  The corporate boardroom might argue the former; I’d opt for the latter.  These whimsical individual touches may not offer much in terms of an internal rate of return, but it echoes the cheeky humor at Jungle Jim’s, coupled with the evocation of an upscale customer experience without noticeably inflated prices.  Every Wegman’s has a meticulously maintained produce wing and generous international food section—not as vast as its Cincinnati counterpart, but far greater than the typical supermarket—and most also feature an extensive prepared foods mini-market (baker, butcher, fishmonger) and self-serve buffet section, along with an attractive seating area more reminiscent of a Whole Foods than a corporate cafeteria.  Many Wegmans have rentable events space; some even feature pubs that host live music, trivia, or a poetry slam on select nights.  And every Wegmans that I’ve visited features, as a cute little lagniappe, a signature miniature train cycling its course on an elevated track, just a few feet out of the customers’ reach.  The chain exposes a few mild deficiencies: prices are a bit higher than the standard middlebrow grocer (about 5% higher—still lower than more upmarket counterparts like Whole Foods) and no other supermarket I’ve seen is more dependent on the generic Wegmans brand, resulting in less brand-to-brand competition in a single product.  But these are mere cavils in a chain that has aspirations for greatness, coupled with a clear philosophy that it is only possible to retain greatness if the business expands slowly and smartly.

And, on that note, I’ll cut my analysis short, again to keep it from morphing into an outright promotional campaign.  Coming so close on the heels of my review for Jungle Jim’s, I hardly need to serve as a spokesperson for two supermarkets in less than a month.  Far better to focus on the smaller things, or, if that proves fruitless, the finer things in life.  Prime rib, anyone?

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10 thoughts on “Wegmans: the grocer whose Valentine’s offering has got some real meat on it.

  1. Brian M

    Reminds me a bit of OUR local chain in inland Northern California-NUGGET MARKET. Sure, I could save money by shopping at Walmart or the budget brands, but they are just so…depressing. 🙂 Plus, I appreciate the fact that people work for Nugget who are not desperate for a job. The company treats its employees well enough that they stay. Even without a union.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      What a funny name! Is this little grocery chain quasi-upscale a la Wegmans? How much higher are the prices than at a “normal” supermarket in the area? I often get the impression that Wegmans employees are better treated than at their counterparts–a bit akin to the vibe one gets at a Trader Joe’s. Wegman’s prices are, as I noted, just slightly higher, which they might pass on to the staff, though I doubt there are as many kushy benefits as there might be working at Whole Foods–which I recognize does not quite offer the “whole paycheck” conditions it did before Amazon bought it out. WF probably got rid of the asparagus water as well. And I don’t expect to see asparagus water at Wegmans.

      Reply
      1. Brian M

        I never thought of it that way, but it is very cutesy! The prices are certainly higher than Walmart or the local bare bone warehouse/bag you own groceries place. I don’t think they are higher than Safeway, though. Safeway tries hard locally-they have invested in their stores. But the y are not quite as interesting. Union wages, though.

        The bigger problem is I tend to shop the “prepared foods” section. They are very nice prepared foods, but you can spend restaurant level there.

        Reply
  2. Chris B

    No visit to see my extended family (in a Wegman’s-served region) is complete without a grocery shopping trip there.

    I suspect they grow slowly (and dare I say, organically) by not borrowing significantly. Debt is the enemy of retail, especially low-margin businesses like groceries.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Yes, they seem to be taking the IKEA strategy, where every new expansion is a major event. Knowing where you’ve lived in the past, do you know what happened to the grocery chain Genuardi’s? I visited them once; they seemed more posh than Wegmans (perhaps closer to a Dean and Deluca, which is also basically defunct). But it could be that chains like Wegmans have “bridged the gap” by offering an upscale experience with an only slightly higher price point.

      I also know that Wegmans has a reputation of choosing absolutely pristine exurban locations with very low poverty and–from what I learned in my previous residence–areas that are usually out of reach of public transportation. Not sure I find that credible (after all, bus lines routinely change), but it did help reaffirm the notion that Wegmans are a tad exclusionary. They tend to avoid cities like the plague, perhaps having learned their lesson from the Midtown Plaza debacle, which I noted in the blog article as the only evidence I can find of a Wegmans closing (a failed early attempt at a downtown mall in central Rochester). However, they now have plans to renovate an old Fannie Mae building in northwest Washington DC; it’s currently underway. Though the area is high-income, it’s also very urban. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        The Wegman’s I know best is in the King of Prussia-adjacent “lifestyle” area (pricey apartments, street grid, shopping, including lots of upscale retail). It’s not easily reached by transit because it’s not right by the mall. There’s another one about 6-8 miles west on Rte 202 in Great Valley. Both serve affluent suburbs, but I wouldn’t call KoP “pristine exurban”…it’s been developed since the 60s, though that store location was built on a very prime former George Washington Motor Lodge & Golf Course site that long sad vacant and idle.

        I do not know why Genuardi’s closed, only that it did. (Google reveals that the company was sold to Safeway in 2010 by the Genuardi family. All its stores were closed, transferred to other Safeway chains, or sold to smaller operators over the following few years). Wikipedia suggests shoppers perceived price increases after the Safeway takeover, which doesn’t really make sense because Safeway has so much more buying power than a regional chain.

        Reply
          1. AmericanDirt

            I never understood Safeway’s model. They seem to be clustered heavily on the coasts, but even then they’re selective. DC has a ton of them but they’re rare (if not impossible) to find 100 miles north. And then there’s a Safeway supermarket mini-chain in my home city, but in Indy it’s completely unaffiliated with the bigger coastal brand and seems to target more blue-collar areas. Different logo in the Midwest, and clearly not a company that is investing much to update its brand. https://goo.gl/maps/AbLywbVp8ndZ6v3z8

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  3. Jon White

    I’m in central New York, the original home of Wegmans. I do shop there and the two closest to us are both served by Syracuse city busses. One Sits at the boundary between a low income city neighborhood and suburban middle class one. Neither stores near me are in “posh” areas. Price wise, they aren’t as expensive as grocery alternatives, but their policy seems to be top one or two brands and a wegmans brand in most categories, so choice is more limited. Mostly though it is very pleasant to shop there; they offer some of the best customer service I’ve ever experienced (and I’ve lived in several states) and are consistently rated a top employer. I think it helps they are still privately held by the founding family.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Thanks for that detail. Yes, I think the notion that Wegmans deliberately avoids locating near bus stops is over-stated, though that was the common understanding in the Lehigh Valley. It would be a silly location decision because it’s meaningless; after all, it doesn’t take much more than the stroke of a pen to change a bus route, and if it’s outside an urban area, the transit agency is unlikely to pay much more than the intermittent tiny sign. It wouldn’t surprise me that some of the Wegmans I know in Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton now have easy bus access. Also agree with you about the family-owned character being a major selling point.

      Reply

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