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Wegmans, Wal-Mart And Media Bias

You have to wonder if some mornings the folks who work for Wal-Mart must ask themselves what they are doing wrong. Here they are, a great company that has provided millions of jobs and helped a lot of people on tight budgets, and every time they go to open a store, there are protesters and political opposition.

On the other hand, Wegmans goes to open a store — at 132,000-square-feet, not all that much smaller than a Wal-Mart Supercenter — and The Patriot-News runs an article entitled, Disney World of Supermarkets.

What the new Wegmans
may look like to an overly
excited shopper.

On the newspaper’s web site, the editors actually run a photo of Cinderella’s castle at Disneyland with a caption stating that this photo is “What the new Wegmans may look like to an overly excited shopper.” The web site piece is run in the “Entertainment” section and goes on to note:

Every year, Wegmans receives about 5,000 “love letters” from shoppers pleading for one to open in their town. For five years running, Harrisburg was at the top of the request list.

Sunday at 7 a.m. to dream becomes reality when the newest Wegmans opens at at 6416 Carlisle Pike in the Silver Spring Square.

While you count the hours until the doors swing open, Sue Gleiter has been inside the magic kingdom perusing the 400 types of cheese, the 700 produce items, the Market Cafe, the Patisserie, the seafood bar and the Nature’s Marketplace for her scouting report in today’s Life section of The Patriot-News.

Big crowds are expected for the grand opening and, we’re not kidding, tailgating in the parking lot.

“Some people have described it as being like a rock concert,” said Wegmans spokeswoman Jo Natale. “We don’t know what to expect. It’s not unusual to have more than 1,000 people lined up at 7 a.m.,”

The actual article is even more glowing:

Consider: Fresh seafood delivered daily with selections such as little neck clams from Virginia and seafood from Maryland, stone crab claws from Key West, Fla., and diver scallops from Maine.

At least 400 types of cheese, many imported from around the world with an emphasis on Italian cheeses.

More than 700 produce items including about 100 organic items.

It’s a long time coming for those who have traveled to the closest megasupermarkets in Downingtown near Philadelphia or Hunt Valley in Maryland.

“It just might be the catalyst that will make me cross that river regularly. I am like a kid on Christmas Eve — I cannot wait,” said Gretchen Yarnall of Harrisburg.

Wegmans has been called the Disney World of supermarkets. It’s certainly large enough — 132,000 square feet.

Others have said it’s like the Nordstrom of food shopping for the large number of specialty items and attention to customer service.

Shoppers, some on bus trips, have been known to drive hours, with coolers in tow, just to shop at the stores. It’s a destination as much as a place for people to buy groceries.

No matter whether groceries mean rare European cheeses, $499-a pound truffles (under lock and key) and wild salmon from British Columbia or Oreos, Wheaties and Jif peanut butter.

You’ll find the usual supermarket departments at Wegmans — bakery, meat and seafood, deli, health foods, pharmacy, digital photo center, floral department, magazines, books and greeting cards. That’s where the similarities end. Take, for instance, these signature Wegman’s offering:

  • Market Cafe — European-style marketplace with soups, gourmet sandwiches, salads, ready-to-heat entrees and sides, sushi, subs, specialty coffees, Asian wokery and pizza with seating for 300 guests in a garden-theme cafe with patio.
  • Patisserie — A French pastry shop developed with Chef Pierre Hermes, known as France’s top pastry chef. Wegmans also has created its own line of chocolates including truffles.
  • Produce — The chain builds partnerships with local farmers such as Oak Grove Farms in Monroe Twp. and Paulus Farm Market in Upper Allen Twp. to bring in homegrown vegetables and fruits.
  • Seafood Bar — A new concept for Wegmans. A 12-seat bar where customers place an order and watch their meal prepared. Includes oysters on the half shell, shrimp, scallops and various fresh fish cooked and served with sauces such as citrus soy and horseradish cream.
  • Nature’s Marketplace — Natural foods, supplements, herbal remedies, cleaning products, cosmetics and foods for special dietary needs.
  • Compliments: The housewares section carries Kitchen Aid, All Clad, Good Grips, Le Creuset and Reidel Crystal.

