- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Grocery stores have a lot on the menu for the rapidly growing Washington suburbs this year.

Between traditional and upscale chains, grocery stores plan to open a flurry of new stores this year to feed the growing population and capture the high incomes in the area.

Grocery chains have been frantically building in the region for about two years, and 2007 will be no different. About 40 grocery stores are under construction and scheduled to open in the Washington area — nearly twice the number of stores that opened last year, according to a recent report by real estate research firm Delta Associates and Rappaport Cos., a real estate company.

“There are untapped consumers that grocery stores are missing out on,” said Sandy Paul, national research director at Delta Associates in Alexandria.

For shoppers, the additional stores mean more variety and possibly a shorter drive to milk, eggs and bread.

Half of the grocery stores are planned for Northern Virginia, which is home to Loudoun County — one of the fastest-growing counties in the country. Seven stores are planned for the District and 13 for Maryland, according to Delta, which measured major chains moving into the Washington suburbs plus Frederick, Loudoun and Prince William counties.

Area grocery chains would not confirm all of the stores Delta says they have planned. But grocery chains are typically quiet about plans, often not talking about a specific store until a few months, or weeks, before it is scheduled to open.

But there is room for them. Each existing grocer in the Washington area serves about 9,700 people, more than the national rate of 8,500 people.

Areas such as Prince George’s County and Ward Eight in Southeast Washington are particularly underserved.

“Look at Potomac Yard [Shoppers Food Warehouse] in Alexandria, you see all the Maryland license plates in the parking lot,” Mr. Paul said. “They are having to cross the Wilson Bridge to go to the grocery store because their neighborhood doesn’t have it.”

Some of that need should be met soon. A Wegmans Food Markets store is scheduled to open in Landover next year, and a Giant Food store is scheduled to open on the old Camp Simms National Guard site in Southeast late this year.

High-end chains, such as Whole Foods Market and Harris Teeter, have aggressively moved into the market, hoping to wrestle a larger piece of the $10.5 billion grocery pie from traditional chains, such as Giant Food and Safeway. Harris Teeter, in particular, is planning nine stores, the Matthews, N.C., chain said.

“Some of the smaller chains that cater to higher-priced goods are succeeding in this market,” Mr. Paul said. “They’re providing more options to the consumer and greater diversity of product.”

They’re moving in with features not typically found in grocery stores: A Whole Foods store that opened last week in Fair Lakes in Fairfax County is one of the chain’s two large prototype stores, featuring five restaurants and a wine bar within the store. A Hunt Valley, Md., Wegmans store has garnered massive attention for its Market Cafe, kosher deli, cheese shop and olive bar.

Wegmans doesn’t plan to open any stores here this year. The chain typically opens one or two locations per year, but has sites planned in Woodbridge, Va.; Leesburg, Va.; Landover; Crofton, Md.; and Frederick, Md., to open in 2008 and 2009, a spokeswoman said.

The upscale chains have forced the traditional grocers, including Giant, Safeway and Food Lion, to alter their store format and add more private-label lines.

Both Giant and Safeway have introduced formats for their new stores that use features borrowed from the upscale chains, such as more extensive cheese and deli selections and prepared foods.

Safeway also will implement the format into its two new stores under construction in the Washington area — one a replacement store off Connecticut Avenue in Kensington and a new store at 5th and K streets Northwest scheduled to open next year, a spokesman said.

Giant spokesman Barry F. Scher declined to talk about how many stores it is building except to say it has “quite a few store construction projects in the pipeline for new and remodeled stores.”

Food Lion also has focused its work on renovations. Last year, it converted 14 local Food Lion stores into low-price Bottom Dollar stores and 29 stores into high-end Bloom stores. The chain has plans to convert 11 more into Bloom stores by the end of the year.

“Food Lion LLC is looking at providing different options to customers, with Bottom Dollar Food, Food Lion and Bloom. It’s just another way to bring new shopping experiences to our customers,” said Karen Peterson, corporate spokeswoman for Food Lion.

Shoppers Food Warehouse, Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s did not return calls for comment.

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