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South Hills fresh food competition grows with new Mt. Lebanon store

Conor Ralph | Tribune-Review
Scott Nesmith of Burlington, Ky, helps open Fresh Market stores across the country. The Fresh Market in Mt. Lebanon will be the 36th store he has helped prepare.

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Wednesday, July 3, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

The Fresh Market in Mt. Lebanon will join a gamut of gourmet grocers seeking a slice of the lucrative South Hills when it opens for business on Wednesday.

Nearby are Giant Eagle Market District and The UnCommon Market in Bethel Park, Trader Joe's and a planned Whole Foods Market in Upper St. Clair and Sunny Bridge Natural Foods in Peters, offering more options for shoppers but intensifying the competition for fresh and gourmet foods, analysts said.

“We've been waiting for (Fresh Market) to open, and we'll definitely check it out,” said Maureen McCauley, 46, of Dormont, as she left Trader Joe's on Tuesday afternoon. “I'll selectively shop different stores for the best prices on different items, so more competition is good.”

Grocery customers shop often, and stores can win or lose their loyalties on a “compressed schedule,” said Jim Hertel, managing partner with Barrington, Ill.-based retail analysis firm Willard Bishop. That means the impact could come quickly for the competition, he said.

“The story of how successful The Fresh Market is and how successful the existing players will be — that'll be told in a matter of 90 days of the opening,” he said.

Given the time it takes to build a new store, Hertel said the Greensboro, N.C.-based Fresh Market chain likely knew its local competition and concluded the market could support all the players.

But market saturation may have discouraged another competitor. Earth Fare Market, another North Carolina-based chain specializing in fresh and organic food, made initial plans to move in to South Hills Village in Upper St. Clair but backed out last year soon after Austin-based Whole Foods announced it would open a store on the other side of Route 19 by 2015.

“The fact that somebody pulled out, they either looked at the population growth data and weren't sure of their projections, or they thought the projections weren't enough to sustain everybody,” Hertel said.

Fresh Market stocks conventional and organic produce, gluten-free foods and locally sourced products such as Schneider's milk and La Prima Espresso Co.'s coffee beans. The store will carry 10,000 to 20,000 items, with an emphasis on gourmet products and fresh foods: Grinders make fresh peanut and almond butter on demand; and the full-service meat counter has no pre-wrapped cuts. Most aisles and fixtures are short enough to see over, drawing eyes to the green-and-white awning of the deli at the store's center.

“We do look for areas where people are ‘foodies,' ” said Fresh Market store manager Randie Alf on Tuesday, showing off the new store. Alf said the delis “are always the center of attention in our stores. Like someone's kitchen, it gives the store a little bit of a homey feel.”

Willard Bishop's “Future of Food Retailing Report” released last month showed sales in “fresh format” stores increased 22.5 percent in 2012 to $12.7 billion. Fresh Market reported a 5.7 percent increase in same-store sales; Whole Foods had an 8.7 percent increase in sales during that period. The report projected that such stores will enjoy 13.4 percent annual sales growth while “limited-assortment” stores such as Trader Joe's will enjoy 6.2 percent growth through 2017, eroding the hold of traditional grocers such as Giant Eagle.

But Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director at New York-based retail consultant Strategic Resource Group, is less optimistic about The Fresh Market's prospects, calling Market District “the hometown team” and Trader Joe's and Whole Foods “formidable foes.”

“There's a lot of retail risk for Fresh Market going into Mt. Lebanon. (Residents') affluence will help Fresh Market with customers who are less price-sensitive but don't want to go to very popular, very busy stores like Market District,” Flickinger said. “I think consumers will flip in the first month and then... shoppers' loyalties will return to Market District and ultimately Whole Foods as Fresh Market becomes more of a secondary shopping stop.”

Janet Gralka, owner of The UnCommon Market, didn't anticipate Fresh Market taking any of her business, which specializes in customer requests, hard-to-find items and gourmet products. If anything, she said, it will benefit her when the Route 19 corridor becomes even more of a destination for food shoppers.

“When the Giant Eagle changed to a Market District, people said, ‘Oh, you're going to lose business,' but we didn't — we saw a bump,” said Gralka, who opened the store in 1986. “When Trader Joe's opened, we started getting people here we had never seen before.”

Matthew Santoni is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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