Extreme-discount grocers finding higher-income clientele

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Vicenza Cerrato, inside a Giant supermarket, goes over her receipt from the nearby Bottom Dollar Food, the type of grocery where she does much of her shopping these days as she keeps an eye on her budget.

Vicenza Cerrato stood in the bread aisle of a Giant supermarket and squinted at a receipt itemizing the stash she had just bought down the street at Bottom Dollar Food, a low-frills grocer that opened a few months earlier.

The 83-year-old retired cardiology technician ruthlessly monitors what she spends on food, despite living with her husband in North Wales, a suburb where average household income is $107,000.

Because her daughter has been out of work for two years, whatever money Cerrato can save on meat, bread, and produce goes to her.

"I haven't gone to Giant since some of these stores opened," Cerrato said, referring to its extreme-low-cost competitors in her zip code, which include a nearby Costco and Aldi.

"I just bought chicken legs I would have bought at Giant," she said of her Bottom Dollar spree on a recent Tuesday morning. "I just bought celery I would have bought at Giant."

Stagnant or declining incomes, combined with the availability of affordable commercial real estate, are enticing cut-rate grocers to expand even into middle-class communities where conventional supermarkets have long reigned supreme.

The corporations opening these smaller, cheaper stores sense growth potential in the declining purchasing power of U.S. consumers. Income data about those portions of the Philadelphia region where the grocers have set up shop make clear the declining-income trend.

Save-A-Lot, Aldi, and Bottom Dollar, known in the industry as extreme-discount grocers, are across the region and growing. They sell cheaper goods than large-scale supermarkets by cutting back on overhead and name-brand products, opting for small stores, employing few clerks, and stocking much less merchandise.

Taken together, 46 of the 61 local stores belonging to these chains, or 75 percent of the total, serve suburban and urban communities in which estimated average household incomes stagnated or declined between 1999 and the latter half of the last decade, according to U.S. census data.

These types of stores, one industry analyst explained, have been successful for years in lower-income neighborhoods such as so-called urban food deserts, where they operated with little to no supermarket competition.

But the postrecession economy is making them more appealing to a broader base of consumers, serving as a "catalyst" for expansion, said the analyst, Jonathan P. Feeney, who follows Supervalu Inc., Save-A-Lot's parent company, and the food industry for Janney Capital Markets.

"Wasn't it a good old Philadelphian, Ben Franklin, who said necessity is the mother of invention?" Feeney asked.

The recession created a cache of vacant commercial properties in communities where there is a "higher level of frugality among all kinds of people," Feeney said.

The North Wales Bottom Dollar, notably, is next to an empty Linens 'n Things, which went out of business.

On the move is Save-A-Lot, which has said it would like to open as many as 160 stores nationwide this year. It would not say how many are planned locally, or where; most of its 28 current locations, there for years, are in lower-income neighborhoods within the city's borders.

Its publicly traded parent company, Supervalu, is not devoting similar resources to opening as many new conventional supermarkets, such as Acme Markets Inc., which are highly concentrated in the suburbs. Acme's sales have fallen by $600 million the last four years.

Aldi, whose North Wales store is a two-minute drive from the new Bottom Dollar, wants to open 100 more stores this year, according to Tom Fangras, director of operations in the region for the privately held company.

Aldi's stores (16 of 20) are in higher-income and suburban neighborhoods, including one opening in Turnersville in June. Many of its locations have been around for years.

Most active this year, however, is Bottom Dollar, which is opening all over the suburbs in its chase of increasingly parsimonious middle-income shoppers. Since October, it has opened 13 stores, the first in King of Prussia, with more on the way.

All but one of Bottom Dollar's new stores are in the suburbs. And, according to census data, nine are in zip codes where the average household incomes, adjusted for inflation, are estimated to have remained flat or declined between 1999 and the second half of the last decade.

"I think we're all feeling the economy over the past two or three years," said Don Ciotti, Bottom Dollar's director of operations for the Northeast Region. "Everybody's looking to save money, and certainly our monthly food bill is one way to do that."

All three chains approach their business in a way that diverges from the megastore approach that has characterized suburban supermarket retailing over the last decade.

Rather than stock tens of thousands of different items in stores 50,000 square feet or larger, these chains operate in relatively small buildings with small staffs, few cashiers, and sizable assortments of store-brand merchandise.

Aldi, for example, sells almost entirely its own brand merchandise, with some national-brand offerings as an enticement.

Owned by the same German investors who own Trader Joe's, Aldi says its stores cater to value-oriented shoppers even in booming economic times. Its 10,000-square-foot store in North Wales, for instance, dates to 1994.

And yet consumer purchasing power has declined around more than a few of Aldi's local stores: Thirteen of its 20 area locations are in zip codes where estimated average household incomes were flat or declined during the last decade.

"We have stores in all different areas," Fangras said. "Anywhere from urban, suburban, and rural. And the exciting thing about our business is that we really do well in all of those areas."

Much of Save-A-Lot's store base was established during the last decade. The chain historically targeted lower-income neighborhoods because of their lack of other supermarkets. The majority of its non-city locations are in the inner-ring suburbs closest to Philadelphia.

But even in those lower-income neighborhoods, consumers have become less affluent. Twenty-four of Save-A-Lot's 28 stores are in zip codes where estimated average household incomes remained flat or declined, in some cases sharply, between 1999 and 2005-2009.

At Bottom Dollar, the hope is that by offering 65 percent national-brand merchandise and 35 percent store-brand groceries, it will lure value-conscious suburbanites.

"When you look at Aldi and you look at Save-A-Lot, and then you look at where we fit in, there really isn't someone playing in that spot," Ciotti said.

Bottom Dollar's stores have no produce refrigerator in the back room. Boxes of fruit and vegetables go straight to a refrigerated walk-in display at the front of the store, where they are opened and placed on shelves.

A subsidiary of Delhaize America, owner of the Food Lion chain, Bottom Dollar's in-store brand is Hannaford.

A 32-ounce bag of Ore-Ida Tater Tots was selling recently at Bottom Dollar for $2.68, compared with $1.98 for the same size of Hannaford Tasty Taters. At Giant, store-brand Tater Bites were $1.99.

A 16-ounce box of Hannaford Saltines was 79 cents, compared with $2.38 for Nabisco Premium. Giant-brand saltines were $2.19 with a bonus card, while Nabisco's were two for $5.

Jeff Metzger, publisher of Food Trade News, said the expansion by Bottom Dollar into suburbia reflects the sustained hardship brought on by the poor economy.

"Since the economy has gone south, and has remained flat," Metzger said, "there's a whole mind-set of thrift out there."

 


Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431, mpanaritis@phillynews.com, or twitter.com/panaritism.