Sometimes, all you want from a market is stuff you can throw together for dinner — a steak or piece of fish, maybe. Sometimes, though, you want more, much more. Even here, in laid-back Seattle, we want to do all our shopping in one stop, soup to nuts, flowers to toilet paper. No obsessive scurrying to find just the right brie, the perfect cupcake, the ideal teapot; ideally, they're all under the same, 50,000-square-foot roof, all with free (or validated) parking.
For grocers, it's not easy to find that much space in the densely packed core of the city — they might have plenty of hungry customers, but no room to build a completely new store. Still, that hasn't stopped Terry Halverson, CEO of Metropolitan Market. He started as a box boy on Queen Anne three decades ago and worked his way to the top of that store, ultimately buying it and then building the chain he runs today; this weekend he and his team are celebrating the renovation of his company's Uptown store in Lower Queen Anne.
Americans spend only 10 percent of their income on food, the lowest percentage in the world. (The French and Italians spend 15 percent, the Chinese and Russians 25 percent, Indonesians 55 percent.) America's 35,000 supermarkets collect $600 billion a year in revenue. “Away from home” food, mostly restaurant meals, accounts for another $400 billion, altogether a trillion-dollar industry that employs 3.5 million workers.
The giant of the grocery biz, Walmart, controls a quarter of the market (4,700 stores, nearly $300 billion in revenue), dwarfing Kroger's $76 billion from 2,500 supermarkets (which operate under half a dozen names including Fred Meyer and QFC locally). In third place is our own Costco, which has only 527 stores but rakes in some $45 billion from food sales alone. Safeway comes in fourth, with about $41 billion from 1,750 stores.
In this dismal economy, restaurants are bleeding (and bleeping) themselves with price cuts, but grocery stores, by and large, are doing well. Profit margins at supermarket chains have doubled from a miniscule 1 percent of sales 20 years ago to almost 2 percent last year. In fact, stores have been able to spend money on significant upgrades to attract and keep shoppers who might otherwise scurry to specialty stores. It's not a slam-dunk, but the analysts preach that tuning in to consumer data and retail partners' needs leads to success. Gobbledy-gook, better interpreted on a local level, which leads directly to the region's sole remaining locally owned player, Food Market Northwest, formerly Thriftway, now doing business as Metropolitan Market.
The locally-owned, six-store Metropolitan Market chain hasn't been immune to the grocery wars. They cut an underperforming, 5-year-old outlet in Federal Way's Dash Point Village at the end of 2009, but they're moving full speed ahead with plans to open their first Eastside store, in Kirkland, later this year. And they've jumped back into the potentially lucrative (and hotly contested) central-city market, where the very density that creates a captive customer base requires innovative logistical adjustments.
Much as we all like those quaint mom-and-pop neighborhood bodegas and enjoy the convenience of 7-Eleven-style stores, it's virtually impossible to operate a real “supermarket” at less than 10,000 square feet. The average American supermarket measures nearly 50,000 square feet these days with as much “live” selling space as a football field. One obstacle to building a store this big in an existing neighborhood: the large parking lot and easy street access required for those 40-foot semi-trailers to back into the store's loading dock. (A modern supermarket carries 50,000 different items that have to be restocked every three weeks.) Even the new, 10,000-square-foot Fresh & Easy stores, owned by Britain's Tesco chain, have so far all been sited in the suburbs of southern California and Arizona, where there's plenty of room for the delivery trucks.
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