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It has been one of the real ironies of my professional career that in order to see great and innovative food retailing, I have had to go out of town. Far, far out of town. I’d go to Ohio and see stores like Dorothy Lane Market or Jungle Jim’s, or Minnesota to see stores like Lunds and Byerly’s, or Texas and see the various formats operated by HEB, and I’d wonder what was wrong with my neck of the woods. We had some good stores and some not so good stores, but other than Stew Leonard’s, not a lot of what I’d call cutting edge innovation.

Well, the times they are a‘changin.

Just around the corner from my house in Connecticut, well within walking distance, a big new Whole Foods is about to open any day. About four miles away, across the street from the gym where I work out, Fairway is scheduled to open a new store this fall (and if it is anything like the wonderful new store they opened a few weeks ago in Pelham, New York, it is going to be a doozy). The original Stew Leonard’s has gone through a major renovation. In other words, everybody is raising the level of the food retailing game.

Now, less than a mile from my house, Ahold-owned Stop & Shop has just opened a new store. New for Stop & Shop, at least - it is one of the former Shaw’s stores that the company bought from Supervalu when that company decided to close up shop in Connecticut. (By the way, if I had a nickel for every email I have gotten in the last couple of weeks telling me that Kroger is on the verge of buying the rest of Shaw’s from Supervalu, well, I could buy at least a couple of newspapers. The hills are alive with the sound of speculation.)

Now, Stop & Shop already had a store in my town. It was a store that I have described here and elsewhere as perhaps the smallest and crappiest store in the fleet, a phrase that probably didn’t win me a lot of fans up at the company’s Quincy, Massachusetts headquarters. However, to their credit, the folks at Stop & Shop apparently are not a thin-skinned bunch. I got a call the other day from Ron Onorato, the president of Stop & Shop’s New York Metro division, who is responsible for the store...and being aware of my past criticisms, he offered to walk the new store with me and answer any questions I might have.

Nice guy. And I enjoyed the hour or so we spent together. But I still believe - and I think Ron would agree with me - that Stop & Shop has a tough job ahead of it considering all the competition it is facing and is about to face.

The new Stop & Shop is a nice store. It has a new paint job, and new signs (though not nearly enough of them for my taste - if anything, the store suffers from a level of understatement). The produce department is improved, there seem to be fewer out of stocks, and it now has self-scanning, which is terrific. In other words, it is a real improvement over the Shaw’s store, which was pretty much a celebration of mediocrity.

But it only is a nice store. And the question is whether that will be enough.

Stop & Shop is going to have to sell folks on the fact that it is local and easy to shop. It is going to have to do so while facing retailers that specialize not just in sizzle, but also in some pretty innovative steak - retailers that are very, very good at defining and then exploiting their own differential advantages. They have strong brand identities, and they work at capitalizing on their strengths at every opportunity.

In a lot of words, this is a similar situation to one described by Michael Sansolo a week or so ago, when he wrote about how a new Harris Teeter was completely outclassing a just-renovated Giant store down in Maryland. It probably is not entirely coincidental that Giant, just like Stop & Shop, is owned by Ahold.

One of the things that Ron Onorato said to me was that the new Stop & Shop is a conventional supermarket, unlike the competition - and that it is his job to make sure that “conventional” is not a synonym for “unremarkable,” that as the new and existing competition raise the level of their games, it is critical that Stop & Shop do the same.

That’s a tough job. And, I repeat: the question is whether that will be enough.

The good news, of course, is that I now have plenty of places to shop.

For MNB Radio, I’m Kevin Coupe.
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