Wegman’s pricing strategy is accepted pretty uncritically:

Wegmans follows a “consistent low price” strategy. It does not issue weekly sales circulars or buy-one-get-one-free promotions.

Yet it was not just one mesmerized reporter. The same newspaper ran another article on the same store opening even more exuberant than the first:

Kim Reimels stood out among the more than 8,000 people who had poured into the new Wegmans store by 3 p.m. Sunday.

The Hampden Twp. woman didn’t just walk into the 132,000-square-foot store in Silver Spring Twp. She exuberantly danced in.

She didn’t just talk sedately. She squealed with delight upon finding golden raspberries, Sahlen’s hot dogs, Weber’s mustard and Reeses Klondike bars.

And Reimels didn’t just wander around aimlessly, bewildered by 70,000 items. She had memorized the layout after visiting the store Web site.

“I have Wegmanmania,” she admitted. “I’m at home here.”

The store manager reports that the community was showing great enthusiasm:

“People stayed in our parking lot overnight,” said Kevin Lang, store manager. “We had 2,000 people at the doors when we opened at 7 a.m. We did the “Wegman’s Cheer.’ Then we let the people in to shop.” And shop they did.

The produce department also inspired this shopper:

When she saw light-green cactus leaves, light-orange horn melons and brown lycee nuts in the produce section, she swooned.

Although even this shopper has limits:

But she resisted buying what might be the most expensive food item in the store, Burgundy truffles for $299 a pound.

The newspaper also posted a short slideshow of opening day photos that you can see here.

Wegmans is a terrific operator and a beautiful concept. When Pundit friends visit from around the world, we never fail to include Wegmans on the list of “must see” stores.

Just the other day we were praising Wegmans Organic Research Farm: A Model For Homegrown And Organic. Dave Corsi, Vice President of Produce, is class act, on the Board of PMA, co-Founder of the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative, and he is certainly pushing the envelope to achieve things for his company and the industry.

Yet some of its success, as with all retailers, is a function of choosing locations wisely. In the first article, there is a comment that… It’s a long time coming for those who have traveled to the closest megasupermarkets in Downingtown near Philadelphia or Hunt Valley in Maryland. In the second some shoppers are quoted: Orin and Jean Long of Mechanicsburg, who had just bought a cedar-wrapped pork tenderloin, saw “stuff we never saw before…. Put another way, it is like an oasis in a desert.

We know plenty of people who report they often go out to eat dinner at Wegmans, saying it is the best restaurant in town. But these are typically residents of more rural areas where a Wegmans really adds something exciting to the area.

Still, all this talk about customers who have “exuberantly danced” into the store, who “squeal with delight” and who “swoon” over the produce tells us less about the quality of Wegmans than about the cultural predisposition of the media.

They have no interest in doing a story on how the arrival of a Wal-Mart supercenter lowers the prices in a community so that a poor family can buy new shoes for school this year. They don’t know or care what it means for a 15-year-old boy whose mom squeezes out only enough to buy some decent athletic shoes at Wal-Mart. They don’t have interest in a story about how much better a poor kid can feel about going to school because he has an extra change of clothes and doesn’t get made fun of for wearing the same things every day.

The Pundit is proud to have a brother who, after a stint in the family’s produce company, has devoted his life to building a company that makes it easier for families to afford decent clothes and a decent life.

We appreciate Wegmans and enjoy every visit we can make to the stores. To stand in a Wegmans is to know a pinnacle of our civilization, a system that can gather the best from the smallest borough on the earth and bring it to one place. But we appreciate Wal-Mart too. When we stand in a Wal-Mart, we stand amidst another pinnacle of human achievement. To supply so many with so much, so inexpensively is a magnificent thing to behold.

The media truly does a horrible disservice to the country when it gets carried away with one kind of achievement and neglects the other.

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