Is It About the Experience or the Deals?

One thing I've learned since writing this blog for the last year is that shoppers don't just want a bunch of bananas or a gallon of milk. You want to enjoy the experience of buying those things. At least that's what your comments made me believe when I recently wrote about Wegmans, a grocery store chain that's as luxurious as Whole Foods but as cheap as Giant. Many of you wrote about the good prices at Wegmans but you mostly gushed about the store itself.

Take for example "skipper7," who writes, "As big as [Wegmans is] I feel like this is my corner grocer, especially in the seafood and meat department where Anne knows what portion sizes I look for in a steak or pork chop."

Or "FormerUpstater," who wrote, "At Wegmans, they have a gazillion check-out lines, ALL of which are open, and even though there are thousands of people in the store you never have to wait more than five minutes to start checking out!"

There were gripes about the dirt factor in Giant and Safeway, the long lines, the bruised produce and the less than friendly employees. And those comments are matched with the lack of deals there, too.

That also explains your comments when I wrote about C-mart, a discount store in Landover that recently closed its doors for good last month. You were basically shopping in a warehouse filled with everything from furniture to shoes. People either loved it or hated it. And those who hated it said so because of the atmosphere and the quality of the items. Never mind the huge discounts.

So do we shoppers value the shopping experience over getting good deals? Only if you have the money, says Pam Danziger, a retail industry consultant with Unity Marketing and author of "Shopping: Why We Love It and How Retailers Can Create the Ultimate Customer Experience." The state of our economy will force most people to look for deals, no matter how unpleasant the shopping experience. But families who have the funds to spend a little more will seek out poshness when they run out for a gallon of milk.

"There are consumers who are simply shopping for price because they have to," she says. "There are lots of people who feel this [recession] but they don't feel it as much. They aren't driven solely by price. They'll spend time in a store that is more delightful than going to the plain old grocery store."

So what's more important to you: cheap prices or shopping in comfort? Do you like to hunt for good deals or are you willing to pay a little extra to just pick up an item and go?

By Tania Anderson |  November 18, 2008; 12:00 AM ET General Interest , Grocery Deals
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Comments

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I can't see why you can't have it both ways, if you do your homework.

Price, in these days of hard economic times, has to be foremost, but you can also have clean surroundings, low prices,and a pleasant shopping experience without sloshing throught piles of stuff, buying outdated produce, dairy, meat and packaged items, and standing in long lines.

Last Thursday, WJLA ran an item during its 5:30 p.m. news segment about food items being sold after their expiration dates. Giant, Safeway, Whole Foods were among the culprits found to have been selling expired items.

The SuperFresh Aspen Hill Road Wheaton location was found to have no expired items among those items sampled. It also offers a "fresh or its free" guarantee on everything that it sells.

So, I guess, we shop where we feel we can get the entire package, low prices, fresh products, and a clean, friendly shopping environment.

Posted by: ziggyzippy | November 18, 2008 8:37 AM

I have to disagree with Pam Danziger's comment that "The state of our economy will force most people to look for deals, no matter how unpleasant the shopping experience. But families who have the funds to spend a little more will seek out poshness when they run out for a gallon of milk."

Posh shopping, in my opinion, is Balducci's, not Wegman's and I think that there is enough real data out there to show that Wegman's is easily on par with all of the other major grocery chains including SFW. Ms. Danziger generalizes shopping behavior without a lot of facts and if you look at recent research from firms like IRI (who track shopping habits and report to retailers and manufacturers) the changes are much more subtle. Are there people out there doing a lot more of their grocery and consumer products shopping at places like Family Dollar and Dollar General? Sure, but I think that that is a totally different conversation.

The DC metro area may not be a good surrogate for the rest of the country, but just to visit any local Wegman's on a Sunday afternoon and you will see a jammed parking lot and shopping carts overflowing with product. The one change that I have noticed there is a stronger preference for private label products. I have always bought their pasta sauce, cereal and frozen entrees and peanut butter and have started to buy items like paper towels and bath tissue.

Grocery stores are the one sector of the economy which remains relatively steady during a down economy simply because people need to eat. I will change what I buy and do a better job at menu planning long before I stop shopping at Wegman's.

Posted by: skipper7 | November 18, 2008 9:34 AM

There will be a free and fun shopping event on Thursday, November 20 from 8:00 - 10:00 for ladies who want tips on how to wear their "Little Black Dresses" in style for the holidays. It is being jointly sponsored by the Little Black Dress Club of DC ( www.lbdclub.com ) and Current Boutique of Arlington. They will have wine and snacks on hand and will feature fashion consultant Cathy Phillips. Current Boutique is located between the Court House and Clarendon metro stops at 2529 Wilson Blvd.

Posted by: VirginiaHoya | November 18, 2008 12:36 PM

I don't like to shop in food stores where there are birds flying around the ceilings. This seems to be a problem everywhere!

I bought some bird food at Giant and when I got home it had a hole chewed through it on the side that I hadn't noticed when I purchased it. Yuck, I don't like the idea that rats are mixing in with the foodstuffs.

