Cult followings

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Wegmans’ floral department in Rochester. Photo by Jamie Germano/Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Rabid fans of Trader Joe’s and Wegmans flock to their favorite stores

Mention their name in the right company and you’ll trigger wistful, faraway looks or breathless salivation: Wegmans and Trader Joe’s.

“I love Wegmans!” says Karen Parish of Pound Ridge. “My daughter goes to Cornell and she’s bringing me something back from Wegmans when she comes back from school. They have a stir-fry sauce that is unbelievable! I told her to bring me back three bottles. I called her and said, ‘Don’t forget to go to Wegmans!’”

When Parish heard the A&P in Mount Kisco was closing, she hoped it would become a Wegmans. (Turns out, it was sold to the highest bidder, Stop&Shop, for $25 million, the most lucrative sale in the bankrupty liquidation.)

“Their food is unbelievable, so fresh. I sometimes shop at Fairway in Stamford because I live on the border. But it’s no Wegmans.”

Meanwhile, Trader Joe’s inspires people to drive long distances to stock up on supplies of frozen and packaged goods.

While Wegmans stores are huge and Trader Joe’s are deliberately smaller, both supermarket chains have avid, some might say rabid, fan bases who crave a store in their neighborhood.

A 2013 survey by retail research firm Market Force rated Trader Joe’s as North America’s favorite grocery-store chain, based on customer satisfaction. Whole Foods Markets, Publix Supermarkets, Wegmans and ALDI also won high marks on the survey’s “customer delight index,” charting satisfaction and the likelihood a customer would recommend the store to friends and family.

“It’s a cult. And I’m a proud member.” — A post on the “Bring Trader Joe’s to Valley Cottage” Facebook page

Pineapples and oranges. Photo by Peter Carr/lohud

Julianne Agovino, 32, lives in Valley Cottage, where her neighborhood A&P was one of a handful of the bankrupt stores not to be sold at auction. Agovino, who has a 13-month-old daughter, wants Trader Joe’s to occupy that space on Route 303.

“I just feel like I identify more with that kind of supermarket because of the quality of the food and affordability,” she says. “Yes, there’s Whole Foods and that’s amazing, but it’s not in our budget to do that. With Trader Joe’s, I know I’m getting quality food, especially now that we have a child and she can have that.”

Agovino works in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, and twice a month she drives out of her way to shop at the Trader Joe’s in nearby Westwood, the closest store to Rockland County.

Trader Joe’s, a “limited-assortment store” owned by the company that runs another discount grocery, ALDI, has more than 450 locations, but just three in Westchester — in Scarsdale, Hartsdale and Larchmont — all south of Interstate 287. The stores are typically 8,000 to 14,000 square feet.

When Agovino’s friend, Benjamin Towers, 32, lived in Massachusetts, there was a supermarket two minutes from his home and a Trader Joe’s 15 minutes away. Towers says he’d log the extra miles to shop Trader Joe’s.

“Everything is always fresh and, for me, it was worth it to spend a little bit more to drive a bit farther,” Towers says.

Agovino’s husband, Joe, saw a silver lining in the clouds that swept away the Valley Cottage A&P.

“We were joking around, saying, ‘Hey, everybody go onto Trader Joe’s website and invite them,’” he says. “Then Ben said we should start a Facebook group. I did it from my phone.”

In no time at all, “My phone started blowing up” as people joined the group,” Agovino says. “When I started the group, I invited 45 people and, in 24 hours, 1,200 people had joined. Within a week, we were at 2,400 people. It took (on) a life of its own.”

Among the comments on the page: “It’s a cult. And I’m a proud member.”

Rockland County Legislator Richard Diaz took note and contacted the Rockland Economic Development Corp., which sent a letter to the chain’s real-estate director touting the location and the Facebook group, and vowing to assist a move here.

Valley Cottage isn’t alone in craving a Trader Joe’s.

Amy Kerwin lives in Hampton Bays, near the tip of Long Island, 40 miles from the nearest Trader Joe’s in Lake Grove, and is part of a similar Facebook drive, Trader Joe’s Riverhead NY Location Request Group.

