HANOVER - A delegation from the Wegmans corporate office was in Morris County recently to meet with community leaders as the company races to complete final preparations for its long-awaited grand opening in the township on July 23.
The 113,000-square-foot store, being built on the southeast corner of the mostly-Parsippany Mack-Cali business campus (visible from southbound Route 287, just north of Route 10), has been under construction for more than two years, while the company has been operating a hiring-training office on the far end of the Mack-Cali campus since last year.
"Leading up to a store opening, our community-relations team comes down to meet with community leaders, just to try and understand the needs of the community and how we, as a company, can help," said Jo Natale, vice president of media relations for the Rochester, N.Y.-based family business, which tied Publix as the nation's top-rated grocery store chain, according to a 2017 Market Force Information industry survey.
The Hanover location -- the 93rd in the 101-year-old chain -- also will include a connected 15,000-square-foot wine, beer and spirits shop that will be operated by a third-party owner.
"We have over 400 employees hired, almost 200 full-time," said store manager Tim Lockwood, who came from the Woodbridge location to first open the hiring center, then the new store. "We have about 60 or 70 positions available, mostly in perishables, customer service, and culinary positions, as well. It's been a little challenging because unemployment in the area is pretty low."
Lockwood said new hires, which include high school teens, undergo computer-based training in the hiring center, "but most of our training is taking place in the Bridgewater store."
Training in the Hanover store will begin in six or seven weeks, Lockwood said, when the company begins to stock shelves with products.
Wegmans also has New Jersey stores in Bridgewater, Princeton, Ocean, Manalapan, Mt. Laurel and Cherry Hill. Another store, currently under construction in Montvale, is scheduled to open in September. After that, the company will test the waters in New York with a store opening in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
With Wegmans consistently placing among the top-ranked U.S. employers industry publications, anticipation has been building among both Morris County consumers and job-hunters since the company broke ground in January 2015.
Still focusing on the east coast, Wegmans still does not rank in the upper echelon of U.S. grocery chains like Kroger, Publix and Safeway, all of which have more than 1,300 locations.
But in 2017, Supermarket News ranked Wegmans No. 30 overall. More importantly, Wegmans boasts of the highest per-store sales volume in the nation, according to Natale. The company reported sales of $8.3 billion in 2016.
ShopRite currently ranks as the top grocer in New Jersey, an underserved market following the closure of Pathmark and A&P in 2015.
Wegmans is eager to fill the void, but Natale said the company will continue its course of carefully measured growth.
"We only open two or three new stores a year," she said. "We do it for a few reasons. One of them is the investment we make in training. You cannot hire 500 new employees and get them all trained, and do that more then two, three, maybe four times a year. And then the attention to detail in terms of designing our stores; each is designed individually."
Wegmans also operates on a "bigger is better" philosophy.
"Our business model is predicated on high-volume stores," Natale said. "What that allows us to do that is keeping quality very high, because of volume. It allows us to provide a level of service that's next-to-none. We can hire 500 employees to serve customers in the store. So you get quality, you get service and low prices."
Just don't expect to see those prices in a regular weekly circular, as many consumers are used to receiving in the mail.
"We have what you call consistent low prices," Natale said. "So we don't have weekly specials. We just have low prices overall. Our prices are 10 to 15 percent lower than other supermarkets on items that families put into their carts every week."
The store will offer digital coupons and additional discounts for Wegmans card holders, Natale said.
Beyond that, the "secret sauce" topping Wegmans success is a combination of offering value to both employees and shoppers looking for both competitive prices and increased selection.
"We offer value to compete with the club stores," said Joe Sofia, senior vice president and New Jersey Division manager. "And on any given month when we do our price comparisons, we're less expensive than ShopRite. But we also offer higher-end items for people to want those things."
Beyond the traditional grocery-store inventory, Wegmans has been a leader in addressing America's increasing demand for prepared food, filling its Market Cafe with specialty items, hot and cold buffets and a variety of stations offering everything from sub sandwiches and pizza to gourmet items ready to cook and serve.
Media Relations Coordinator Valerie Fox touted the Hanover store's new Burger Bar, a first of its kind in the chain. Sofia was excited about Wegmans growing line of healthy, affordable meal replacements "that make putting dinner on the table really easy."
"The prepared food is only one small part of the meal replacements," Sofia said. "We have other things like raw products you have to cook at home, but it's a whole meal in one container that you put into your oven, just as it is."
Signage started to go up on the walls of the Hanover store a few weeks ago. This week, Wegmans leadership met with representatives of both local governments and community food banks, seeking information about how the company can offer support.
Sofia apologized in advance for the expected crush of traffic when they cut the ribbon at 7 a.m. on July 23.
"The openings are so busy, it will back traffic up in area streets," Sofia said.
"First week," Natale rushed to clarify with a smile. "Then once we settle into a normal pattern, it is fine."
Staff Writer William Westhoven: 973-917-9242; [email protected]
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