Wegmans' store brands play a huge role in the company's commitment to helping consumers rejoice in the joy of cooking and enjoying delicious meals.
During the May 13, 2010, broadcast of "Late Show with David Letterman," actor Alec Baldwin shared a story about the time he tried to convince his mother, Carol, to move from her home in Syracuse, N.Y., to Santa Barbara, Calif. – where William, another one of her sons, lives.
"And my mother, without a drop of irony, said, ‘And leave Wegmans?'" he joked.
Soon after the broadcast, mother and son together became Wegmans ambassadors, starring in a number of television commercials for the Rochester, N.Y.-based retailer, which operates 81 stores in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
Carol Baldwin isn't the only person in love with Wegmans Food Markets. Writers for NBC's "The Office" – a hit sitcom set in Scranton, Pa. – have portrayed characters consuming Wegmans brand products and toting Wegmans reusable shopping bags in a number of episodes.
And last May, The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham, Mass., said a group of students at Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough, Mass., developed and performed a "full-on musical" about two people who meet and fall in love in a Wegmans store. The name of the production? "Wegmans...The Musical!"
Even people without a local Wegmans store love the retailer. According to Wegmans, it received more than 4,400 requests in 2011 from people asking the retailer to build a Wegmans store in their communities.
A labor of love
Why are people so passionate about Wegmans? One reason, says Jim Wisner, president of Libertyville, Ill.-based Wisner Marketing Group, is the retailer works tirelessly to provide an excellent shopping experience in its stores. Given the size of Wegmans' stores – 80,000 to 140,000 square feet, with more than 70,000 products, the retailer says on its website – offering an excellent shopping experience isn't an easy feat.
"Stores that look great [sometimes] don't shop as well as you think they would, while others [provide] a great experience," he points out. "I had the opportunity to shop in one of their stores before and see if it delivers on the promise. And the fact of the matter is, yeah, it really does."
To give an idea about how big these stores are, Wegmans refers to its departments as "stores within a store" on its website. Departments mentioned here include a meat and seafood department, a bakery, a French pastry shop, a deli and cheese shop, a pharmacy, a florist, a natural foods and supplements section, and the Market Café, which features a number of food and beverage shops.
Also driving people's passion are the stores' helpful, knowledgeable and devoted staff members. In a March 23 article on TheAtlantic.com, Wegmans executives insisted that the retailer's "real advantage" is its "happy, high-quality workforce." The retailer sends butchers to Colorado, Uruguay and Argentina to learn about beef; and deli managers to Wisconsin, Italy, Germany and France to learn about cheese. It even awarded $4.5 million in college scholarships to its employees.
"One employee told me working for them is like going to the prom with the prettiest girl in school," says David Livingston, principal of DJL Research, Milwaukee, who has trained some of the retailer's employees. "Wegmans simply treats their employees well."
Passion for private label
But possibly more so than anything else, Wegmans' assortment of packaged goods drives people's passion for the retailer. Wisner says the retailer – which "seriously celebrates food" – positions itself as a solution for the shopper who wonders where he or she can find the ingredients to recreate a dish featured on a cooking show.
"They become, if you will, an answer to a question," he says. "And they do it with their private brands more so than any other [retailer]."
Private brands certainly play a huge role in Wegmans' business strategy. According to London-based Planet Retail, private brand sales make up about 25 percent of the retailer's overall grocery dollar sales.
Central to Wegmans' private brands is the retailer's name. Jim Hertel, managing partner with Barrington, Ill.-based Willard Bishop, says it "stands for something special," symbolizing the "celebration" of food.
"They put their name on the building, and that stands for something," he explains. "They put the same name on their private labels."
While a number of retailers are moving away from banner names for their own brands, Wegmans includes its name in all of its brands: Wegmans, Wegmans Food You Feel Good About, Wegmans Italian Classics, Wegmans Asian Classics and Wegmans Delicatessen. It also signs CEO Danny Wegman's name on its back-of-packaging quality guarantee.
Breaking down the brands
Of all of Wegmans brands, Wisner particularly admires two: Wegmans Italian Classics – which encompasses everything from frozen pizza to pesto sauce – and Wegmans Asian Classics – which includes everything from frozen potstickers to stir-fry sauces. Both brands help the retailer differentiate itself from the competition by offering authentic ethnic products shoppers cannot find elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Wegmans Food You Feel Good About is one of the first brands of better-for-you products launched by a major retailer, first introduced in 1992, the retailer says on its website. Products under the brand are free from artificial colors, flavors and preservatives; trans-fats from partially hydrogenated oils; and high-fructose corn syrup. Fresh meats under the brand are from animals that haven't been given antibiotics or hormones, or fed animal byproducts. And packaging for all products bears a yellow banner to make it easy for shoppers to "spot foods that are simply better."
According to Wegmans' website, Danny Wegman came up with the idea for the Wegmans Food You Feel Good About brand while his daughter Colleen – the retailer's current president – was a student at the University of Colorado Boulder. While visiting her family in Rochester, Colleen pointed out that she could not find the abundance of natural products found on shelves in Boulder's grocery stores.
Retail expert Michael Sansolo points out that shoppers turn to Wegmans for a number of reasons, and the promise of a good selection of healthful products is one of the largest of those reasons.
"Wegmans does a terrific job of featuring healthier products – and an even better job of posting information explaining the relative choices," he points out.
Stop and listen
Wegmans also does a terrific job of listening to its customers when developing such products. Most recently, the retailer responded to the growing awareness of celiac disease and other health conditions in which gluten plays a role by launching a line of Wegmans Food You Feel Good About gluten-free pasta. To develop the line, the retailer went straight to its customers, asking them to assist in development by taking a taste test.
