Two-year-old Alexandra Chang holds on to blueberry waffles, her favorite breakfast choice, as her babysitter Taeko Reilly of Chappaqua, shops for bread at DeCicco & Sons in Armonk. Photo by Tania Savayan/lohud
These changes are more than real-estate transactions. They highlight the relationship shoppers have with their supermarkets
Chestnut Ridge’s Cathy Murphy thought she was in her supermarket, but she was wrong.
“I knew something was happening with A&P, but I didn’t even realize when I walked in that it was a different store,” she said. “Then I saw they didn’t have the self-checkout and I was like, ‘What is going on?’”
What was going on was that Murphy’s A&P, just across the New Jersey line in Woodcliff Lake, had become an Acme supermarket last month without her noticing. And Acme doesn’t use self-checkout aisles.
Gone was her A&P’s growing selection of organic food to which Murphy had become accustomed, in aisles she had navigated for nearly a decade. Things weren’t where they used to be.
What is going on across the Lower Hudson Valley is a dizzying and seismic shift in the local supermarket landscape, as dozens of bankrupt A&P stores have changed hands seemingly overnight to become Key Foods or Acmes or, in at least one high-profile case in Yonkers, a grocery-selling CVS.
These changes are more than real-estate transactions. They bring to light the primal and personal relationship shoppers have with their supermarkets.
Every day, people make the most personal decision of their lives — what to put in their mouths and the mouths of their families — in the most public of places.
Supermarkets play a huge, and emerging, role in our lives.
Plenty of choices
Janet Graham, of Mount Vernon, at Western Beef in Mount Vernon. Photo by Tania Savayan/lohud
In 1988, the traditional supermarket commanded 90 percent of grocery sales. By 2014, it had been whittled down to 46 percent by warehouse clubs like Costco and supercenters like Walmart, according to retail analyst Willard Bishop’s report “The Future of Food Retailing, 2015.”
The Lower Hudson Valley landscape is dotted with Hannafords and Key Foods, ShopRites and Stop&Shops, Fairways and Whole Foods, HMarts and Trader Joe’s, Stew Leonard’s and DeCicco’s, Turco’s and Mrs. Green’s, Acmes and C-Towns. There are Costcos and BJ’s and Walmarts and Targets. Online outlets such as Peapod and Amazon deliver here.
All of them sell groceries.
In dozens of interviews with grocers and shoppers in recent weeks, what emerges is a picture of modern local consumers as bumble bees. No longer satisfied to shop only at their neighborhood markets, they might shop three or four stores over the course of a month: a Costco or BJ’s for paper goods or items in bulk; a DeCicco’s or Turco’s or Stew Leonard’s for fresh produce and meat; a ShopRite or Stop&Shop for the staples; and a CVS for a late-night, just-ran-out gallon of milk.
They have expectations, fueled by Food Network shows, healthier eating habits and label awareness. They want organic. They want fresh. They want clean. They want good prices. They want it close to home, but they’ll travel if they need to.
Oh, and they are starved for time.
If you are what you eat, then it follows that you are where you shop, says Michael Powell, a cultural anthropologist with Shook Kelley, a consulting firm based in Los Angeles and Charlotte, North Carolina, that works across several retail industries, including supermarkets.
“Of course you see yourself reflected in your grocery store,” Powell says. “You go there sometimes two, three, four times a week. That’s a very powerful thing. There are very few other retailers where you’re going that often. You identify with your clothes and the clothes you wear every day, but you probably only go shopping for clothes maybe once a month.”
Like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon — where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average — we want our supermarkets to say only the best about us.
“People start to think of it as ‘Our streets are clean, our sidewalks are nice — and our grocery stores are nice and clean.’ It represents that decision you made to come live in this neighborhood or this city. It’s a reflection of that,” Powell says.
On Nov. 19, Stop&Shop opened a new store in Mount Kisco. A week earlier, it had been an A&P, the most lucrative location in the bankrupt chain. Stop&Shop had spent $25 million to buy it in bankruptcy court and a week painting and cleaning and converting the store.
After the ribbon-cutting, Bob Yager, senior vice president of operations for Stop&Shop, said confidently that the turnover will deliver a store that says a lot about the people who shop in it.
