How Delaware's Supermarket Scene is Changing

As high-end grocers move in and other food retailers expand, local chains and indies have stepped up their games.

When Joy Smoker-Liedel needs to pick up a few things for dinner, she generally stops at the Acme grocery store in Hockessin because it’s close to her home. But for serious shopping, she and her husband, Kevin, drive north to Wegmans, which opened in November 2015 on U.S. 202 in Concordville, Pa. “I love that they’re open 24-7,” she says. “Sometimes we hit up Whole Foods [in Glen Mills] if we want something there, but that’s happening a lot less now that Wegmans is down the street.”

Jane Goldberg of Wilmington starts her circuit at Trader Joe’s in Wilmington, also on U.S. 202, before heading to ShopRite, just down the road. She also shops at Costco for bulk items and meat, Produce Junction in Aston, Pa., and, in the summer, Marini’s Produce, a Brandywine Hundred farm stand. Downstate, Nancy Ruhland of Milford shops at Redner’s Market, Walmart, Food Lion and Produce Junction in Dover. “It all depends on what we are looking for and what’s on sale,” she says.

Welcome to the world of the Delaware supermarket shopper. Gone are the days when people went to their nearest market. The wheels are off the shopping cart. “There is less brand loyalty than ever before,” says Neil Stern, senior partner with McMillanDoolittle, a Chicago-based retail consulting company. “Even customers who are loyal to one store still spend significant amounts of money at other retail outlets.”

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Grocery options include convenience stores, retailers such as Target and Walmart, and even drug stores, many of which sell more than sodas and milk. Add online services that deliver meal ingredients, such as Blue Apron, and you can see why the industry is experiencing a major cleanup in aisle 11. 

In July 2015, the 156-year-old Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company Inc.—which owns A&P, Superfresh and Pathmark—filed for bankruptcy. Acme has since acquired 76 stores in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. At the beach, North Carolina-based Harris Teeter was welcomed warmly when it ventured north into Selbyville and Bethany Beach. But in February 2015, the Salt Pond location closed, perhaps due to its proximity to Giant and Food Lion, which have prices that appeal to area retirees. 

The trends are especially hard on the independent stores. “Mom-and-pops are definitely under pressure,” Stern says. “But the good ones can survive and thrive by really focusing on their customer service and intimately knowing the needs of their customers.” 

Know thy market

For Paula Janssen, industry change is nothing new. “The grocery marketplace is always changing,” she says. “If you don’t innovate, you get left behind.” She should know. Her grandfather, Joseph W. Janssen Sr., started Janssen’s Market in 1952. She is now the general manager of the family business.

Janssen’s has long catered to discerning customers. “Janssen’s can help you become the envy of all your set, a hostess of ever-growing fans,” touted old WDEL radio ads. Fresh caviar was always on hand, and it still is. “It’s one of the only places you can find Osetra caviar and Berkshire pork,” says Terry Gormley of New Castle.

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For decades, the store’s Greenville location was set apart from the chains. Then in 2005, Food Source, a specialty grocery chain, opened a site in Greenville Center within walking distance of Janssen’s (then much smaller and housed in an adjacent shopping center). Two years later, Food Source folded. Janssen’s moved into its former space. 

“I think the main reason they underperformed is that they didn’t understand the local market and expectations,” Janssen says. “They thought Greenville was like the Main Line (of Philadelphia, where it thrived), but it’s different.” Her customers want a high level of service, but they also want a mix of everyday items, not just gourmet foods.

In a small state that’s more like a large town, many shoppers like knowing the owners. Generations of shoppers have gone to Papa’s Market in Wilmington’s Little Italy and Lingo’s Market in Rehoboth Beach, even if now it’s just for one or two signature items.

In Lewes, Lloyd’s, owned by the Purcell family since 1971, survived the invasion of Food Lion in The Villages of Five Points and the mix of large chains that popped up on Del. 1, including Giant, Safeway and Superfresh (now Acme). “We’re not doing the business we did before Food Lion moved in there, but we’ve managed to sufficiently stay afloat,” says Darren Purcell, an owner and manager, whose parents, Dottie and Lloyd Purcell, are often still on site. 

In addition to offering personal service, the store offers seasonal produce from Fifer Orchards in Wyoming and Bennett Farms in Frankford and products from Milton-based Backyard Jams & Jellies. And for many visitors to Lewes, no trip is complete without a WondeRoast rotisserie chicken. Lloyd Purcell stumbled across the system more than 30 years ago, and the store each year sells about 23,000 chickens, which are displayed in the heated case by the two cash registers.