Along with the pasta, Wegmans released a line of gluten-free baking mixes under the same brand. The retailer said Patty Fowler, one of its artisan bakers, worked for almost an entire year to develop the mixes.
But even though Wegmans has long known how to offer the right product assortment, it only recently learned how to get competitive with its pricing. Wisner notes that until a few years ago, consumers were wary of shopping Wegmans for center-store products, as those products tended to cost more than equivalent products at competing retailers.
"People will pay a premium on the perishables, but in center store, where you're more directly comparable," this isn't necessarily the case, he says.
After realizing a few years ago that shoppers were seeking better prices on center-store goods, Wegmans "sharpened up" its center-store pricing to make itself more competitive, Wisner says. Of note are regular price freezes Wegmans announces for a number of store brand and national brand items its shoppers purchase most. At press time, the most recent price freeze – which encompasses more than 50 products, all but one of them under Wegmans' brands – is set to extend through April 6. Wegmans promised that even if suppliers' prices went up, it would not increase retail prices on those items during the period.
Hertel notes that since the retailer got its pricing right, shoppers get the feeling that they just shopped at a high-end retailer without spending their entire paycheck.
"People walk away from there with the idea that, ‘I've kind of been in a Whole Foods ... and I haven't paid anything like Whole Foods' prices,'" he says. "They've got a very nice blend of top quality and solid prices. And private label's a big part of that."
Shoppers also appreciate Wegmans' open communication regarding origins of their store brand products. Carol Spieckerman, president of retail consultancy newmarketbuilders, points out that more and more consumers want to know where the products they consume are manufactured – which typically is not disclosed on the private label side of things. Wegmans has gone above and beyond the competition by being proactively – instead of reactively – transparent about its store brand products, Spieckerman says. And it does so through multiple communication "touch points": in-store materials, its website (including its Fresh Stories blog) and social media. This transparency has set the retailer apart from the competition.
"Wegmans has taken a leadership position in organics and in ensuring the healthfulness of its private brands, then backed all of it up with transparency," she says. "The blog that Wegmans' senior vice president of consumer affairs, Mary Ellen Burris, regularly pens on Wegmans' website is a particularly impressive effort. She brings frank and friendly updates on topics like crop-price increases and what Wegmans is doing about them, for example."
Another example: Burris shared in a July 23, 2012, entry that Wegmans changed from "trusted sources in China" to a local supplier for its Wegmans brand canned mushrooms. The decision was made in response to customers expressing "strong emotions about products labeled as coming" from abroad.
"Authenticity, trust and transparency are the keywords for retail's future – and Wegmans is hitting all three," Spieckerman explains.
Wegmans also has used packaging to promote transparency. In 2010, the retailer launched a line of Swiss Crepes (wafer cookies) made by Swiss manufacturer Gottlieber Spezialitäten AG. Packaging displayed the manufacturer's name alongside the retailer's, Burris said in a blog entry.
"It allows us to call attention to the authenticity and credentials of the Swiss manufacturer, linked with the confidence our customers have in Wegmans brand products," she explained.
Speaking of communicating with customers, Wegmans publishes Menu, a magazine dedicated almost entirely to the retailer's private label products. Inside each issue, shoppers will find food- and wellness-related articles, information about meal deals and lots of recipes relying on store brand ingredients. Each recipe includes pictures of the store brand ingredients and cookware needed, a wine or beer to pair with the dish, a quick-response code that links to a YouTube video of a Wegmans chef preparing the dish, and an invitation to write a review of the recipe on Wegmans.com.
But what's possibly even more interesting is that the retailer backs up the recipes and products in each issue with strong in-store merchandising support based around various recipes, Hertel notes.
"If it's a paella recipe and it includes the rice, the shellfish, the chicken and the paella pan, they'll have all of that merchandised quite closely together – kind of in a cohesive and integrated fashion," he points out. "And as mundane as that sounds, it's almost impossible for a lot of retailers to pull off."
The beauty of food
Also critical to merchandising is product placement, which Hertel says Wegmans does beautifully with the help of in-store staff mindful of the beauty of food.
For example, he notes that Wegmans tilts up its produce tables, with the colorful produce on the tables' front-facing side for customers to see, and bagged and cello-wrapped produce on the rear-facing side.
"They just really understand that food can be really beautiful, and they kind of set the store up [to have] a little theater in it," he points out.
Sansolo also believes Wegmans does a great job in presentation. For example, he points to the retailer's Market Café, which houses a sushi bar, an old-fashioned sub shop, a coffee shop, a wok buffet, hot bars representing various ethnic cuisines, a pizza and wing shop, and more.
"Like a shopping mall [food court], the area is huge," he explains. "Presentation is done in the open on a number of products to build theater, and freshness and quality are constantly reinforced."
And according to Sansolo, the retailer knows how to make even the most basic products in its Market Café unique, special and exciting – just as it does with its packaged products.
"Consider subs, a really basic dish," he points out. "Wegmans makes [them] unique and special by featuring a special sub roll recipe from a specific bakery in Rochester, N.Y. By doing that, even the sandwiches have a point of distinction."
Wegmans Food Markets, at a glance
Headquarters: Rochester, N.Y.
Top Executive: Danny Wegman, CEO; Colleen Wegman, president
Retail Banner: Wegmans
No. of stores: 81 in Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia
Store Brands: Wegmans, Wegmans Food You Feel Good About, Wegmans Italian Classics, Wegmans Asian Classics, Wegmans Delicatessen
No. of Store Brand SKUs: 7,000 (Source: Planet Retail)