South Carolina

After popular grocer sees record crowd in NC, could Wegmans set sights on SC?

Who doesn’t want a Wegmans?

Maybe it’s the tasty hot foods prepared in-store, or the open-air market store design. Or it’s the charm of a family-owned grocery company that has both the vast product selection of a major outlet and the customer service of a mom-and-pop shop.

Whatever the pull, it’s strong enough to consistently rank the small but mighty chain among the most popular grocers in America. And it’s strong enough to draw more than 30,000 people to the grand opening of the store’s first North Carolina location — its southernmost — last month.

The gigantic fanfare over Raleigh’s new Wegmans store raises a question: Could there be a Wegmans in South Carolina’s future, too?

Last year, the the Rochester, NY-based company received more than 5,300 requests from people hoping to have a Wegmans come to their community, said Valerie Fox, a Wegmans spokesperson.

“We get questions from all over the place,” Fox said.

Despite the widespread demand, you can count on one hand the number of new stores the company opens each year. And in the foreseeable future, South Carolina isn’t on the list of upcoming locations.

However, the company has plans for a total of five stores in North Carolina, all in the Raleigh area. The more than 30,000 people who showed up for the first Raleigh store’s opening on Sept. 29 set a Wegmans record, The News & Observer reported. Some 3,000 people had lined up outside the store before the doors even opened.

“Wegmans has become a cultural icon,” said Mark Rosenbaum, a professor and chairman of the department of retailing at the University of South Carolina College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management. “Wherever Wegmans opens, Wegmans will be successful.”

Though South Carolina is not in Wegmans’ immediate expansion plans, the Columbia area has a number of qualities that could lure a company like Wegmans, said Ryan Coleman, the city’s economic development director.

“I think Columbia has continued to demonstrate to people we’re a town that has an appetite for unique and boutique offerings,” Coleman said. “Our community will go out and support these things.”

“I don’t see why something like this wouldn’t do well here, because you’ve got a population base of 800,000 people to draw from” in the metro area, Coleman said.

Among the factors Wegmans looks for in potential new store sites:

  • A big, big space, “along with adequate parking,” Fox said. Typical Wegmans stores are between 75,000 and 140,000 square feet, according to the company’s website. The new Raleigh store is 104,000 square feet. For comparison, the Columbia area’s newest Lowes Foods grocery store in Forest Acres measures about 51,000 square feet. The median American grocery store size in 2016 was 41,300 square feet and has been shrinking for a decade, according to Food Marketing Institute.
  • The ability to draw both locals and out-of-towners to shop. “Our stores are a destination,” Fox said. “Therefore, we look for stores that are both easy to find and easy to get to.”

Limiting factors for the Columbia area’s ability to draw a Wegmans would be both space and the labor pool.

Wegmans’ biggest key to success is its employees, who are among the most highly satisfied in the country, Rosenbaum said. With the Columbia area’s low unemployment rate (less than 3% in Richland and Lexington counties), a store like Wegmans might have a difficult time filling its ranks with the caliber of employees it seeks to create the intensely enjoyable shopping experience that makes the store famous.

“Wegmans creates a top-notch in-store experience,” Rosenbaum said, “and much of it has to do with not just the incredible selections and prepared foods, but employees who truly enjoy working there.”

In addition to seeking out a proper labor pool, Wegmans appears to follow the migration patterns of its northeastern-U.S. customer base, Rosenbaum said.

For that reason, if he were Wegmans looking at potential locations in South Carolina, his first pick would not be the Columbia area. Rather, it’s the Lowcountry that would have the best chance at landing a store, Rosenbaum said.

“I want to know where the moving trucks are going,” he said. “So as New York customers age and move South, where are they moving to? If they’re moving to Hilton Head or Charleston, that actually is my target market.”

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Sarah Ellis has reported on Columbia and Richland County since 2014. She graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in journalism.