To financial analysts, the Acme in Cinnaminson, due to close next month, is just another casualty of the region's fierce retail grocery war.
But to its customers, it is a community in miniature, a place where friendly chitchat is as much a staple as milk and eggs.
A hidden security gate between the parking lot and the adjacent age-restricted Sweetwater condominiums beckons seniors, who faithfully trek to the Acme, in a strip mall on Route 130.
"I went there every day," said Betty Hausle, 86, who doesn't drive. "The people are the greatest."
Clerks and stock workers greeted her warmly by name and went out of their way to help, Hausle said. Some have learning disabilities, according to the store's management, and have missed barely a day of work in a decade.
The Acme came to town about a half-century ago, at a different location, said Anthony Minniti, Cinnaminson's director of economic development. But its shelves are growing bare as closing day grows near.
Hausle stopped going. The atmosphere was depressing.
"I'm devastated," said Hausle, who was among five Sweetwater residents who marched to the store last week to tell the management "how wonderful the help was, and how much we hoped they would be placed in other jobs with the company."
Supervalu Inc., the grocery's Minneapolis parent company, has been struggling with declining sales and high debt. It announced this month that it would close five Acmes in Pennsylvania and South Jersey by the end of February. The others are in Moorestown, Millville, Wayne, and Limerick.
Supervalu spokesman Steve Sylven blamed the soft economy and a competitive marketplace. Among the competitors are drugstores and general-merchandise outlets that have enlarged their grocery offerings.
"We have to close stores that are not profitable," Sylven said.
The Acme chain began in Philadelphia in the 1930s and grew to 123 outlets in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. Last year it relinquished its place as the highest-grossing supermarket company in the region, a title it had held for decades, according to Food Trade News.
The company has about 16,000 employees and "embraces and encourages" hiring people from diverse backgrounds, including those with disabilities, Sylven said. The company is trying to move affected employees to other stores.
The demise of the Cinnaminson Acme was widely anticipated. In 2009, ShopRite opened a store a few miles away at Route 130 and Cinnaminson Avenue, the location Acme had abandoned 12 years ago. At 80,000 square feet, the ShopRite is almost 25 percent larger than the current Acme, near Riverton Road.
When Acme first opened, it was "ahead of the curve," said Minniti, also a township committeeman. But ShopRite and Wegmans, in nearby Mount Laurel, lured away customers with more upscale shopping and competitive prices.
After Acme was acquired by Albertsons Inc. of Boise, Idaho - which, in turn, was bought by Supervalu - "it lost its connection with the regional consumer and couldn't adapt quickly enough to compete in this market," Minniti said.
When other supermarkets offered salad bars and fresh prepared foods, Acme waited. Then it was too late, he said.
A Bottom Dollar Food is planned for a shopping center across Route 130 from the soon-to-be-vacant Acme, Minniti said. The discount grocery chain, which is new to the region, is owned by Food Lion L.L.C. and features smaller stores.
More than 10 years ago, when the Talk of the Town market was there, Hausle said, she frequented the shopping center where Bottom Dollar will open. But she worries about walking across the busy highway, despite the traffic light. "I'm not quick enough," Hausle said.
Her Sweetwater neighbor Elaine Sheridan has offered to drive. A ShopRite customer, she plans to check out the new store.
Isabell Rafter, 87, another resident of the 88-unit condominium complex, drifted from Acme to ShopRite in recent years. Yet every other day, she said, she found herself walking "the trail" for a few items and a visit with a staff that "made you feel like you were family."
In the store last week, patron David Anderson echoed that sentiment.
"It seems like in times of crisis, when times are tough, the employees still have a smile," said Anderson, 36, of Palmyra. He likes to chat with his child's school crossing guard, who works at the deli counter, and he often bumps into neighbors.
Carl McCulla, a Cinnaminson clerk for 21 years, said he had "a lot of regular customers." For them and for him, the Acme has been "like a home away from home."
Donna Saville, who was managing the store of 90 employees on a recent Sunday, started there 15 years ago as a bagger. She and some of her fellow workers, who were hired when they were 16 and 17 years old, have grown up together, she said.
"I'm disappointed in the company. They did us a wrong turn, especially for those of us who put our hearts and souls in this," Saville said.
Some of the transfers Acme has offered employees have been to faraway markets in Morrisville, Levittown, and Newtown in Bucks County and in Glassboro, about 25 miles away in Gloucester County, she said. Sylven would not comment.
"This has always been a wonderful store, and it's going to go out without a whisper," she said.
Mayor Kathy Fitzpatrick also was saddened by the news. A longtime customer, she considers the clerks her friends and said she always saw someone she knew in the aisles.
Acme supported school and township events and donated generously to local charities, Fitzpatrick said.
"The store is going to be missed," she said.
Contact staff writer Jan Hefler
at 856-779-3224 or firstname.lastname@example.org.