CHARLOTTE — With fresh food stations galore, charcuterie stations, burger bars and hundreds of to-go meal selections, there is something special and different about Wegmans.
It has been called the Disney World of grocery stores and enjoys a cult-like following. Transplants long for the store and are quick to brag about it. Most are awestruck when entering the store for the first time.
“This place is like a foodie heaven,” said Glenn Lookabill, an Asheville resident visiting a Wegmans for the first time. “Everything I can conceive of is in here.”
Wegmans is slowly improving its North Carolina footprint. Three stores exist in the Tar Heel State -- Raleigh, Cary and Chapel Hill. A fourth store in Wake Forest is scheduled to open May 19. Wegmans plans to open a store in Holly Springs.
“I will be back,” Lookabill said. “I love my Ingles. I love my Harris Teeter, but this is seven notches above that.”
When it comes to places to shop for food, Wegmans is among the most popular. The store in Raleigh attracted 30,000 people on opening day. Despite the distance, it’s not uncommon to find people from the Charlotte area shopping there.
“Wegmans is like the best,” Fort Mill resident Shanin Wadsworth said. “It is one of the best grocery stores. Everything is fresh. Customer service is great.”
Shanin and Todd Wadsworth have been to all three North Carolina stores and do not let the long drive discourage them.
“We just bring two coolers, ice packs and also buy a bag of ice,” she said.
The Charlotte area has thousands of people like them in a Facebook group called, “Bring Wegmans to Charlotte.” Founder Thomas Bailey started the group in 2016. It has since surged to more than 3,600 members -- all with one thing in common, which is the desire for a Wegmans in or near Charlotte.
“Wegmans is a natural affinity for anybody who likes food, likes to go shopping or just wants somewhere to hang out and spend time in their café,” Bailey said.
While not necessarily openly encouraged, Bailey said some members of the group have connected with each other to take road trips to the North Carolina stores. When they get to Wegmans, they drop big cash.
“Many people have gotten together in their little local areas or their local or regional areas where they came from, and they road,” Bailey said. “They bring stuff back for each other. People go out during the weekend, spend $800 or $1,200 on Wegmans food.”
So, when will Wegmans ever be built in Charlotte? Renowned supermarket expert Phil Lempert of Supermarketguru.com said “sooner than you might think.”
“Charlotte has become a hotbed for industries, for IT. It has above the average household income and above average education,” he said. “Charlotte is becoming a hip area. Everybody wants to sell to those kinds of people.”
Lempert said people love Wegmans for the atmosphere, options, friendly employees and competitive prices. Fortune routinely names Wegmans as a top place to work. In 2020, Wegmans ranked third.
According to Lempert, Charlotte and Wegmans are tailor-made for each other. The Facebook group of more than 3,600 people helps.
“Whenever we have consumers, and especially 3,000 consumers in Charlotte, asking for anything, there’s an impact,” Lempert said. “I’m sure that Danny and Colleen (Wegmans Chairman and CEO) and other executives there are paying attention to that.”
Building a store isn’t simple, though.
Lempert said Wegmans must factor in distribution and hiring employees. The pandemic complicates things, as well. It takes about two years from the time of inception to when customers can roam the aisles. Still, Lempert said expect the Queen City to welcome a Wegmans sooner rather than later.
“I don’t know if it’ll be this year,” he said. “But certainly over the next few years, you could expect to see one there.”
Rumors frequently pop up about Wegmans purchasing land in Charlotte for future stores. That hasn’t happened at this time, according to a spokesperson.
“At this time, we have no plans to build in Charlotte and have not purchased any land in the area,” spokeswoman Laura Camera said. “We open just two or three stores a year to give us time to invest in training our new employees and get to know a new community before we open.”
Bailey has no doubt Charlotte is ready. Even if the store isn’t in city limits, he predicts thousands will routinely shop there.
“Whether it’s Fort Mill or Concord or more, we don’t care as long as it’s less than an hour drive,” he said. “We’re coming every weekend.”
Todd Wadsworth said the Charlotte grocery market will never be the same.
“I think it would really show the other the grocery stores in the area, ‘Hey get it together,’” he said.
“Walmart is the best spot”: Current shopping trends in Charlotte
When it comes to big grocery shopping, Charlotte resident Lil Tune said he always goes to Walmart.
“Walmart is the best spot,” he said. “Every Walmart you got to is packed. It’s full, and everyone is in there.”
Charlotte resident Igor Boytko said the affordable deals at Walmart draw him in.
“It’s got pretty good prices,” Boytko said. “It has everything you need, usually.”
(WATCH: Current shopping trends in Charlotte)
According to the research firm Chain Store Guide, Walmart is the top grocery store in the Charlotte area with 28 stores generating $1.7 billion in sales last year. Walmart represents 21% of the market.
Harris Teeter ranks second generating $1.3 billion and representing 17% of the market. Food Lion represents 15% of the market and generated $1.25 billion in sales last year. Publix came in fourth place with 10% of the market and more than $779 million in sales.
In total, people in the Charlotte region spent $8.1 billion on groceries last year.
Lempert said competition benefits the shopper.
“Everybody wants to do something better,” he said. “When you have that many stores of that caliber as you do in Charlotte, everybody is constantly making sure that their store is refreshed.”
Lempert said that given the pandemic, Walmart’s top-ranking position shouldn’t be a surprise. Shopping habits, much like the rest of the world, have changed.
“Consumers have to be smarter now than ever before as it relates to prices,” he said.
Charlotte shoppers have it made when it comes to options.
“There’s great variety,” Boytko said. “Just around here you have Walmart, Harris Teeter down the road and Publix.”
In a few years, there may be a new store in the city: Wegmans. If or when that happens, Lempert says the other stores will have to step up their game even more.
“Every retailer loses employees who want to work at Wegmans, as well as shoppers who want to shop at Wegmans,” he said. “It really forces every other retailer to be better at what they do.”
2020 Rankings according to Chain Store Guide:
2. Harris Teeter
3. Food Lion
5. Sam’s Club
The Charlotte market includes the North Carolina counties of Cabarrus, Gaston, Iredell, Mecklenburg, Rowan and Union. The South Carolina counties of Chester, Lancaster and York.
(WATCH: Walmart to test drone delivery of groceries, household items)
Cox Media Group