“Customers are looking for a fresh store to shop in, quality perishables department, quality produce, a place to come and find great assortment, great organic, natural foods assortment for the healthy living, and a store that people can feel comfortable coming in and have confidence that, when they’re doing their shopping, they’re shopping in a very food-safety-oriented store with great quality and assortment.”
Jennifer Mann, a mother of three from Rye, has been shopping the Whole Foods Market in Port Chester “literally since the first day it opened two years ago.”
“I love the shopping experience here,” she says. “First of all, it’s really pretty. And it’s a very social environment, because there’s a lot of people from Rye that I’ll actually catch up with at the grocery store, so I like that aspect of it.”
The former Manhattanite — “I used to live near Fairway and Citarella, so I was spoiled,” she says — shops every day, but not exclusively at Whole Foods, although sometimes she’ll find herself in the Port Chester store twice a day.
“I also shop at Mrs. Green’s, I shop at Costco, I shop at June & Ho in town, I’m all over the place. But if I wanted, I could get everything I need here. And I love Trader Joe’s.”
She wants a grocery store that feels clean and smells clean.
“I wasn’t a big fan of the A&P — we called it ‘the dirty A&P’ — but I hear that’s gone,” she says.
Sometimes, Mann shops for ingredients for that night’s dinner. Sometimes, she buys prepared food that she can get on the table in no time. She says there’s always something new to try at her favorite store.
“They have this new paleo cole slaw that’s good,” Mann says. “They keep mixing it up for me.”
All of that comes at a price, earning Whole Foods the nickname “Whole Paycheck” and puts it out of reach for those on a budget, including millennials.
In May, the chain announced it will create “new hip-cool technology oriented” stores geared to 18- to 34-year-olds. In June, the chain said the stores would be called “365 by Whole Foods Market” and would open first in California, Washington, Texas, Oregon and Ohio. No stores are planned for the Lower Hudson Valley yet.
The pull of the cult stores
Max Loeb, of White Plains, with his bag of groceries from Trader Joe’s in Hartsdale. Photo by Tania Savyan/lohud.
If a supermarket makes a neighborhood, a neighborhood can help define a supermarket.
A blogger wrote that the Rochester-based Wegmans is “the grocery store equivalent of Busch Gardens.”
“Wegmans knows who they are and they have a strong sense of that,” says Powell. “I think they belong in certain neighborhoods and they want to find those places where they belong. People then, in turn, feel, ‘This is my neighborhood and, of course, Wegmans belongs here. This is how I see myself.’”
It could be the personal touch, the prices, the fresh produce or the way Wegmans’ bakers frost their cupcakes in a series of tiny kisses of frosting instead of smoothing it out. One anonymous online poster even gushes about Wegmans’ grammar.
“Out of the many things I love about Wegmans, one that always sticks out is the fact its express-checkout lanes are grammatically correct — ‘7 items or fewer.’ It’s the little things, you know?”
The shopper who finds herself a Trader Joe’s woman in a ShopRite town has three options: Patience, persuasion or pilgrimage.
She can wait for a store to come to her. She can launch a grassroots effort to bring the store to her town. Or she can get in her car and go to Joe’s.
An affordable Whole Foods option can’t come soon enough for 32-year-old Julianne Agovino, who lives in Valley Cottage, where the neighborhood A&P is one of a handful of bankrupt stores not to be sold at auction. Her husband, Joe, started a Facebook group to persuade Trader Joe’s — a store they identify with for its quality, affordability and customer service — to take up that abandoned space on Route 303, just around the corner from their home.
Love store, will travel
Stew Leonard Jr. chats with businessmen visiting his Yonkers store. Photo by Tania Savayan/lohud
While it might be great to have a Wegmans or a Trader Joe’s in the neighborhood, people will vote with their feet — or their SUV’s — to get what they want.
A 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service found that people will drive past their “nearest” supermarket (an average of 2.1 miles away) to get to their “usual” supermarket (3.8 miles away).
We found people who’ll drive a lot farther than that.
Longtime residents of the Lower Hudson Valley will recall that, before 1999, when Stew Leonard’s opened a Yonkers store, people would drive from Westchester and Rockland to the Danbury, Connecticut, store.
