The announcement of two Lowes Foods locations in Lexington continues a trend that shows no sign of abating: grocers finding attractive pickings in the Columbia-area market.
The face of the local grocery marketplace changed in 2012, when Whole Foods arrived in town, near where Devine Street becomes Garners Ferry Road. That was quickly followed by the arrival of a Trader Joe’s on Forest Drive, a mile down from The Fresh Market. And in 2013, US Foods opened the Chef’Store on St. Andrews Road, a wholesale food and restaurant supply store that was the third of its kind in the country.
Lowes Foods announced its area arrival last month, and on Wednesday, the 124,500-square-foot Kroger Marketplace at Killian’s Crossing will celebrate its grand opening, offering area shoppers even more choices.
“What is happening is Columbia and Lexington, in particular — those two populations are growing significantly,” said Marianne Bickle, chair of Department of Retailing in the University of South Carolina’s College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management. “The disposable income is growing, and with that comes retailers that people need typically on a regular basis. You’re going to see a lot of restaurants, you’re going to see a lot of mattress retailers, you’re going to see a lot of boutiques, and you’re going to see a lot of grocery stores.
“Another grocery store is saying I have options, and so this is going to really help consumers make wise choices.”
The new Kroger Marketplace will add up to 250 jobs in the Northeast Richland community. The store will feature expanded deli, bakery, beer and wine selections, apparel, household and home décor departments, a Starbucks and a fuel center. Customers can also place orders online via ClickList, then pick up their groceries at a convenient time and location.
On June 29, Lowes Foods, a Winston-Salem, N.C.-based chain focused on local products and attentive service, officially announced its plans to open a store at U.S. 1 and Charter Oaks Road, across the street from Lexington High School. That announcement also included the news that the company is planning a second Lexington location at Hope Ferry Road.
“We found the two locations here within the area. Both of them made sense,” said Lowes Foods president Tim Lowe. “They fit our brand as well as the local community.”
Lowe said the two stores will create a total of 300 jobs.
Lowes sent teams of trained representatives on “ethnographic visits,” which consisted of conversations with residents to find out what folks want in a grocery store. Lowe said the response — a store that emphasizes local products while participating in the community — fit perfectly with his company’s game plan.
Lowes stores feature down-home touches such as its Community Table, where customers can sample and learn to prepare local foods, and a Pick & Prep station where selected fruits or vegetables are prepared to order. The Lexington stores will also include a Beer Den, with hundreds of craft beers and refillable 32- and 64-ounce growlers, and a “pick your own herbs” section that allows shoppers to clip sprigs of fresh herbs.
Workers in the store’s Chicken Kitchen also perform the chicken dance to alert customers when fresh rotisserie chicken leaves the oven — a tradition demonstrated by Lowe and other company officials during last month’s announcement.
Otis Rawl, president and CEO of the Greater Lexington Chamber, took part in the dance. Rawl said talks with the chambers of commerce in Greer and Simpsonville, where Lowes will open stores this summer and in 2017, respectively, left him optimistic about the company’s impact on the community.
“It’s just not because they moving in and they’re adding to our tax base,” Rawl said. “They’re creating anywhere from 110 to 120 jobs in each one of the stores. They’re becoming actively involved in our community. We’ve developed a great partnership in just the last two or three weeks, and we look forward to that continued relationship.”
On the same day Lowes introduced itself to Lexington, a new Walmart Neighborhood Market opened on Knox Abbott Drive in Cayce. The markets, smaller at around 38,000 square feet than Walmart’s sprawling 180,000-square-foot supercenters, with an emphasis on fresh groceries, were designed in 1998 and employ up to 95 employees.
The Cayce location is approximately 41,000 square feet and includes a drive-through pharmacy, a full-service deli and an in-store bakery.
“We are proud to be a part of the Cayce community,” store manager Katrina Nichols said in a release. “We look forward . . . to providing area residents with Walmart’s everyday low prices.”
That phrase — “everyday low prices” — is Walmart’s well-known tagline.
“They don’t say they have the lowest prices. They don’t,” Bickle said. “They’re saying you can trust us. We’re not going to have a different price on Tuesday than Sunday.”
That’s the key for thriving in an increasingly crowded market, Bickle said — establishing an identity and not deviating from it. Publix, for instance, prides itself on making customers feel like family, offering balloons to children and carrying groceries to customers’ cars, she said.
“It is every company’s responsibility to make sure their personality attracts their target market. And not every person is part of the target market,” Bickle said. “The smartest thing any retailer can do is identify their brand — who are they, what do they do, and why are they in business? You can never survive competing on what your next-door neighbor is doing.”
Lowes Foods, which employs nearly 9,000 people and operates 95 full-service supermarkets in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, understands that.
“We focus on one thing very directly, and that is the consumer,” Lowe said. “We don’t really worry about what our competitors are doing, because the competitors are not the ones who shop at our store. We worry about, what does the consumer want from us?”
Lowe spoke beside bags of McBee peaches, highlighting the company’s commitment to local produce. Behind him, bulldozers moved piles of earth at the site of the future store.
“It’s a win-win situation,” Bickle said. “It’s improving the property value around the entire community. It’s improving the shopping areas. The only downfall is that infrastructure cannot keep up.”
But even that concern — specifically, traffic — will eventually be alleviated by continued growth, Bickle said. Cayce city officials hope the arrival of the Walmart Neighborhood Market leads to improvements at Knox Abbott Drive and Charleston Highway.
“With these improvements and also with all these developments, there will be more sales tax generated,” Bickle said. “It will go to help fix the roads. It just takes time.”
Bickle said demand for grocery stores is built into a society that relies on retailers for food, which means there is no danger of market oversaturation as more grocers come to town.
“It is so exciting,” Bickle said. “It is going to do great things for the state of South Carolina, it really is, and for the South. It’s really saying the South is solid and growing in an economically positive way. Employment will benefit. It’s a wonderful thing.”