Matthews-based Harris Teeter officially cut the ribbon on its new specialty stores, named 201central, on Wednesday, as it seeks to stay ahead of growing competition in the Charlotte grocery market.
The stores, in Huntersville and Wesley Chapel, are both former Lowes Foods locations that Harris Teeter bought this year. They’ve been renovated to feature more than 3,100 varieties of wine and almost 700 varieties of craft beer. They sell kegs, Brewmaster’s Select home brewing kits and beer, mix-and-match six-packs, and party accessories such as wine glasses and corkscrews.
The stores offer a smaller grocery selection, with only a few aisles of food and a reduced frozen and cooler section. But they also offer an on-site event-planning service, complete with rentals for large parties, a cedar-walled humidor with more than 190 types of cigars, a temperature-controlled wine room, cooking classes and a cafe with sandwiches from Something Classic.
Store officials said the new concept was designed from scratch.
“There was no blueprint for this,” said Chuck Thompson, Harris Teeter’s director of private label goods. 201central carries H.T. Traders private label foods, and Thompson said the pricing is the same as mainline Harris Teeter stores.
At 31,000 square feet, the 201central store in Wesley Chapel in Union County is smaller than a typical Harris Teeter. The company used only about 60 percent of the available square footage from the former Lowes Foods store.
The opening of the 201central stores comes amid increasing competition. Two new, upscale competitors have entered the market this year: Whole Foods opened its first Charlotte store in the SouthPark area; Publix is opening two South Carolina stores – in Tega Cay and Indian Land – next week, with plans for a third in Ballantyne in 2014.
Publix plans to open a Charlotte office division and continue expanding throughout North Carolina. The Florida-based grocer operates some 1,100 upscale stores.
On the other end of the price spectrum, Wal-Mart also has been hammering away at Harris Teeter this year with an ad campaign showing price comparisons on identical grocery items.
Data from Chain Store Guide, which tracks retail sales, show Wal-Mart edged into the lead last year, with 21.5 percent of the market. Harris Teeter fell to second, with 21.1 percent. Lowes Foods is a distant No. 8, with 3 percent of the Charlotte market. Food Lion is the region’s No. 3 grocer, with 17.7 percent of the market.
Harris Teeter has taken aggressive steps in the past year to solidify its position in and around Charlotte, its original market. In June, the company swapped six of its stores outside of Charlotte with Winston-Salem-based Lowes Foods, and paid Lowes $26.5 million. In return, Lowes gave Harris Teeter 10 of its Charlotte-area stores, giving Harris Teeter a more commanding local presence.
Harris Teeter also has renovated many of its prominent locations, such as its Morrocroft and East Boulevard stores. The grocer also is tearing down and rebuilding new flagship stores on Central Avenue and at Providence and Queens roads.
Although Harris Teeter has 204 stores in eight states and the District of Columbia, its business remains concentrated in North Carolina. The company has 136 stores – two-thirds of its total – in the state. Harris Teeter has 36 stores in Virginia and 13 in South Carolina. Harris Teeter has three stores in Delaware and D.C. and one each in Florida and Georgia.
Spokeswoman Catherine Reuhl didn’t say how many 201central stores the company hopes to open. She also said that while the company is creating a different format in 201central, customers shouldn’t expect to see all of the store’s unique features through the rest of the Harris Teeter chain.
“Harris Teeter is going to remain the Harris Teeter customers know,” said Reuhl.