Grocery store flight only temporary

Grocery store flight only temporary
Water flew off grocery store shelves as residents prepare for Hurricane Sandy. (Susan Braun)

By Erich Wagner (Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)

You could be forgiven for worrying about an advent of food deserts in the Port City. With two branches of Giant Food closing last month and Magruder’s going out of business last year, Alexandria appears to have experienced quite the grocery store exodus.

Not so, said Christina Mindrup, vice president of commercial real estate at the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership. The recent closings are the result of business model changes — which chains are embracing simultaneously.

She said many retailers are opting for fewer but larger stores, with a one-stop shop model akin to many department stores.

“They want to be able to do more than just groceries,” Mindrup said. “They want a bigger footprint and more of an urban type of grocery store that caters to smaller blocks of space and maximizes the land to do things all in one place.”

According to a 2012 report from the Food Marketing Institute, a nationwide association of large-scale grocers, the shift to fewer brick-and-mortar locations is a reaction to consumer trends. Not as many people make regular trips to their nearest grocery store, instead opting for convenience marts, pharmacies and even online shopping.

The move to larger locations provides a wider variety of goods and services to in-store patrons while catering to online shoppers, according to the report.

“Since packaged goods can be bought in a variety of locations, what will distinguish retailers from other formats are the availability of perishables (meat, produce and bakery) and programs that enhance the shopping experience (e.g., health and wellness programs, cooking demonstrations, innovative ways to make shopping more convenient),” the report said.

Giant Food spokesman Jamie Miller said in a statement that the recent closings are the result of several reasons. The company’s reasoning, though, falls in line with the market research.

“This decision was a result of negative sales trends stemming from several factors, including physical-space limitations that restricted our ability to offer customers the wide selection of merchandise they have come to expect from Giant,” Miller wrote. “[We] consistently seek and review opportunities to grow.”

Mindrup said Giant’s closings are similar to Saturday’s temporary shutting of Safeway near Bradlee Center, which will make way for a larger store. She said Giant also is in the process of expanding its location at Alexandria Commons.

“When we talked to them about [the closings], they asked, ‘What’s going on?’ with other sites close by,” Mindrup said. “They’re looking at sites to build bigger and better. They’re trying to capitalize on that more urban fabric.”

Mindrup also pointed to the still-under-construction Harris Teeter in north Old Town and noted that another grocery chain is in negotiations for the space vacated by Magruder’s. In the meantime, the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership will encourage smaller retailers to expand grocery service for residents.

“We’re talking to the smaller organization stores, like Trader Joe’s and MOM’s, to try to fill in some of these smaller gaps,” she said.