Liliana Santizo of Yonkers remembers when her mom would pile her three kids into the car and drive 50 miles to Danbury to go to “experience” Stew Leonard’s, a family friendly fresh market that had a petting zoo and hayrides and displayed photos of the owner in the field where the turkeys he sold were raised.
“My mom liked the experience,” Santizo says. “It was child-friendly. She always liked to give us an experience with everything we did. Then we started taking all of our cousins and family members. It has become a family tradition.”
In 1999, Stew Leonard’s opened a store 10 minutes from Santizo’s home, and she finds herself there once a week. It’s not the only store she shops. She gets most of her grocery items elsewhere.
She can’t leave Stew’s without picking up cheddar bagels.
“As much as I want to stay away from carbs, I can’t help it. It draws me in,” she says with a laugh.
The 33-year-old — who works at a nonprofit specializing in helping foster children — is shepherding her visiting cousins from Guatemala around the Yonkers store.
“I’ll pay a little extra for the produce, but it comes down to loyalty for me, and family tradition.”
Of course, there’s also the time when she did a college report on Stew’s.
“It was at Westchester Community College and I did a project on how successful Stew’s is. I interviewed the manager at the time and he was kind enough to send bagels and juice for my whole class.”
“A-plus!” Santizo says, shocked that anyone would wonder. “I got them bagels and juice. Even my professor got some.”
“The customer service is definitely something that stands out for me,” she adds. “It caters to families and children. I don’t have children of my own, but I have nieces and nephews and this is where I bring them to have an experience.”
People will still go the extra mile for that experience.
On her day off, Sybil Edwards was picking up a few things at the Yonkers store, which is 21 miles and one Tappan Zee Bridge away from her New Hempstead home. She says she makes the drive at least once a month, drawn by the store’s “quality, service and variety.”
“They have a policy on a sign that reads: ‘Rule 1: The customer is always right. Rule 2: If the customer is ever wrong, re-read rule 1,’” Edwards says with a laugh. “I like that.”
People will also drive from Westchester to Rockland for warehouse bargains.
Retiree Susan Lapham, of Irvington, found herself at Costco in Nanuet recently, beckoned westward across the Tappan Zee Bridge by good deals and cheap gas at the store’s pumps.
Lapham said she shops where the bargains are — ShopRite for canned goods, Stew Leonard’s for produce, Costco for meat — and now that she’s retired, she has time to shop at her leisure.
“I knew I had to go to Costco, but I hate the Yonkers Costco, so this is my compromise,” she said before getting into her car for the 13-mile drive back across the bridge.
Things could be better
The deli section at Stop & Shop, formerly an A&P in Mount Kisco. Photo by Tania Savayan/lohud
Of course, if you don’t want to wait or cajole or drive, there is a fourth option: Bemoan your fate.
Katonah’s Mary Sue Butch is not a happy shopper.
“Why is grocery shopping such a horrible experience in northern Westchester?” she asks. “It’s like a third-world country up here.”
The demise of her A&P — which had been getting progressively worse — hasn’t changed things, she says.
“There are items, not the least bit exotic, that I usually buy weekly that Stop&Shop does not carry: Kellogg’s Raisin Mini-Wheats, Propel lemon water, Purina rawhide dog treats, for example. Now I have to search for these items online and pay for delivery.”
It’s enough to give a woman a complex.
“I told my mom I thought, even though I knew it was impossible, that someone was following me around at the store and writing down everything I bought and not stocking it anymore. I’d buy something twice, like it, and the next time I went it was gone, never to reappear,” Butch says with a laugh.
Paco Underhill — author, “retail anthropologist” and CEO of NYC-based retail consulting firm Envirosell — studies shoppers for a living, analyzing how they approach a store, how they interact with staff, how they read signs, and what they buy.
He says Butch might be on to something when she thinks things could be better.
“The irony of Westchester is that, compared to other wealthy suburbs across the country, it’s much more poorly served with groceries,” Underhill says. “In the Northeast in general, we don’t have a lot of choices. It is based largely on the cost of real estate.”
