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Forever 128

Wegmans throws down supermarket gauntlet

A rendering of the Wegmans store slated to open in Chestnut Hill on April  27.  Wegmans fielded more than 3,000 applications for jobs there, or about six for every opening.

A rendering of the Wegmans store slated to open in Chestnut Hill on April 27. Wegmans fielded more than 3,000 applications for jobs there, or about six for every opening.

A supermarket war is brewing along Route 128 as New York-based grocer Wegmans gobbles up sites along the corridor, and prepares to roll out its long-awaited Chestnut Hill store, which will open on April 27.

The deal creates a major anchor for the new Chestnut Hill Square development on Route 9, while filling a void created years ago when the old Omni Foods was shuttered.

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A 10,500-square-foot beer, wine, and spirits shop will open a month earlier, on March 29, on the second floor, company officials said.

The Chestnut Hill store will be the second Wegmans in the state, following the opening of its Northborough location in 2011.

Wegmans plans to follow up with another store opening in September just off Route 128/Interstate 95 in Burlington, followed by a third store at the sprawling University Station project in Westwood next year.

The expansion comes as the Tewksbury-based Market Basket chain gears up to open a flagship store of its own alongside the highway on the former Polaroid site in Waltham, where a retail and office center is under construction.

Wegmans fielded more than 3,000 applications for jobs at the Chestnut Hill store, or about six for every opening, said Marybeth Stewart, the company’s human resources manager for New England.

The Wegmans chain actively monitors the prices of its competitors, hiring a company to keep tabs.

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“We have been blown away by the quality and number of candidates,” Stewart said.

The new Chestnut Hill store reflects the supermarket chain’s high hopes for its first foray into the affluent 128 corridor, as well as its eagerness to establish a foothold in the local market.

At 80,000 square feet, the new store will be roughly a third smaller than the typical Wegmans, said company spokeswoman Jo Natale. By comparison, the Northborough store is just under 140,000 square feet.

Even so, the Chestnut Hill store will have 550 employees, the same number, from cashiers to cooks, as in Northborough, Natale said.

The payroll count is important. It means that despite the much smaller size of its new store, Wegmans is betting its Chestnut Hill location will generate as much if not more revenue than its Northborough store, according to Bill Congdon, vice president of the company’s New England division. (A privately held company, Wegmans declined to release financial information, including store revenue and number of customers.)

Moreover, it is only the second time in recent decades that Wegmans has compromised on store size — a key, given that moving a high volume of hungry shoppers through the doors is part of the company’s business strategy, Natale said. The only other case involved a new store in the company’s hometown of Rochester, N.Y.

But while a larger development footprint wasn’t available at Chestnut Hill Square, Wegmans said the location more than met its criteria for an ideal site. In general, the chain looks for sites off a major highway in a densely populated area, Natale said.

“Once in a while you find that location and you know this is the right spot,” she said.

Still, the Chestnut Hill store’s significantly smaller size presents some logistical challenges when it comes to stocking shelves and other day-to-day tasks. It may mean some work will have to be done in the evening that would typically be done in the daytime, Natale said.

Wegmans Chestnut Hill will emphasize prepared foods, with a culinary staff of 140, compared with about 120 in Northborough. The chain’s offerings run the gamut from pizza to Asian-style noodle bowls, Congdon said.

Shoppers will also find an emphasis on fresh produce, with the company planning to work out arrangements with local farms, he said.

The store will also stress its selection of fresh seafood, going to some unusual lengths to get to know some of the fishermen on whom it will rely.

Congdon spent a night on a Gloucester fishing boat in September, catching cod. He was accompanied by the head of the store’s seafood department, leaving port at night and returning at sunrise.

Why? To get a firsthand look where fish that will be sold at the store will be coming from, he explained.

“I was a little dizzy when I got back,” Congdon joked.

Such hands-on training is not unusual, with deli department chiefs flown out to San Francisco to see how a special brand of salami is made, said Stewart, the human resources manager.

It also fits into a larger emphasis on customer service that has earned Wegmans a devoted clientele; the early-morning opening of the Northborough store three years ago was greeted by dozens of shoppers, including a contingent who camped out overnight, Natale said.

Shoppers can expect employees who not only can tell you which aisle has that elusive spice or ingredient, but are trained to offer helpful suggestions on meal planning and ingredients, Congdon said.

But Wegmans wants to challenge the region’s major supermarket chains on more than just customer service, long the province of the more upscale brands. The stress on customer service — and well-appointed stores — has at times created the perception that Wegmans is more expensive than competing stores, but that’s not the case, Natale insisted.

Instead, Wegmans is ready to go head to head on price with its competitors along 128, including Market Basket, the region’s leading discount grocery chain, Congdon said.

Like Market Basket, which just instituted a 4 percent price cut on all items, there are no coupon clubs or other special incentives at Wegmans. The chain actively monitors the prices of its competitors, hiring a company to keep tabs, Natale said.

“Our prices are lower than other supermarkets, and competitive with club stores,” she said.

It is also likely Wegmans will open yet another area store, beyond the lease being negotiated for a development in Boston’s Fenway section, over the next four to five years, though no plans are ready to be announced, Congdon said.

So are all these new stores taking shape on 128 good for the bottom line of the companies who own them? Who knows.

But from a shopper’s perspective, bring on the competition.

Scott Van Voorhis can be reached at sbvanvoorhis@ hotmail.com.
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