Is the new Wegmans Bel Air Store is worth the hike? Does the company deserve all of the accolades it has received in other communities? The Dagger received its own personal tour to provide some insight.
Jo Natale, Wegmans Director of Media and Consumer Relations and Cynthia Glover, Smart Works Marketing, gave me a guided tour Thursday afternoon. The store was buzzing with workers hanging signs, stocking shelves, receiving cooking instruction and handing out samples to fellow employees. Groups of Wegmans staff circulated in groups to learn about every store department so that they will be able to educate shoppers and recommend services and products.
At this point, I feel compelled to tell you that I will have a hard time being objective about this subject. I am one of those Wegmans groupies that would periodically trek to the Hunt Valley store for the large variety of goods and services offered. My spouse was an enabler for my love of all products Wegmans. In fact, I am now relieved to have a local store so that I will no longer have mass quantities of various purchased cheeses molding in my refrigerator because I felt the need to overbuy, being so far away.
My first impression of the Harford County Wegmans is that, from the outside, it is massive. I was surprised how quiet and removed from the Route 24 and 924 traffic the shopping center felt. Unlike the Hunt Valley location, the entire store is located on one level, a layout which is more convenient for both shoppers and employees, Natale said. The store has several entrances, each entering at a different service area. The central doorways empty into the expansive produce section. Various signage designate the organic produce from that grown locally and the Veggie Market, which is a new addition to Wegmans stores. Staff will clean, cut and package vegetables for your cooking and eating needs. For example, if you have a special stir-fry recipe and want a variety of certain vegetables, they will make a package to your specifications.
Natale said Wegmans studied the Bel Air/Abingdon area before constructing the new store and found that there were already 14,000 Wegmans Shoppers Cardholders in Harford and Cecil County, who were traveling to other Wegmans locations to shop. Since the company’s marketing blitz, they have issued 18,500 more Shoppers Club cards, for a total of 32,000 Harford and Cecil County customers expressing interest in the Wegmans shopping experience. If you are planning to attend the Sunday grand opening, be prepared for a crowd, because most Wegmans openings have attracted 12,000 to 16,000 shoppers. And if you’re the type of person not deterred by crowds and eager to be one of the first into the store, a creative and cheery welcoming will await you, because at 6:50 a.m. all employees will meet at the front of the store and do the “Wegmans cheer” for those at the front of the line.
Wegmans claims it pioneered the “one-stop shopping” concept. This store holds produce, meats, seafood, dairy, pharmacy, a flower shop, kitchen wares, cards, gift items and a selection of restaurant options. There is a 300-person seating area for eating whatever you buy. Don’t want to stick around? If you want to avoid the hubbub of grocery shoppers and dash in for a quick supper take out, you can use the direct cafe entrance, which is clearly marked with a sign. Once inside this area, note the space-age-looking coke machines. This is one of the first nationwide locations for this particular type of computerized drink dispenser that allows you to custom blend your own coke product. The Coke Company claims that there are potentially 120 different drink combinations this dispenser can create. The product is stored in flavor cartridges, giving the customer that “just off the production line” experience. Coke electronically monitors the flavor cartridges and automatically ships the needed refills to Wegmans. This is just one example of the cutting edge shopping experience found at Wegmans. Kids will be fascinated with this machine. Parents, be warned!
In the cafe area, there is a “fireside room” decorated with a fireplace and TV. It is open to the public and can also be reserved for catered meetings by private groups. The Wegmans Catering Department will be fully operational as of Oct. 1. They will assist with menu options, quantities, entertaining ideas and more. Customers pick up their catered meal, Wegmans does not travel for this service.
The Food Bar is a new concept within the Wegmans world. Near the seating area, it has a counter where you can order to eat-in or take-out and can watch your meal being prepared while you wait. You place your order and pay at one end of the counter, receive a pager and wait to be called. Wegmans aims to fill your order within eight to ten minutes.
In the ready made and ready to go foods section, choices are plentiful. There are salads, Thai, Indian, Chinese, pizza, subs, ice cream, coffee, chicken wings, whole roasted chickens, soups, seafood, sushi and more. Wegmans carries 70,000 products. There are between 7,000 and 8,000 private Wegmans labeled products on their shelves. A few of my favorites Wegmans products are their basting oil, food & bread storage bags, crushed tomatoes, 1/3 less fat & salt bacon and parmesan cheese. My spouse, once a dairy technology college major, claims that the Wegmans canned whipped cream is the best on the market. When using it on pie, all that you see is a big pile of whipped cream.
The meat department at Wegmans is expansive. They will custom cut pieces to your liking and give you directions on how to prepare it. The cold case section carries cryogenically packaged products for longer shelf life and easier freezing. There is also a meat locker for dry aging.
Wegmans products come from all over the world. They strive for the best quality and when possible, like to buy locally. Value packs are available for many of their products, saving customers money and exemplifying their “consistently lower prices everyday” objective.
Why did Wegmans come to Harford County? Natale said that there was a market or a “density of customers and employees” with so many residents already holding Shoppers Club Cards. This location offered the needed space of 15 to 18 acres. Also, it is easy to find and get to using the I-95 and Route 24/924 intersection. Wegmans currently has 520 employees at this location. All have been trained at other stores and can earn certification in their specific areas.
Not just focusing on customer service and product quality, Wegmans also prides itself on donating to places of need within local communities. Thus far, it has donated a trailer of 13,000 pounds of canned goods to the Harford County Community Action Agency, as well as donating on a daily basis to other charities with food needs such as food banks and soup kitchens. These groups can visit the store to retrieve produce, dairy products and bakery items for charity needs. Wegmans employees actively donate to the United Way.
For all of its strengths, Wegmans faces several challenges. Until the Boulevard at Box Hill is completed, parking for Wegmans looks like it will be tight. Traffic at the I-95 and Route 24/924 intersection could be a driver’s worst nightmare until construction on the interchange is complete, currently scheduled for mid-October. It will be interesting to see what happens to longer-standing local grocery stores. As some may have noticed, a few have expanded, rearranged their shelf space and provided better pricing and other small perks to customers. Wegmans is hard to compete with, and I don’t think that all of the current local groceries will stay in business as a result.
There is much more that I could tell you. Wegmans is a destination location and should prove to be a fine shopping experience—but I don’t want to spoil all of the surprises.
Listen to our sneak peek inside Wegmans live on WAMD 970. Or call the station and weigh in at (410) 306-6270.
A selection of photos taken during the store’s preview day Thursday follow: