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Columbia Business Monthly

Competition Grows for Midlands Grocery Shoppers

Sep 05, 2018 01:06PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Richard Breen
PHOTOGRAPH ©2018 Brian Dressler / dresslerphoto.com

At one Midlands grocery chain, employees do a dance every time the rotisserie chickens are done cooking.

Another store is so popular, its customers gave it a nickname and wear t-shirts featuring its smiling mascot.

Running down to the supermarket because you’re out of toilet paper, or because you’re missing an item for tonight’s dinner, is a basic need that hasn’t changed much in decades. But technological upheaval is asserting its influence on a grocery sector that seems to be expanding and contracting at the same time.

“There’s going to be some consolidation over the next few years,” says Dr. Jeffrey Campbell, an associate professor in the University of South Carolina’s College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management. “There’s too many players in the market right now for them to not do anything.”

Lowes Foods (home to Chicken Kitchen and the dancing employees) recently opened a store on Forest Drive in Columbia, its third in the Midlands since 2017. German-owned Lidl has also entered the market, while Aldi and Kroger have added stores in recent years.

Meanwhile, longtime brands such as Bi-Lo and Piggly Wiggly have closed some stores. In fact, the Forest Drive Lowes is in a former Bi-Lo location, which was a Piggly Wiggly before that.

Meanwhile, there are dozens of others competing for some or all of a Midlands consumer’s grocery budget, from Whole Foods and Target to Dollar General, PetSmart, and CVS. And those are just the brick-and-mortar options.

“They’re all trying to catch a segment of the market,” Campbell says. “What they’re trying to figure out is who their competitors are in that particular segment.”

Race to the Bottom?
Lowes Foods, headquartered in Winston-Salem, N.C., has been around since 1954, but a key turning point occurred in 2013.

“We saw on the horizon the change that was coming across the grocery industry,” says Tim Lowe, chief executive. “Within the Carolinas, there’s been a fairly large influx of competition, of new growth. And the competition was more than just brick-and-mortar—you’ve got to think about competition that you may not think of traditionally.”

Indeed, instead of making that TP run, you may have Amazon periodically ship toilet tissue to your door so you’re never out. Or you don’t have to zip out for missing recipe items because you order from a company that delivers ready-to-go dinner kits.

“When you talk about grocery retailers today, where are the majority of grocery retailers running? Item and price,” Lowe says. “It’s kind of a race to the bottom. And we know the big players are the ones that are going to ultimately win that race.”

Determined to stay relevant, in 2013 Lowes Foods began conducting research, which revealed that “not everyone is looking for price only,” Lowe says. “We really kind of had to focus in on having more of an experience where food is the primary focus surrounded by the ability to experience that food.”

Experience? For Lowes, that means dancing associates, an on-site florist, a “beer den” with a weekly Pint Night, emphasis on local vendors, whimsical branding of everything from lighting to registers, and upscale services such as cut-to-order meats and a produce department that will chop your onions on demand.

It also means a “click-and-pick” service where you shop online and then drive over to receive your completed order without having to roam the aisles. It’s something chains such as Walmart and Kroger are also aggressively promoting.

The Social Pig
Within a few blocks of the Forest Drive Lowes are three competitors—The Fresh Market, Publix, and Trader Joe’s—that also try to merge experience and value. And less than three miles away, there’s the “Social Pig.”

Open since 1975, the Piggly Wiggly on Devine Street is one of the oldest continually-operating grocery locations in the Midlands. The Social Pig nickname evolved from decades of nearby residents seeing each other at the store and using the moment to catch up on neighborhood news.

“People like the environment here,” says store owner Darrell Miller. “We have always tried to listen to the neighborhood.”

Miller is a 45-year Piggly Wiggly veteran. The chain has long been a loose confederation of franchisees. He purchased the Devine Street store in 2014.

While it lacks the new-supermarket shine, Miller says his 35,000-square-foot store can do everything he needs it to do.

“We’ve been sitting here all these years and all these other stores have come and gone,” he says. Being independently owned, he adds, “You have a lot more flexibility, and I think that gives us somewhat of an advantage.”

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