If the food is expired, or close to expired I will buy it but it needs to be marked down.

Posted by: RedBird27 | November 18, 2008 5:07 PM

I live in NC and have never experienced the joy of Wegmans that is described here. For DC transplants from the South, would it be comparable to Harris Teeter? (Giant sounds like Kroger: lower prices, bad produce, surly employees.)

Posted by: valdavid | November 18, 2008 5:23 PM

For valdavid: Wegman's is better than Harris Teeter, though I like HT too and shop there a lot when I work in NC. Wegman's costs less too. Giant is mostly better than Kroger's, though, like Kroger's, it often depends which store you are in. I thought HT would take more market share in DC, and think they missed the boat. I pray that a Wegman's will open near me in Montgomery County. It's the best.

Posted by: biteyou | November 18, 2008 5:53 PM

Valdavid, Wegman's is more on par with Farm Fresh. It is bbetter than Harris Teeter but less expensive than both Harris Teeter and Farm Fresh. Safeway is on par with Harris Teeter.

I try to stretch my dollars as much as the next person but I refuse to shop in certain places, e.g. Aldi's. I just can't bring myself to do it.

Posted by: daphy9551 | November 18, 2008 8:31 PM

Sometimes I value convenience over price or service. Or, at least I used to. After avoiding my neighborhood Safeway (in Baltimore) for months because of outrageous prices and poor service, I broke down and stopped in on my way home from the gym because I didn't want to go out of my way to another store. After spending five minutes getting the three or four items I needed (and noticing that limes were twice, yes twice, that I had paid the day before at a store less than two miles away) I spent thirty minutes in the checkout lane, my blood pressure rising even higher as I saw two other lanes being shut down while the manager barked at customers to move to other lanes. This happens, of course, but it happens every single time I go to this store. Paying more (sometimes a lot more) with worse service is not my idea of a good deal.

So, I shop at different stores for different reasons. I can deal with the cramped and dingy Santoni's (local grocery store) because they are open 24 hours, are cheap, and are super about opening new lanes when there is a backup of customers. It is a good place to stop on the way home from work for one or two things. However, the selection isn't the best so I mainly shop at Shopper's which is further away but is bright and clean and has a great selection. When I want something a little more special I will go to Whole Foods (which is less expensive than Safeway on most everyday items). And, for reasons mentioned above plus many other negative experiences, I again pledge to never shop at the Safeway in Canton!

Posted by: hmaryjohnson | November 18, 2008 9:47 PM

H'm. I have this talk with myself every week.

This column hits a nerve because just this last Saturday I simply turned around and walked away from a cart of groceries in an aisle at Walmart, after one last futile attempt to (politely) get past a group of gossiping women. Just couldn't stand the place or its shoppers any longer.

I'm not (very much not) in the DC area. My choices are Walmart, Albertson's, Safeway, a really cool local Italian market, and a good (but not organic or natural by any means) butcher shop.

No one store has everything I've found I like or need (dishwasher detergent seems to be a particular problem) and all have distinct advantages and disadvantages. Of the stores, I like Safeway the best. They have great employees here and a good selection, plus I get gasoline rewards and airline miles with their card. But their produce is just so-so and the bakery not very good. Albertson's has much better produce and baked goods, but their selection is weird and changeable. And I rarely can find an employee when I need one. The Albertson's card gives store discounts, but nothing else, so there's no other incentive to shop there.

The Italian grocery is fun but expensive, and isn't a place to do regular shopping. The butcher's is good and has a really good selection, but they tenderize a lot of their meat either manually or chemically and all their sausage and bacon has nitrates. Sometimes they have fresh eggs and good local bread, but not consistently- they sell out quickly.

Walmart is its own special circle of hell. It's cheap, but not always cheapest if I have the patience to read the grocery ads. If I don't, I shop there because I know that if I stick to my list it will be fairly inexpensive. But they won't have everything, and they'll be inexplicably out of things like frozen green beans or 1% milk. And I will come out with a vicious (if temporary) hatred of all humanity, plus a headache from whatever that plastic-bakery smell is that permeates the place.

It's interesting to hear others making the same calculations.

Posted by: librmt | November 18, 2008 10:35 PM

Recessionomic consumer behavior creates superior opportunities for inferior products. It opens up doors for creative destruction in marketing, advertising and public relations. Those that are positioned to use the stratification of the market to their advantage are going to remain afloat during the current slump. Others will come out ahead. How? I discuss it at http://peppercomblog.typepad.com/

Posted by: MSugovic1 | November 19, 2008 9:40 AM

To me Wegmans offered both the pleasant experience and good prices. What other stores do that?
It's also interesting that the different Giant and Safeway stores in our region can vary so dramatically. I have two Giants near me and one is not much bigger than a 7-Eleven and the other is pretty nice. Anyone else notice that?

Posted by: ShopToIt | November 21, 2008 11:39 AM

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