The American grocery store began as a one-on-one interaction, with employees taking orders over the counter and handing items to customers. Then came the self-service supermarket, with customers in charge of their purchases – even having the option of scanning and bagging their own items. Now, it appears, personal service is back as supermarkets seek to distinguish themselves from their competitors.
Earlier this month, Winston-Salem-based Lowes Foods unveiled its new store concept in Monkey Junction, soon after a similar revamp of its South College Road store. The new design adds five new departments: The Beer Den, The Chicken Kitchen, SausageWorks, Pick & Prep and The Cakery.
Each specialty department spotlights local suppliers and caters to customer needs through a department host concept, said Lowes Foods spokeswoman Kelly Davis.
“We say it’s like having your own personal sous chef. If you have a recipe that calls for half a cup of celery, we’ll sell you half a cup of celery and chop it up for you. We’ll cook your sausage for you, the way you like it,” Davis said.
“Our new stores look nothing like our stores used to look, and we’re going to touch all of our stores in the next several years,” she said.
Harris Teeter stores are renovated in anticipation of trends and customer needs, said spokeswoman Danna Robinson.
“We design, build and maintain our stores before customers may see there is a need, to accommodate a new level of satisfaction for both product selection and ease of shopping,” she said. “Remodels not only help us continue to operate at the highest level possible on behalf of our customers, they also give us the opportunity to introduce more sustainable features as well.”
Similarly, the Wilmington Whole Foods tailors its offerings to customer desires, said Erin McNally, the store’s marketing team leader.
“We hold customer advisory panels quarterly and try to rotate the topic of each panel,” she said, adding that panelists are Whole Foods shoppers as well as people who’ve never set foot in the store. The aim is to elicit feedback to see how the store can lure new customers and enhance the experience of current ones.
“We do actually make changes, responding to that feedback at the store level,” McNally said. “One example: people want more education, quick tutorials on the floor.
So we had a two-month series of tutorials. We have buyers in every department bringing in products, finding local suppliers. Our wine buyer can recommend food pairings and other wines you might like based on your taste.”
The store aims to become a community gathering place, so McNally’s team is focusing on additional opportunities to bring people together and “become that hub,” she said.
Meanwhile, another grocer with a similar mission is considering a move from its longtime site on Oleander Drive, perhaps to a location in downtown Wilmington.
Tidal Creek Cooperative is experiencing a decline in food purchases, although its café is “going gangbusters,” company spokeswoman Katie Wright said earlier this spring. The store is feeling the effects of having other grocers nearby.
In a March blog post, Wright elaborated: “Our mission is to serve and connect our community through a thriving natural foods cooperative business … There are now 15 grocers, including Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, within four miles of our current location. Unfortunately, this increased competition is making it increasingly difficult for the Co-op to thrive and fulfill our commitment to our Owners and community.”
Moving closer to an increasingly thriving downtown, portions of which have been classified as food deserts, might be best, according to Wright’s blog. Tidal Creek has been soliciting comments from its stakeholders as it considers the matter.
Meanwhile, there have been signals that Publix Super Markets, which is expanding its footprint into North Carolina, is eyeing the Wilmington market. Property plans last year for the proposed Ogden MarketPlace listed Publix as the center’s anchor grocery store though no official announcement has been made.
While she could not comment on a possible Publix market entry, spokeswoman Kim Reynolds said that the Florida-based chain distinguishes itself through the quality and wide selection of its offerings and especially on the commitment of its people to customer service.