Will Wegmans’ arrival spell trouble for existing groceries?

When Wegmans arrives at the new Fifth Street Station shopping center south of the city in 2015, it could throw two close-by Food Lion stores into competition with the newcomer and each other. Image by Aaron Shrewsbury. When Wegmans arrives at the new Fifth Street Station shopping center south of the city in 2015, it could throw two close-by Food Lion stores into competition with the newcomer and each other. Image by Aaron Shrewsbury.

Charlottesville is buzzing about the arrival of a Wegmans grocery store in the planned Fifth Street Station shopping center, which won rezoning approval from the Albemarle County Planning Commission last week. But the chain’s arrival in town could shake up the grocery scene in surrounding neighborhoods, already home to two Food Lion stores.

Riverbend Management, owned by big-time Charlottesville developer Coran Capshaw, confirmed in June that Wegmans would be the anchor tenant in the new 80-acre, $21.7 million shopping center, due to be completed in 2015.

The Rochester-based Wegmans has 80 stores between Virginia and New York, six of them in the Commonwealth. The company is well known for inspiring customer loyalty, and it can point to national ratings that back up its cult status: Consumer Reports named Wegmans the country’s top grocery chain in 2012.

Riverbend’s zoning permit is contingent on the construction of a connector between Fifth Street and Avon Street Extended, parallel roads that head southwest out of town less than half a mile apart. The two are currently joined within the city limits only by Elliott Avenue, but once the new road is completed, the streets and the areas around them—Fry’s Spring and numerous county developments along Fifth; south Belmont and the Monticello High School feeder neighborhoods off Avon—will be more accessible to each other.

But that also means two existing Food Lion stores that serve the separate areas may face the double blow of competition with another chain as well as with each other. One outlet is in the Willoughby Square shopping center off Fifth Street in the city, the other is on Mill Creek Drive off Avon in the county. Though they’re less than a mile away as the crow flies, it currently takes about 10 minutes to drive from one to the other, and both are kept busy by different sets of customers.

Last week, shoppers at the existing stores were unconcerned about possible negative impacts on the local shopping landscape.

Nick Michaels said he’s stuck by his Food Lion on Mill Creek Drive for more than a decade out of convenience. He lives off Route 20 in the county, and has to drive by the store on his daily commute. The novelty of a Wegmans may draw some people in, he said, but he doesn’t think a new connector road will spell doom for the neighboring groceries.

“It’s an alternative,” he said. “But how often do you actually need to get from Avon to Fifth?”

Not far away, Brenda Kolfanty paused on her way out of the Fifth Street store to cheer the arrival of the shopping center.

“It’s about time something came down to this end of town,” she said. Kolfanty works in the city and frequently stays at her daughter’s home in Willoughby, the neighborhood just north of the planned development. She said she’s thrilled to soon have another grocery option, but didn’t think the existing stores would suffer significantly. A big cross-section of residents shop there, she said, but their customer base comes from the lower-income neighborhoods nearby—a group less likely to shell out for groceries at the more upscale Wegmans.

“This place is always busy,” Korfanty said. “That’s just Food Lion.”

Food Lion shares a similarly sunny view. Though the chain’s parent company closed 113 stores nationwide earlier this year, corporate spokeswoman Tenisha Waldo said five local stores, which each employ about 40 people, have recently seen a “brand relaunch” that has gone over well. “While the grocery market in Charlottesville is very competitive, we are pleased with the performance of our stores in the area,” she said.

 

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