In November, the Sumas family opened their 29th ShopRite, in the Cedar Knolls section of Hanover Township.
This one is not just new, but massive — 78,000 square feet — and flashy, with features such as a fitness studio, a child care center and an in-house cosmetologist.
But the centerpiece is a prepared foods section that occupies some 8,000 square feet. It has an oyster bar, a diner, a sushi bar, a juice bar, a barbecue joint, a coffee bar, a pizza place and rows of hot food tempting customers to eat, immediately.
That may sound like an excessive amount of ready-to-eat food — after all, it's in the middle of a grocery store. But it was a calculated move on the part of Village Super Market, a member of the largest retailer-owned cooperative in the U.S., Wakefern Food Corp., whose members own and operate more than 230 ShopRites in New Jersey.
"It was more an idea of staying current with the customer today," said John Sumas, vice president and general counsel of Village Super Market. "People are moving away from meals made at home from scratch."
The ShopRite of Greater Morristown isn't the first to hone in on the importance of prepared foods in today's grocery stores. All the large chains are aware it's a necessary part of the business now because there has been a major shift in the core supermarket customer, said Matthew Casey, president of Matthew P. Casey & Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in real estate research for the supermarket and drugstore industry.
"June Cleaver's not preparing a two-hour meal with her pearls on," Casey said.
Instead, it's all about multitasking moms and dads with little time for labor-intensive dinners.
"June doesn't have time to make dinner," he said. "That's why it's more important for supermarkets to have a bigger selection and variety of prepared foods."
When one store gets it right, others follow because supermarkets respond to competition, Casey said.
And that competition is about to confront the new ShopRite head on.
Whole Foods is planning to replace the old A&P on Washington Street in Morristown by the end of 2014, according to reports. And Wegmans is eyeing a site in Hanover, not far from the new ShopRite, though no specific timeline has been proposed, a spokesperson said.
In the face of that, all those extravagant features could go a long way toward keeping customers coming back, Casey said.
"I think it gives them a better fighter's chance versus any new competition than a typical ShopRite because it has all the benefits of a typical ShopRite," he said. "But on top of that, it gives you all those other extras and amenities.
"I've been in thousands of supermarkets, and that's the first one I've ever been in that has an oyster bar," he added.
Village Super Market, however, said the new store is more a case of right place, right time and right real estate opportunity. The spot put them in the middle of a community with strong office and residential components, meaning good lunch crowds and consistent grocery shoppers. It also gave them the chance to build the store entirely from scratch, after tearing down the plastics factory that used to occupy the site, and add those over-the-top features that make the new store unique.
Those features are also strategic, Sumas said. The goal is to make grocery shopping more fun, something like shopping at the mall. That creates happy shoppers who come back regularly and, in the end, buy more stuff.
The oyster bar, for instance, was placed next to the seafood section so people might think of picking up fish for dinner while they linger over a plate of oysters, Sumas said.
There's also a "co-op market" at the center of the store featuring a slew of non-grocery products such as sheets and jewelry and bath salts. The market helps break up the monotony of the aisles and provides a space for customers to pull their carts aside and rest for a moment, he added.
And the Child Learning Center offers free child care for up to 90 minutes, allowing customers to shop unencumbered, while the in-store dietician helps people make healthier choices when shopping.
The result is the first ShopRite of its kind, Sumas added.
But despite all those high-end features, Sumas said the ShopRite of Greater Morristown still falls smack dab in the center of the grocery store spectrum, somewhere between the low-price, limited-assortment specialists such as Aldi, and the higher-priced lifestyle stores such as Wegmans.
"We're trying to sort of hit the middle. And I think the people in the middle want a good experience," Sumas said. "It's about a good experience and good products."
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