Wegmans said yesterday that it has secured a location for its first Connecticut store, in Norwalk, with easy access to I-95. While approvals still have to be secured, the expectation is that the store will be a two-story format, close to 95,000 square feet in size, and with a parking garage.
It will be across the street from a Walmart (not a supercenter), a third of a mile from a Costco, less than a mile west of a Super Stop & Shop and a ShopRite in Norwalk, one mile from the Darien Trader Joe's, less than two miles east of a not-so-super Stop & Shop in Darien, about two miles from the Darien Whole Foods, 3.8 miles from an independent grocer called Palmer's, also in Darien, and 4.5 miles west of Stew Leonard's in Norwalk. The property is currently an office complex that will be razed to make room for the Wegmans; this is similar to what Wegmans did in Harrison, New York, where it replaced an office park. That store is about 20 miles from where the new Wegmans will be.
No timetable has been set for when the store might open, but it took almost four years from the 2016 announcement of the Harrison unit until it actually opened its doors in August 2020, though to be fair, the pandemic contributed to a delay during that period.
“Each year we receive hundreds of requests from residents for a store in Connecticut, so we’re excited to bring Wegmans to Norwalk and to get to know our new neighbors,” Colleen Wegman, president and CEO of Wegmans Food Markets, said in a prepared statement. “Even before we open the doors to our new store, we’re committed to making a difference in every community we serve.”
- KC's View:
First, to be clear, I know this market really well. The new Wegmans will be about 2.5 miles up the road from my house.
I don't think there is any question that a new Wegmans store is going to have an enormous competitive impact. If I had to guess, it would be my expectation that the two Stop & Shop stores may be at the greatest risk - there is nothing special about these stores, no definitive or differential advantage, no compelling narrative or, best as I can tell, connection to its shoppers. They exist, they sell food, they're relatively convenient but kind of dingy. But that's pretty much it. Ahold Delhaize has a lot of work to do if they're going to minimize the impact of a Wegmans, and they'd better start now.
The ShopRite seems to have a stronger customer connection, especially for folks looking for ethnic products, but the store is kind of run down and badly in need of a refresh. Again, I'd start now. But, I also think that the ShopRite folks actually are accustomed to playing competitive hardball, and they've faced off against Wegmans in other markets.
Palmer's probably will be able to survive - it is a small store with a fairly loyal local following. I can see them maintaining the level of small fill-in trips by locals, though it could lose a lot of big weekly shopping trips once the Wegmans opens.
I'm not sure how Walmart responds to this. The store has a small grocery section, and no fresh foods. They'll probably do okay just because of increased traffic, and Walmart could decide to up its food game in response to the Wegmans opening.
(By the way, Post Road traffic has the real potential of turning into a hairball during construction and once the Wegmans opens. It is pretty crappy most of the time now, but this is likely to only make things worse. Expect a lot of local blowback on this point.)
And then, there's Stew Leonard's.
I want to be transparent here. More than any of those other stores, I have been a Stew Leonard's shopper for almost 40 years - we moved into this house in 1984, started having kids in 1986, and pretty much raised them on Stew Leonard's food. I've known Stew Sr. for a long time, have a good relationship with Stew Jr., and even contributed to the company's first effort to get on the 'Fortune Best Places To Work" list. (It did.)
When I saw the story about Wegmans coming to Norwalk, I actually was a little pissed off for Stew Leonard's. Over the years, at least a dozen times I have seen Danny Wegman walking the store with either Stew Sr. or Stew Jr., and there always seemed to be at least a clear long-term friendship and best practices-sharing relationship that made both companies better.
I have no idea if the folks at Stew Leonard's had advance notice of this, or if they're even as pissed off as I was when I first learned the news. It is entirely likely that both companies are taking the advice from The Godfather: "This is business. Not personal."
It is also not like this is a Plum Market-Dom's situation in Chicago, in which Plum's ownership believes that Bob Mariano's new Dom’s Kitchen & Market venture was "unconscionable, dishonorable and disgusting" in working with a landlord to drive it out of an existing location.
And, to be clear, Wegmans and Stew Leonard's have operated in proximity before - Wegmans opened a store in Montvale, NJ in 2017, and Stew's opened a store about eight miles south on the Garden State Parkway in Paramus about two years later. But Paramus and Montvale strike me as being worlds apart. Stew's also has been said to be interested in opening a new store in Clifton, NJ, which would be about 20 miles east of a Parsippany Wegmans.
(A small historical digression, if I may. Montvale, New Jersey, was the longtime corporate headquarters of a grocer you may have heard of - the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, better known as A&P, which once was the largest retailer, not just grocer, in the country. It probably is a good thing that A&P no longer exists - the company was an almost textbook example of calcified management, uninspired leadership, and unimaginative store development. End digression.)
Every one of the Connecticut retailers that I mentioned above has plenty of notice. Wegmans is coming. They can go to other Wegmans stores to make sure they know what they're competing with. (There's no doubt in my mind that Stew Leonard's is doing this. The last time I saw Stew Jr., it was in the Whole Foods that is about a quarter-mile from my house. He was checking out the competition, and I was picking up a couple of items I needed quickly. To be honest, I felt like I'd been caught cheating, but he engaged me about what I liked and didn't like about the store.)
The most important 10 words uttered by Colleen Wegman are these:
"Even before we open the doors to our new store…"
Every one of the Connecticut retailers that I mentioned above has to start competing with Wegmans - the promise and the reality - now. They have to get better. Sharper. Smarter. More defined. More differentiated. More special.
It will be easier for some than others. I'll be watching. And reporting in. Because this should get pretty interesting and a lot more competitive. (If it doesn't, then the losers will have nobody to blame but themselves, and I'll be writing about that as well.)
It is important to keep in mind that it isn't just about competing with Wegmans. I would argue that in a lot of ways, Stew Leonard's is a major league player that has been facing off against largely minor league competition (a statement that no doubt will rile some of the folks I mentioned above). But when ShopRite gets better, as I expect it will, and if Stop & Shop gets better, they'll also be better competitors against Stew's.
There is an old and wonderful African proverb: "'When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled." There's going to be a lot of trampling going on in my neck of the woods.
One more thing…
About eight miles east of the new Wegmans, and four miles east of Stew Leonard's, a new Amazon Fresh store is being built. I would work under the assumption that it is just the first of several that will populate the Boston Post Road corridor that runs from Greenwich and New Haven, and that Amazon will be aggressive in its marketing, which will challenge traditional grocery retail and perhaps adjust shopper expectations, especially if any of these stores offers Just-Walk-Out technology.
Like I said. Lots of elephants.