“We got upwards of 5,000 people to email them all in the same day requesting a location in Riverhead,” Kerwin says. “When I called them after the fact, they were sort of like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll pass it on to our real estate people, but blah, blah, blah.’ They were not even fazed.”

Until Trader Joe’s comes to Riverhead, the nearest location for Kerwin is 45 minutes away. She treks there four times a year to stock up, filling two carts.

“I went two weeks ago and easily spent 350 bucks,” she says with a laugh. Her regular shopping is at Stop & Shop, “but they don’t have what Trader Joe’s has.”

Spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki said Trader Joe’s does not discuss “our business or real estate practices,” but the chain’s website encourages fans to extend an invitation. “There are no guarantees, but being wanted matters to us,” the website reads.

David Livingston, of Wisconsin-based DJL Research, says Trader Joe’s has specific criteria to meet.

“They want high incomes, high education levels, above norm median age,” he says. “They grow slow and methodical because they don’t use debt for growth, they pay cash. So they are super careful about where they open.”

It’s a business calculation, he says.

“You can lobby all day long, but what supermarkets want to see is that even sub-mediocre stores like A&P can survive. If a lousy store like them can stay open it shows the area is OK. If they are doing OK then retailers know they can do better.”

Supermarket consultant Michael Powell of the design and research firm Shook Kelley says Trader Joe’s does listen when people propose a store in their neighborhood.

“How seriously they take it, I couldn’t say, but are they paying attention? Yes. I think they appreciate that people want them. So they’re interested in it but, at the same time, they do have to look at the statistics of the potential marketplace.”

Still, Powell says, it’s not unheard of that a grassroots effort might bear fruit.

“I could see it tipping some scales,” he says. “If it was maybe yes or maybe no, and if there was community support, I could see them saying it’s worth a shot.”

“Before we open in Montvale, we’ll spend $2 million on training the people in that store.”

– Danny Wegman, CEO of Wegmans Food Market

Rows of apples. Photo by Tania Savayan/lohud

Wegmans is not exactly a store,” says Danny Wegman, CEO and grandson of the chain’s founder. “It’s more like a village.”

How else to describe an enterprise that — when it opens in Montvale, New Jersey, in 2017 — will cover 10 acres?

It’s also a throwback, to a time when people swapped recipes with their grocers. Wegman calls it “the old-time idea of a market,” where customers and supermarkets form friendships.

And he means it.

“The Number 1 thing our customers like — beyond good products at good prices — is they get to know our people. Our people are there for them.They’re not in a hurry. They’re there to take care of them,” Wegman says. “We spend tons of time on training before we open a store. Before we open in Montvale, we’ll spend $2 million on training the people in that store.”

Wegmans is a 99-year-old Rochester-based family chain of 86 stores, emphasizing high volume, high quality and a customer-service philosophy that stresses a personal relationship with the shopper.

Enlarge

LP-wegmans-exhibit-K-120915-Metro
Wegmans CEO Danny Wegman and his daughter, Colleen Wegman, president, stand in the Wegmans Wonderplace exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History on Wednesday, December 9, 2015.

LAUREN PETRACCA/@laurenpetracca

Colleen Wegman, Danny’s daughter and the chain’s president, says the high volume of sales — in 2014, it eclipsed $7.4 billion — requires 550 employees per store, nearly triple the number of workers at the mothballed A&P in Greenburgh.

And Wegmans is choosy. Its 45,000 employees are hired “for caring.”

“We find people who enjoy serving others,” Colleen Wegman says. “We hire for caring and wanting to have a good relationship with people, so the stores end up having a warm and friendly feeling. That’s what make the experience of Wegmans.”

Danny Wegman says the chain has been itching to open in Westchester County, but hasn’t found the right spot.

“We’ve been looking for over 20 years,” he says. “Hopefully, someday, we’ll find one. We’d love to be there. We’ll get there. We’re pretty tenacious. That’s all I can say. Wish we had one there.”

If and when the chain arrives in the Lower Hudson Valley, Colleen Wegman says customers will find a store that caters to families. That means providing a range of options for home cooks: Sometimes it’s a box of mushrooms, or a box of sliced mushrooms to help them get dinner on the table, or a ready-to-eat container of hot mushroom soup.

