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CHECKING OUT THE MARKETS FROM SUPERSTORES TO BARE-BONES GROCERY OUTLETS, YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR

There's a grocery store for everyone in Western New York.

There are the sprawling superstores (such as Wegmans and Tops) that offer all manner of food and general merchandise in buildings that can measure upward of 100,000 square feet.
There are smaller supermarkets like the newly opened Market in the Square that offer a somewhat smaller food selection.

Then there are the wholesale clubs (like BJ's) and big super centers (like Wal-Mart) that offer food as part of the mix, often at discount prices.

And there are the "no-frills" stores (Aldi's and Save-A-Lot are two examples) with very limited services that concentrate on selling cheap. Not for nothing are they described as "no-frills" or even "bare bones." Many of the items are private labels or store brands of standard groceries.

Each store offers a different shopping experience.

In "limited assortment stores," the scenario goes something like this: Grab a cart and start touring the aisles, selecting items from corrugated cartons piled on wooden pallets. The products don't sport the familiar names you see on TV advertisements.

Prices are posted on easy-to-read signs hanging from the ceiling. A limited selection of produce is on sale; perishables like eggs and deli meats are stored in cases at the rear of the store.

When you're finished, wheel over to the checkout stand and ask for grocery bags. Pay with cash or food stamps; no checks, coupons, or credit cards accepted. And no shopper's cards, need we say.

Put your purchases back in the cart, take them a few feet away to the deep counter, and bag the items yourself, using bags provided by the store or ones you brought with you.

What are some of the things you missed in this experience?

Bright lighting, lots of helpful clerks, a wide selection of brand names as well as private-label products sold at a fairly broad price range, a certain festive air. And food samples.

You're also missing all those special cardboard displays in the aisles, not to mention a play center for the kids, video rentals, pharmacy and photo developing.

And this is what you saved:

Money.

How much money varies, of course, but the management of these limited-assortment stores claim you can save up to 40 percent on your regular grocery bill. And plenty of customers, such as Karen Lewis of South Buffalo, believe those claims are true.

"I have three children and I can save a lot of money, so I come here often," she said while shopping in an Aldi's in Cheektowaga the other day.

Lewis says she doesn't mind buying products that aren't name brands.

"I always try (private-label products) at least once," she told the other shoppers in her aisle. "And only once have I been disappointed -- my kids didn't like the store brand of noodles in tomato sauce."

In the front of the store, an elderly Cheektowaga couple who didn't want their names published were examining bags of potato chips with the name "Bonanza" printed on them.

"We come here once a week to save money, but we only buy odds and ends," the husband said. "You don't get the brands here, of course."

Meanwhile, his wife was delighted with a bargain she spotted. "Look," she said. "They have sugar. I need to stock up."

If it's brand names that interest you, they are offered at discount in wholesale membership clubs -- a whole other shopping scenario where fend-for-yourself principles still apply.

These stores are warehouses, really. They sell clothing, books and appliances. The perishable and non-perishable foods mostly come in large sizes. If you can use a 25-pound sack of granulated sugar or even a double pack of Cheerios, this may be the place for you.

You can buy smaller sizes of brand-name foods cheaply at stores like Wal-Mart, K mart and Target, too.

Dr. Arun Jain of the University at Buffalo department of marketing points out that the discount stores appeal to shoppers who are price-sensitive, people who often like to buy staples in large quantities, which can make for substantial savings. Many of these shoppers have large families.

But, Jain says, these stores also appeal to " 'smart shoppers.' They are very educated people who really don't see any difference between store brands and national brands. And their objective is not necessarily to save money but to beat the market.

"When it comes to food shopping, we're all not necessarily going in one direction," Jain says.

Smaller supermarkets, for instance, have special appeal to shoppers who are time-deprived but not particularly budget-conscious.

"If you go to a huge mega-store," says Jain, "it takes many people about an hour to get there, and then the shopping itself takes an hour."

That's why the concept of the neighborhood store may become more common, the professor says.

A supermarket called Market in the Square, for instance, opened recently in Southgate Plaza, West Seneca. It measures 20,000 square feet, about half the size of the average supermarket. The format may be smaller, but a week's shopping can easily be done here.

What economists like to call "depth" is limited. The Market usually stocks one brand name of one type of food and a private label in each category. But that's all.

Market in the Square considers produce its strong point, emphasizing its low prices; there's a meat department and even a small cafe. Cashiers do the bagging; checks are accepted. A lot is packed in a small space.

"Everything I want is here," Market shopper Sue Naylor of West Seneca said last week. "They don't have the 2,000 items that I ignore in other supermarkets. The aisles are wide. And they have herbs in small-size packages so I don't end up throwing them out."

Brian Kusmierski, one of the owners of Market in the Square, says that has all been carefully planned. "Our concept is no games, no gimmicks, no cards -- fast in and out," he said.

"You know, this is a very simple business. You just give people what they want," Kusmierski said.

The big question is, of course, what do they want?

"They just want to get and out as fast as possible," says Stephanie Zakowicz, Tops Markets' director of public relations.

Zakowicz says Tops has taken a hard look at the lifestyles of its customers, many of whom are families with children, two parents working.

"They don't have a whole lot of time to do routine grocery shopping," she says.

"We designed a prototype store of 45,000 to 65,000 square feet that will suit individual neighborhoods. There's one on Transit Road in Depew."

This doesn't mean the company will get rid of the huge international stores, which are over 100,000 square feet, she says, but even these will be made more efficient. Such as putting the prepared food section toward the front and installing a separate cash register there, so people shopping for a last-minute dinner don't have to wait in long lines.

"We're looking at every store on an individual basis," Zakowicz says.

Does all this tweaking mean that the big supermarket chain is worrying about the growing number of grocery alternatives out there?

"As far as stores like Aldi's go, there aren't enough of them in this market to offer us competition," says Zakowicz. "They attract a different kind of customer because they don't carry brands.

"We consider deep-discount stores like Wal-Mart the greater threat."

Wegmans is paying close attention, too.

"We compete on many fronts with retailers of all shapes and sizes," says Ann McCarthy, Wegmans' consumer affairs representaive. "We know our customers are looking for selection and price but we always stay alert to any challenges in the marketplace."

This continuously changing marketplace is about to change again.

Jain points out that Internet grocery shopping will become a force in this area, "as soon as everyone has a computer. That will be in about 10 years."

And the Web will redefine the whole picture of grocery shopping. Supermarkets will face the challenge of actually bringing people into the store.

"Markets will have to continue providing stimulation," says Jain. "It's not just a matter of inventory replenishment. They won't be able to just put items on a shelf and have people buy them. That's the old-time grocery solution."

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