Wegmans: Not Just a Grocery Store
by Grace Blondell | published Mar. 3rd, 2017
“The greatest place on earth.”
Each phrase has been used by RIT students to describe Wegmans, the Rochester-based, family-owned grocery chain. Wegmans recently celebrated its 100th anniversary since being founded in 1916 by brothers John and Walter Wegman.
Chances are if your first exposure to Wegmans was when you came to RIT, you were a little confused during orientation week when you heard local students raving about a supermarket. Priding itself on its high standards and innovation since its earliest days, the supermarket chain has become a permanent part of Rochester culture with most locals agreeing that it is more than just a grocery store, while a few dissenters maintain that it’s vastly overrated.
The supermarket chain has become a permanent part of Rochester culture.
Wegmans has consistently been ranked as a top company to work for by both FORTUNE magazine and Forbes, and in 2016 was named America’s Favorite Supermarket based on a consumer study by Market Force Information. As one of the largest privately owned companies in the United States, Wegmans has amassed accolades for its excellence as an employer and a retailer, as well as its dedication to its customers and communities in its 92 locations across the East Coast.
Wegmans has amassed accolades for its excellence as an employer and a retailer, as well as its dedication to its customers and communities.
Local Supermarket Turned Regional Phenomenon
In 1916, John Wegman opened the Rochester Fruit & Vegetable Company after spending time selling fresh produce to locals out of a pushcart, marking the beginning of Wegmans Food Markets. According to the Wegmans website, his brother Walter joined the business endeavor a year later, and in 1921, the two purchased the Seel Grocery Co. and added bakery and general groceries departments. By the 1930s, Wegmans was making a name for itself on the national level with the introduction of foreign yet ingenious concepts that included refrigerated display windows, vaporized water sprays, a catering service and weekly menu bulletins.
By 1937, Wegman’s son Robert had joined the company, and he became president in 1950 after his father's death. Robert envisioned Wegmans as the “finest supermarket chain in the land,” and worked tirelessly for over 50 years to turn that vision into reality. Employees’ salaries were raised and they gained a wide range of benefits, stores were outfitted with the latest technologies to improve efficiency and customer service and additional departments were included in the new stores that were springing up around the region.
Danny Wegman, Robert Wegman's son, joined the family company in 1964, and the following decade saw the company gain firmer control of their food supplies with the establishment of their meat distribution center and a private-label buying program which introduced the Wegmans Brand. Additionally, the first Wegmans Pharmacies, seafood departments and home centers opened around that same time. In 1976, produce departments converted to a “pick a little or pick a lot” philosophy in lieu of pre-packaging.
Also at this time, Wegmans began engaging extensively with its employees and the surrounding communities with philanthropic efforts. As listed on their website, the contributions Wegmans has made to the community since the 1970s include regular donations to local food banks, forming its own Federal Credit Union committed to providing lower-interest loan rates, partnering with Rochester City School District to employ students, providing academic assistance, granting scholarships, starting a United Way campaign that raised $1.6 million in its first year, donating millions for the establishment of a pharmacy school and a nursing school at St. John Fisher College and helping fund a research center here at RIT for the development of sustainable packaging.
Today, Wegmans is recognized not as the local grocery it once was, but as a regional phenomenon; it is setting the standards for grocery stores across the country in terms of customer service, civic engagement and product quality and variety.
Wegmans is setting the standards for grocery stores across the country in terms of customer service, civic engagement and product quality and variety.
Customers entering stores are greeted by vibrant signage, an extensive prepared foods department and niche products, as well as monthly savings and quarterly copies of Menu Magazine as perks of a free Shoppers Club membership.
Innovative ideas, generous giving and happy employees make a good business, but Wegmans is more than that. Wegmans is the kind of grocery store that you miss when you no longer live near one.
Currently attending grad school at Georgia Tech, Rochester native Gaurav Shastri is an eight-hour drive from the nearest Wegmans location in Virginia. Although Georgia has larger grocery chains including Kroger, Publix and Whole Foods, Shastri said. “It’s impossible to find anything that comes even close [to Wegmans]." As someone who cooks frequently, Shastri views Wegmans as being at the top of its class for its “top notch” products, particularly produce. Additionally, the variety of goods it carries has rendered it “irreplaceable." He’s met a few people in Georgia that are familiar with Wegmans, including a friend from Baltimore who is not quite as passionate about the store as he is, but who also “notices how much better it is than other [grocery stores] around here.”
Having spent the past five years on the West Coast, Pittsford native Richard Shu finds himself in a similar position to Shastri. His freshman year at UCLA was a time of adjustment and change: he had to acclimate himself to the different aspects of life that result from going off to college, and not having a Wegmans around was part of this transition.
As a student, Shu mostly shopped at Ralphs, the closest grocery store to campus, and continues to shop there now because the cheaper products are more catered to his spending habits than other California chains like Safeway, Costco, Vons and Trader Joe’s. The Ralphs location by UCLA happens to be the highest grossing Ralphs in America, which led to its upgrade to a “super supermarket” during Shu’s junior year of college; he describes the renovated store as “trying to emulate more upscale grocery stores.” He continued: “All my friends were like oh my god, this is so sick ... I’m like oh my god, this is only like half of what Wegmans is.”
