In a crowded field of grocery options, loyalty goes a long way

Shoppers check out at Reid Super Save Market, a Charlottesville institution for decades. Photo: Ashley Twiggs Shoppers check out at Reid Super Save Market, a Charlottesville institution for decades. Photo: Ashley Twiggs

From Feast! to Food Lion, Charlottesville is home to dozens of grocery stores, and recent months have brought more to the already crowded field of options for shoppers.

The city is packed with small urban markets, specialty shops, and big box stores. Trendy chain Trader Joe’s arrived with great fanfare last month, and two new foodie-centric options—a Fresh Market in Albemarle Square and a Wegmans on Fifth Street—are on the way. Local online shopping service Relay Foods, detailed in our cover story this week (p.18), has hit on a formula that uses the landscape of national chains and mom-and-pop shops to its advantage. So how do you survive in an industry famous for slim profit margins? The trick, it seems, is loyalty.

At the brand-new Trader Joe’s at The Shops at Stonefield, brightly colored packaging and seemingly handwritten signs line the walls, and North Face-clad college students compare the merits of crunchy almond and sunflower seed butters. After sampling a shot-sized cup of spiced apple cider, a woman with a full basket rushes to a shelf of ketchup bottles: ”Wow! Organic for $1.99!”

Trader Joe’s has built up a cult following since it made the switch from convenience to grocery store in the 1960s, and local shoppers said they’re thrilled to have a location closer than Richmond.

Waynesboro resident Bob Roetto said Trader Joe’s is a little cramped and usually crowded, but worth the drive.

“It’s just the value,” Roetto said. “And everything seems really fresh.”

Reid Super Save Market on Preston Avenue feels like it’s a long way from shining Stonefield, but the stores are alike in a lot of ways. They’re comparable in size, and they’re not far off in product price—Trader Joe’s organic Granny Smith apples cost a little less per pound than Reid’s Bartlett pears last week. And yet, they cater to very different customer bases.

Reid draws loyal, price-conscious shoppers too, many of whom live within walking distance in the nearby 10th and Page and Rose Hill neighborhoods. The shop has all the basics at cheap prices, and it’s known as the go-to butcher for custom cuts and know-how—and pork jowl and turkey gizzards.

For many Reid customers, a trip to the store is a social outing. On a recent afternoon, carts clogged the narrow aisles as shoppers stopped to catch up, and cashiers chatted with longtime customers before waving them out the door.

“You’ll see the same people multiple times a week, even multiple times a day,” said manager Mark Miller.

Outside, Samira Samadi, 10, got ready to head home with mom Marzieh Mohaghagh and their bags of groceries. “We come here two or three days a week,” she said, translating her mother’s Farsi. “It’s near our house, so we can walk.”

Economist and historian Marc Levinson, author of The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Businesses, studies the impact of big box grocery stores on the little guy. He said there’s room for diversity, but there will always be a place for the classic corner grocery, even as options diversify and flashy new chains move in. “You still need a place to get canned tuna fish,” he said.

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