How to Navigate Richmond’s Ongoing Grocery Upheaval 

click to enlarge A report says Martin’s stores will be up for sale. But how will that affect the rest of the market?

Scott Elmquist

A report says Martin’s stores will be up for sale. But how will that affect the rest of the market?

It’s a confusing time for the grocery-store obsessed in Richmond. Every day, new information drops that changes the paradigm as we know it — or at least knew it, say, yesterday.

The latest and most dramatic information is that Royal Ahold, the company that owns Martin’s Food Markets, is reported to have put the chain’s 19 Richmond-area stores up for sale — not including three stores scheduled to close this year.

Shareholders approved a merger between Ahold and Delhaize Group, the Belgian company that owns Food Lion. But the Federal Trade Commission won’t allow the deal to go through unless the two companies close overlapping locations. Food Lion may to be the winner in all of this — none of its area locations seem to be marked for closure.

Some Richmonders appear more concerned that a Martin’s sale would lead to the disappearance of Ukrop’s Homestyle Foods’ iconic rainbow cookies, white house rolls and chicken salad, which are sold there.

To reassure customers, owner Bobby Ukrop issued a statement: “It’s business as usual.” He also reminded customers that his products can be found at the Fresh Market, B.J.’s Wholesale Club, Kroger, Richmond International Airport and ordered through Amazon.

Neither Ahold nor Delhaize will confirm that the Richmond-area Martin’s stores may be under the ax, as Supermarket News reported. The trade journal quoted Ahold spokesman Christopher Brand: “As part of any merger approval process where there may be store divestitures, store visits may be conducted by potential buyers but it’s too early to speculate on the outcome of the FTC review process.”

Then there are the two Wegmans opening this year, in Short Pump and the Stonehenge Village Shopping Center in Midlothian. Given the sheer square footage of the stores and the company’s reputation for fanatical customer loyalty, they’ll dramatically disrupt the town’s upscale grocery game.

And Publix, a kind of Ukrop’s of the Southeast, also engenders serious customer loyalty and is known for its outstanding customer service. The spot it’s chosen to build — at Nuckols and Twin Hickory roads, is hitting an underserved area, giving it a significant toehold in the market.

Although a second Whole Foods will open in the city next year, the company must be worried. It’s losing ground nationally, with organic options dramatically expanding among other grocery chains. Kroger remains a formidable opponent to all comers. And although its bid to buy the Fresh Market was unsuccessful, it’s beefing up its stores to take on the competition and adding an online ordering service, Clicklist.

Kroger also owns Harris Teeter, but it’s difficult to see the company cannibalizing its local market share to bring in another brand. Plus, the federal regulators may have something to say about such a move.

Can Richmond sustain a really nice grocery store on practically every corner, even as some lower-income areas woefully lack good access to fresh food? Is the next great investment a personalized shopping cart company?

It’s still too early to tell which stores will survive and which will fall off the map. One thing is certain — Richmonders aren’t as concerned about where they buy their groceries as they are about how they buy their groceries. Customer service trumps location and brand. Ukrop’s might be gone, but its shadow still looms large over Richmond’s grocery scene.

CORRECTION: Originally, this story identified Delhaize as a German company. It is actually headquartered in Brussels, Belgium.

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