Why grocery stores in Charlotte – and the rest of the U.S. – are getting super-sized

The Cotswold Harris Teeter plans to expand its prominent Cotswold supermarket, adding a second level and several new amenities
The Cotswold Harris Teeter plans to expand its prominent Cotswold supermarket, adding a second level and several new amenities

When it opened on South Boulevard in 1952, Harris Teeter’s 15,240 square-foot supermarket – slightly larger than an average CVS store today – was considered “the largest self-service food center in North Carolina, and one of the largest in the South.”

Nearly three decades after that store closed, a newly constructed one more than three times its size is set to open next week in its place. The new Harris Teeter, which boasts features like a Starbucks kiosk and a filling station for beer growlers, is almost the same size as the 55,000 square-foot Publix store up the street, which opened in 2015.

Traditional grocery stores in the Charlotte region – and the rest of the U.S. – are getting bigger, and experts say it is to stay competitive and adapt to the changing ways in which customers shop.

It’s no secret that as more grocery companies elbow their way into Charlotte, retailers are forced to compete any way they can for shoppers’ dollars. Store size is one way they’re differentiating themselves.

An older Harris Teeter store similar in size and appearance to the 15,000 square-foot store on South Boulevard, which closed in 1988 Courtesy of Harris Teeter

Grocers go one of two routes: They either super-size their stores to maximize their offerings, or they gravitate toward smaller format stores with a simplified inventory of products – though Charlotte hasn’t experienced as much growth in that kind of grocer yet.

“The traditional supermarket of 40,000 square feet is a dinosaur,” supermarket analyst Phil Lempert said.

The grocery stores that popped up around the country during the middle of the 20th century had less variety and fewer gourmet options. There were no organic or gluten-free aisles, Lempert said, and shoppers back then went to the corner butcher for meat, and their neighborhood bakery for bread.

“Our store formats have grown over time to allow us to meet the needs and desires of our valued shoppers,” Harris Teeter spokeswoman Danna Robinson said.

Robinson pointed to expanded offerings like ready-to-eat dinners, wider selections of brands sold, more check-out lanes, more international cuisine and more in-store conveniences, like pharmacies and floral departments, among other features.

With its fast-growing population, Charlotte has become a hotbed of grocery store competition in recent years. New retailers such as Publix are entering the market, while existing stores are remodeling and adding new locations.

In 1973, Salisbury-based Food Lion, then called Food Town, entered the Charlotte market with a 32,400 square-foot store on Eastway Drive. Last year, the grocer spent $215 million to renovate all of its 142 Charlotte-area locations, including its approximately 44,000 square-foot store in Dilworth.

Also in Dilworth, Harris Teeter, Charlotte’s No. 1 grocer by market share, opened its 26,000 square-foot store on Kenilworth Avenue and East Boulevard in 1988. The grocer expanded the store in 2000 to 40,000 square feet, roughly the size of a typical Harris Teeter today.

In Cotswold, as rival Publix builds a 46,000 square-foot store directly across the street, Harris Teeter is expanding its 54,000 square-foot store by roughly 4,000 square feet, a project that will include the addition of a second floor, a wine bar an an outdoor eating area.

The super-sizing trend extends beyond Charlotte. In Pinehurst, Harris Teeter opened a 78,200 square-foot grocery store, its biggest yet. The 24/7 store boasts a gas station, a beer growler station and a wine bar, among other amenities.

And this week, developer MPV properties announced a new development in Huntersville that will be anchored by a yet-to-be-named, 78,000 square-foot grocery store that will include gasoline pumps, suggesting it could be a Harris Teeter store.

In Raleigh, the popular New York supermarket chain Wegmans Food Markets is planning its first North Carolina store that will be a whopping 120,000 square feet, almost as big as the average Costco store and roughly four times the size of a traditional grocery store. The chain is planning another store nearby in Cary, though it has not disclosed any Charlotte plans yet.

Charlotte hasn’t yet seen as much growth of the smaller format growth Lempert referenced – though that will change in the next several years.

German grocers Aldi and Lidl are two companies with plans to expand into the Charlotte market, though their store footprints are smaller than the typical 40,000 square-foot. Lidl, for instance, is building a 31,000 square-foot store in Charlotte’s University City. The two grocers offer simplified inventories, often comprising mostly of popular and profitable private-label products.

“The supermarkets that will prosper are the ones that curate their offerings rather than just pile everything they can on their shelves. Big brands are in trouble as more retailers are upping the quality of their store brands, and shoppers – especially millennials and Gen Z (shoppers) – see no difference between national and store brands,” Lembert continued.

So will all these bigger grocery stores have an impact on Americans’ already growing waistlines?

“While there is no proof to that, there are Cornell studies that show the more food that is available on a plate ... the more people do eat,” Lempert said.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta