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New Grand Strand grocers offer more to check out

7/03/2011 22:54:35 PM

PAWLEYS ISLAND -- Joni Moore of Andrews peered at the pizza choices in the refrigerated case at the new Fresh Market within an hour of the store's debut along the Grand Strand last week.

Like shoppers from Conway, Myrtle Beach and Murrells Inlet who crowded the aisles early Wednesday, Moore came to check out what the Strand's newest grocer had to offer. Some heralded the food's quality, picked up samples of freshly cut fruit and gushed about the flower selection. Moore, a vegetarian, was particularly interested in the veggie offerings, hoping the selection might save her from driving 90 minutes one-way to Mount Pleasant every two weeks to do her regular grocery shopping.

"This is convenient when we are on this side of town," she said.

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The arrival of the chain known for fresh foods is the latest addition in an area that has evolved during the past decade from having a few grocery stores to one that boasts many of the big names in the business as well as specialty shops. But the area is still shy of having the likes of Whole Foods or Trader Joe's, or for Moore, a Publix like the one she shops at in Mount Pleasant.

Competition among stores for food buyers is getting fiercer, not only along the Grand Strand, but across the country, according to the Food Marketing Institute. With the growth of warehouse clubs, supermarkets and supercenters, competition nationally for consumers' food-spending dollars will reach a new high this year - 8.1 on a 10-point scale, according to the institute. The rating has hovered in the 7 range since at least 2004.

That means consumers have more choices and stores will be rolling out deals and programs aiming to lure their business.

"It's getting better and better," Dave Kuether, a snowbird from New Hampshire who is moving here year-round in September, said of the grocery options along the Grand Strand. "There's certainly a lot of choices, a lot of different grocery stores."

Filling a need

Despite seasonal swings brought by the winter lull, grocers say they are lured to the beach because they can fill a need here.

Shoppers can choose from recognized brands such as Piggly Wiggly, Food Lion, Bi-Lo and Kroger, mega retailers such as Costco, Wal-Mart and Target, or speciality shops such as Bay Naturals and Sunray Healthy Market, which plans to open its first store focused on organic products in late August in Myrtle Beach.

Some shoppers last week said they hit several of those stores to pick up the items they need. A few even drive regularly - once or twice a month - to stores in Mount Pleasant to pick up items they can't find along the Grand Strand.

Kris Fulk of Conway drove 50 minutes last week to check out The Fresh Market and plans to make that trek once a month because she is impressed with its meat offerings. But she'll stick with Lowes Foods near her house for her regular shopping, she said. She avoids stores crowded with tourists loading up their carts for their weekly stay at the beach, she said.

"We used to have one of these [a Fresh Market] in Indiana and I loved it," said Fulk, who had bananas and meat in her cart last week. "But it's too far to come every week."

The Fresh Market, based in Greensboro, N.C., had been eyeing the Pawleys Island area for a decade, studying the seasonal economy to learn what the grocer could expect here. The company eventually found a prime place to put the new 23,000-square-foot store off the busy U.S. 17 in a community that demands the quality Fresh Market aims to provide, Sean Crane, the company's senior vice president of operations, said while standing by the store's produce section.

And with so many second-home owners in the area, the Fresh Market - even though it didn't have a store here - already had a reputation among residents, he said.

"We already had a lot of brand recognition," Crane said, adding that the Pawleys Island store is one of about a dozen new stores the chain will open this year.

Lowes Foods opened its first store along the Grand Strand in 2007, saying it wanted to raise the quality of meats and produce sold here. It has grown to seven stores stretching from S.C. 544 to southern Brunswick County, N.C.

"We felt like there was a place for us," said Heather George, Lowes Foods' vice president of sales and merchandise.

Sunray Healthy Market, under construction in the former Winn-Dixie spot in the Village Square Shopping Center at 38th Avenue North in Myrtle Beach, said it wanted to open its first store here to fill a niche, offering organic products and a deli.

Jonathan Watts, the company's CEO, grew up in Charlotte, N.C., and vacationed here. He said Myrtle Beach was the perfect spot to launch a concept he plans to roll out with five more stores in the Carolinas, though he declined to name the cities.

The market is so focused on being organic and environmentally friendly that all the nuts and bolts of the store - refrigeration units, shelves, carts - were discarded or sold by other businesses and are being refurbished for use in the new store, Watts said.

"We are closer to a farmers market than a grocery store," he said, standing in what will be the store's deli section with seating. "Our tomatoes do not come from California frozen."

Nationally, most grocery chains aren't planning to open new locations this year, according to research by the Food Marketing Institute, which says store development activity is subdued because the credit markets remain tight. Only 37 percent plan to open new stores, while 51.9 percent are remodeling stores, the institute says.

On Friday, Whole Foods announced it would open its third S.C. store in Columbia; the others are in Mount Pleasant and Greenville. The 38,000-square-foot store to be built on Devine Street will open in October 2012.

It's unclear whether Whole Foods is eyeing the Grand Strand. The company did not respond to repeated calls and an email this week asking about possible expansion plans along the Grand Strand.

Competing for customers

Consumers benefit from increased competition as stores roll out different strategies aiming to lure shoppers.

Having the best prices and quality top many retailers' lists, but several also are adding fuel discounts, online shopping focusing on saving consumers' time, locally grown produce programs and an emphasis on the increasingly popular organic items.

"It will be good for the grocery stores to sharpen their pencils," shopper Geales Sands of Murrells Inlet said.

Lowes Foods and Bi-Lo have added fuel incentives at some of their stores in the area, with shoppers getting a few cents off a gallon of gas for every $100 they spend. Several retailers, including The Fresh Market, Lowes and Sunray Healthy Market, also are emphasizing their locally grown produce as demand for those items surge.

Food Lion, like others, focuses on saving customers money. Shoppers can sign up for text message coupons and its MVP card users can load electronic coupons to their cards, spokeswoman Tenisha Waldo said.

Warehouse clubs are snagging a bigger chunk of the business. Sales at warehouse clubs and superstores hit a record high $371 billion last year, up 3.6 percent from 2009, according to the Census Bureau's annual Retail Trade Survey.

During the first three months of 2011, sales at warehouse clubs - where 60 percent of sales are for food products - increased 3.9 percent over the same period a year ago, while sales at grocery stores grew 3.8 percent.

Shoppers aren't loyal to just one store anymore, according to the Food Marketing institute. About four in 10 shoppers regularly buy items on sale at stores other than their "primary" store. Retailers want shoppers to pick them and stick with them but that's not the trend - 6 percent of shoppers this year are expected to switch primary stores, compared to 3 percent during good economic times - and 61.5 percent of retailers don't expect that to change this year, according to the institute. That means business is up for grabs.

"Strong service, quality perishables and a continued focus on price and value will be key competitive points for supermarket retailers in the coming year," according to the institute's Food Retailing Industry Speaks 2011 report.

Lowes tries to focus on strategies that save consumers time and money while providing high-quality products, George said.

"We are accustomed to a lot of competition," she said. "It makes us all better. In the end, the customer benefits."

Several stores say they need each other - following the trend of shoppers hitting multiple stores to fill all their needs.

"We really need them in the market because we don't sell everything," said Crane of The Fresh Market. "We coexist very well."

For example, while Sands already was a fan of the flower selection at The Fresh Market, she knows that she can't get everything there.

"I don't think this is a place you come for Windex," she said. The chain doesn't carry items such as cleaning supplies or diapers.

The same is true for shopper Jean Birch of Pawleys Island, who heralded The Fresh Market's arrival last week with a buggy full of vegetables, cheese, muffins and freshly made sushi, noodles and shrimp salad. But Costco still has its place for her, as does Whole Foods in Mount Pleasant, where she'll stock up once a month.

"It's been a while since this kind of grocery store was in Pawleys Island - if ever. It's a more upscale store with more upscale offerings," said Birch, adding that she would "absolutely" start shopping there, but "maybe not for everything."

Birch, who used to live in the Washington, D.C., area, misses the plethora of grocery options she had there, though the Grand Strand is making progress, she said.

"We are used to gourmet shopping," she said, standing beside The Fresh Market's deli counter. "This will help."




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SRC: http://www.thesunnews.com/2011/07/03/2256795/new-grocers-offer-more-to-check.html


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