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Janssen’s, also a strong supporter of Delaware businesses, offers goods by Wilmington Pickling Company and T.A. Farms, a turkey farm in Camden-Wyoming. 

Creating an experience

Offering local products or promoting sustainability isn’t limited to single independent stores. The six ShopRites in Delaware, owned by the Kenny family, tailor products and pricing to the surrounding community, says Melissa Kenny, whose father, Bernie, purchased his first Delaware ShopRite in 1995. “We believe that builds loyalty,” she says. Along with featuring local produce, the stores sell crab cakes from Henretty’s in Hockessin and creations from Caffé Gelato in Newark. ShopRite has even organized bus trips that take shoppers to farms in southern Delaware. Each time the trip has been offered, the buses have been packed.

The Kenny family’s ShopRite stores also boast buying power. That’s because they are part of the Wakefern Food Corp., a retail cooperative that started in 1946, when independently owned stores joined forces to compete against the Greater Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company’s A&P markets.

Lloyd’s was once part of the IGA group. No longer. The store now uses C&S Wholesale Grocers, whose private label is Best Yet. C&S has carved a niche with independents. “There’s some buying power,” Purcell says, “but nowhere near the magnitude of larger corporations. We have a bare profit margin.”

Janssen agrees that it’s difficult for independents to compete against large chains and co-ops on price. “So we have to find different ways to bring value to our customers,” she says. “We want to make Janssen’s a shopping experience, not just a chore.” Free samples might include coffee from a local roaster or olive oil from Puglia. Janssen’s has hosted pop-up dinners, and the store has partnered with the state to host a delegation from Delaware’s sister state, Miyagi, in Japan. “They showcase products that they are trying to introduce to the American marketplace, and receive feedback,” Janssen says.

Single stores aren’t the only ones thinking outside the box. ShopRite, like Janssen’s, hosts musical performers. The stores also have health events, and registered dietitians offer advice and lead workshops.

Cafés are becoming part of the experience. ShopRite’s Brandywine location renovated to enhance its to-go options, which now include a case of prepared sushi rolls, and customers can dine in a seating area. Janssen’s J’s Café is a popular place for breakfast and lunch. Whole Foods sells alcoholic beverages. Wegmans sells beer, and its adjoining restaurant, The Pub, is even on Open Table.

Size & substance

After Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans opened just across the state line in Pennsylvania, Facebook experienced a feeding frenzy, with people posting photos of the 11,000-square-foot market. More than 15,000 customers visited the store on opening day on Nov. 8, 2015. 

“We’ve received wonderful feedback from many Delaware customers,” says Valerie Fox, media relations coordinator. “Our Concordville store in particular is a weekend destination for people who travel great distances to shop with us.” What’s more, 25 percent of the store employees live in Delaware.

Nearby Whole Foods caters to customers on special diets or who prefer organic merchandise. You won’t find the brand names so popular in conventional stores. Since Terry Gormley has found Wegmans, which also has specialty products, she’s driven right past Whole Foods. The infatuation, she acknowledges, might wear off.

Whole Foods also appeals to “supermarket snobs,” who identify with a brand and the lifestyle it represents. “Whole Foods is looking for educated, affluent customers who mirror their values,” says Stern, the retail consultant. Wegmans targets all that and a large trade area willing to drive a distance for the experience. “More importantly, they need to find real estate that works, which is not as easy when you’re planning a large store,” he says—which may explain why there isn’t one in Delaware.

Catering to shoppers who are seeking ethnic or hard-to-find items is the bailiwick of the 7 Day Farmers Market, which is more of an international market than traditional farmers market. The store opened late last year in the old Pathmark building on Lancaster Avenue in Wilmington. Goods might include dragon fruit, cactus pears, goat, duck, fresh tamarind and chicken longaniza (a Spanish sausage).

Facing the future

In 2016, top supermarket trends include providing a diversity of prepared food options and healthier foods. ShopRite’s redo in Brandywine showcases organic products, grass-fed meats, kosher products and halal products (foods permissible by Islamic law). Private-label products that offer variety as well as affordability are also big.

But between brand identity, choice, price and experience, it’s difficult for one store to cover it all, and the pie slices are getting slimmer with each store’s opening. 

Janssen remains optimistic. Janssen’s niche has helped it rather than hurt it. “We used to only serve our local community, but now we see more people willing to drive for hard-to-find and quality products,” she says. “It’s a challenge trying to anticipate what’s next in food culture, but it’s fun.”

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