Mike McChrystal, of Oxford, England, was visiting his daughter who has lived in Yorktown for 15 years, and popped into the Yorktown Acme for a few things. He says American supermarkets “are pretty much like supermarkets the world over. Sometimes, the value is good and sometime you’ve got to hunt around, don’t you?” While the prices were similar to back home, McChrystal couldn’t say the same for the fruit. “We don’t find the strawberries and soft fruit as tasty as we get them back home,” he says. “The ones you get here are pretty bland.”
For years, Yorktown’s Mike Hamilton shopped the A&P. When it became an Acme, he kept shopping there.
“This is it, our supermarket,” says the 38-year-old father. “We spend about $200 a week. That’s usually what we hit.”
He grew up shopping at ShopRite, but became an A&P shopper because it was close. Now, with two kids, his habits haven’t changed. Same building, same shopping list.
“A supermarket’s a supermarket,” he says 38-year-old said. “But I like their produce, and it’s clean.
“The only thing I don’t like about Acme is they don’t have the self-checkout,” he said. “One of the cashiers said they don’t believe in it. She said they want the social interaction. I’m not really interested in that, no offense to them. I want to get in and get out.”
Citrus at the new Stop & Shop, formerly an A&P, in Mount Kisco. Photo by Tania Savayan/lohud
After 44 years of marriage, Michelle and Marshall Sherer have got it down to a science: He drops her off outside Turco’s on his way to get his Lotto tickets and loops back around to pick her up just as she’s emerging with the produce she went for.
What do they look for in a grocery store?
“Variety and freshness,” says Michelle, prompting Marshall to interject, “Value.” (They often finish each other’s sentences.)
“They have nice fresh produce at Turco’s, reasonably priced,” says Michelle, who finds herself at the Yorktown store once or twice a week.
Her big shop is at Stop&Shop in Baldwin Place, “Because I don’t care for Acme, the one that just opened up. I don’t care for their prices. A&P was expensive, but it was less than Acme. I’m not a fan yet, and I’ve been three times. I think it needs a bit of improvement before I’m going to make it a regular shop.”
Losing the A&P was a shock.
“We’re living here since 1981 and the A&P was always our main store. It was here, where Turco’s is, when we first moved here, and there was a Shopwell that went to Food Emporium and then it closed and they never built anything in there.”
They go to BJ’s for bulk goods and, once a month, they take a ride to Trader Joe’s in Connecticut.
Marshall says they spend more than $100 a week on groceries.
“We’re health conscious and it costs more to eat healthy,” Michelle says. “They seem to have the best produce around. You know it’s fresh, because everyone is buying it. It’s not sitting around.”
Getting used to the change
A shopper at C-Town Supermarket in Tarrytown. Photo by Tania Savayan/lohud
Cathy Murphy is still shopping — for a new grocery store.
“I used to do my main shopping at the A&P and then I would fill in with the Hungry Hollow Co-op in Chestnut Ridge and some organic stores, but now I’m kind of searching for that,” she says. “I still go to the co-op, which is near my house, and to Matter of Health in Nanuet, but I’m searching a little more, because A&P isn’t there, but I try not to go to too many places.”
Murphy is standing at the Shops at Nanuet, outside another contender for her grocery dollars, Fairway, which bills itself as being “like no other market.”
“I’ve been here before,” she says. “Some of the prices are expensive here. It’s hard. You have to really look for bargains. I could count on certain prices at A&P. I feel like a fish out of water since A&P is gone. You don’t want to spend all your time going from store to store to store, but you want to save money.”
She has been thinking of heading to Westwood, New Jersey, which has the nearest Trader Joe’s, a discount grocer with a rabid fan base.
If Murphy were designing her ideal supermarket — and who doesn’t dream of that? — “It would have generally good prices and organic.”
“A&P had this great organic section that you could count on,” she says. “There was also a Starbucks inside the store, and a wine shop, making it a destination.”
Murphy gave Acme a chance, even returning with her 16-year-old son to gauge his reaction, but found the shopping experience uncomfortable and the prices too high.
“He’s kind of into natural foods and he knows our co-op, which is open year-round, but some of the prices are a bit expensive,” she says. “I wish I could go there all the time to support them, but it would just be too expensive. Some things, I just have to buy organic, like gluten-free pasta.
“A&P was catching on, and every week they had more things.”