“All my friends were like oh my god, this is so sick … I’m like oh my god, this is only like half of what Wegmans is.”
When explaining the differences between Wegmans and some of the other chains out West, Shu notes that he likes that Wegmans has their own private label and consistently offers high-quality products. California chains carry some brands and product lines that don’t exist here on the East Coast, but Shu says, “The way [products] look and the way [they’re] branded looks better at Wegmans."
While not having Wegmans around has become a way of life, Shu gets excited to visit the store on trips back home and brings up Wegmans when meeting people from the East Coast in Los Angeles. The store is an easy talking point for Shu, especially being from Pittsford where the flagship store is located. “Wegmans is kind of like a badge of honor that I’m from upstate New York or the East Coast,” he said.
“Wegmans is kind of like a badge of honor that I’m from upstate New York or the East Coast.”
Shu has been keeping up with the expansion of Wegmans down the East Coast and wouldn’t complain if they moved out west; it would be like “a piece of Rochester coming all the way from New York to LA,” he mentioned. Although there is a lot of competition in the LA area, Shu strongly believes that anyone who misses Wegmans would go out of their way to shop there.
On the contrary, first year Biomedical Engineering student Eleanor O’Gorman did not grow up around Wegmans. The Maine native wasn’t exposed to the hype surrounding the grocery store until her first weeks at RIT, but even friends away from the Rochester area expressed their fascination with the store, so she figured it was worth a visit. However, after her first experience there, O’Gorman “didn’t find anything to be that different than home,” which includes the chains Hannaford and Shaw’s. She admitted that the grocery stores in Maine don’t have the “same restaurant aspect” as Wegmans, but they aren’t “hella expensive” like Wegmans, either. While she continues shopping at Wegmans for groceries out of necessity, she still doesn’t “understand why everyone is so obsessed with it."
The Inside Scoop
When fourth year Industrial Engineering student Madeline Galvin was growing up, the nearest Wegmans was 40 minutes away in Syracuse, which made the rare weekend trips there a big deal. When it came time to look for a co-op, it was almost a no-brainer for Galvin. After hearing so many positive things about the experiences of other students and full-time store employees, she sought out a position at Wegmans. Currently just five weeks into her eight-month long co-op for Project Support Services within the IT department for Wegmans Corporate, Galvin says she is considering staying at Wegmans after her co-op ends. “I love Wegmans, it’s my favorite thing,” she said.
“I love Wegmans, it’s my favorite thing.”
As part of her position, Galvin supports project managers on IT projects. Among the department’s recent developments are e-notifications from the pharmacy that deliver text message notifications about prescriptions that need to be filled or picked up, a more streamlined scholarship application process for student employees and an improved app that now includes digital coupons. The new digital coupon service chooses the coupons displayed to the user based on their prior Shopper’s Club purchases, offering a customized shopping experience. Users only need to “clip” the coupon on their smartphone for it to be applied to their purchase at the store.
As someone with an inside perspective on Wegmans, Galvin says the store has been able to set itself apart from its competition because it “offers an experience.” It has high standards for its employees who are constantly on the floor assisting customers, as well as high standards for its products.
Galvin had the opportunity to see just how fresh the products on display are when she visited some of the local warehouses, describing the turnover rate of products here as “insane." Galvin also visited the Culinary Innovation Center, where Wegmans prepares its ready-to-cook foods, and watched mashed potatoes being prepared. She also explains that entrées in the prepared foods department are prepared mostly in store, while cheeses are ripened in the Rochester Cheese Cave, meaning your six-dollar meals and Gouda are of the highest quality.
Because Wegmans strives to consistently provide their best, extensive data collection and analysis occurs behind the scenes to make sure this happens. Efforts are focused on analyzing Shoppers Club card information which allows Wegmans to customize locations to best fit the customer base. Different stores offer different sections based on what customers buy in specific locales, increasing the amount of diversity between stores.
Locals Get First Look at Products And Technology
Due to Wegmans being locally based, Rochester has been exposed to some of Wegmans’ more unique endeavors. New Wegmans restaurants are opening across Monroe County, including “Next Door," a bar and grill located across from the Pittsford store; “Amore,” an Italian restaurant that offers classes including how to make mozzarella cheese; and “The Pub,” with locations extending across state lines.
Additionally, the Pittsford Wegmans — the flagship location — is the first of any Wegmans to test out many new products and technologies. Galvin explained that the LaneHawk, a camera that detects items at the bottom of a shopping cart, was first tested there. Now that the technology has been implemented in all locations, the next step for the LaneHawk could potentially be an upcoming project for Galvin and the IT Department: devising a method to have the camera scan items in addition to detecting them.
Constantly evolving to better itself for the communities it serves, Wegmans has revolutionized grocery stores and the grocery shopping experience, which is why it is so widely revered by those that live in locales with one of the famed supermarkets. Wegmans is not just grocery store — it is a destination.