“Dual-income families are looking to save time without compromising on taste and quality,” she says. “We really focus on serving the family customer and making sure there are things that would appeal and be friendly to kids and adults.”

Even Stew Leonard is a fan.

“It’s probably one of the finest supermarkets in America,” says the man who gave his name to a chain of markets in Connecticut and Yonkers. “Their prepared foods are superb and their merchandising of that product is superb. Their presentation is excellent. Their salad bar is perfect.”

Colleen Wegman says a young mother with a toddler in her shopping cart will find a friendly face the moment she enters the produce section, the first department she’ll see.

Someone will offer her, and her child, a sample of something in season. Then, another staffer will demonstrate how to cook something in season. This “knowledge-based service” engages and informs; Wegmans trained more than 10,000 staffers in cooking techniques last year, techniques that were passed on to customers, including fish-searing and stir fry.

“It becomes a friendship and our people get such a kick out of that, especially when the customer comes back to share recipes,” Colleen Wegman says.

Wegmans makes it personal.

“We’ve got a lot of things on computers these days and there are a lot of screens,” Danny Wegman says. “You see everybody walking around looking down at their phones. But you come into Wegmans and you see real people and they’ve got something that you’ll like. And our people get to know what you like because you see them every week.”

Supermarket consultant Powell has studied Wegmans.

“It’s a model for excellence in grocery stores and operations and building a brand,” he says.  “There are places you can shop for cheaper, but what they do really good is this balance between reasonable prices with a wide range of food options and lifestyles they cater to. It can be gourmet, very food-culture forward, just great food. It’s an exciting place to shop.”

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The author

In more than 75 interviews over the past two months, Peter D. Kramer has learned a bit about supermarkets: how they’re designed and, most important, the key role they play in their customers’ lives. His own supermarket journey has been peripatetic, taking him from Waldbaum’s in Tappan to New Hampshire to New Mexico and now to New Jersey, where the father of four has learned to bring his own bags and scan his own groceries.

4 thoughts on “Cult followings”

  1. Good article. I had a Wegman’s in my college town. I’ve been going to the local A&P since – quite a difference. I recognize the reporters name. From the theater blog I think. I like that too.

  2. GREAT article and oh so very true! I love my Wegmans and don’t know what I would do without one near me! When people come to the area for business or if family is visiting, a trip to Wegmans is ALWAYS on the agenda.

    Our friends relocated to the Raleigh NC area where there isn’t a Wegmans…. Before we travel to visit, we shop at our Pittford store to get essential items Wegmans carries and cannot be found in Raleigh.

    Dear Wegmans, how soon will you make your way to the Raleigh vicinity ? Are there plans to be able to order online and have it shipped?

  3. I adore Trader Joe’s. I’ve never been in a store where ALL of the employees seem to be so happy to work there! Great food, good prices, excellent selection AND great service? That’s darn near perfection. They even have great music on the store’s speaker system. I tell the employees all the time how happy I am that they came to my neighborhood. They probably think I’m nuts, but I don’t care. I love that store just that much.

  4. We moved to the mid-Hudson Valley from Buffalo – the thing we miss most is Wegmans! Several times a year we drive to Syracuse (3.5 hrs away) just to go to Wegmans and stock up. We bought a freezer just for this purpose, Prepared ready-to-cook meats and entrees, family packs of meats, bakery items that will freeze well, their jars of sauces (pasta, cooking, marinades, stir-fry, etc), their freezable pasta products. We spend $500-$600 each trip, Does it cost us in gas – yes, but it’s worth it to have food we enjoy eating for several months until it’s time to shop there again. I have begged them to open a store in the Albany NY area since trucks so right by the Albany exit on way to MA — they’ve told me nicely to stop asking because it wasn’t going to happen -lol. Am waiting for the Montvale store to open because it’ll be closer. Wish they would consider upscale Duchess County! It is the BEST supermarket in the U.S. in every way. Maybe not the cheapest but if you want cheap go to Walmart. Someone once asked me what it was like to visit a Wegmans and my answer was: when you walk into the store’s lobby you can hear angels singing Alleliuah !

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