Tabitha Challis’s list of go-to grocery stores is like a little map of Baltimore: Cooking for three and spending about $125 a week, she hits Graul’s in Ruxton for its high quality fresh meat, Whole Foods in Mount Washington for its fresh and healthy products and her nearby Giant for its proximity and its reward system. But she also uses Amazon’s Prime Now on those days when she doesn’t want to run to the store. And she just started using InstaCart, the grocery delivery service that promises to bring items from local stores in less than two hours.
Challis is not unique in her shopping habits. Today’s grocery shoppers are hitting up two to three stores to get the food stuff they need, according to the Virginia-based Food Marketing Institute, whose researchers track grocery trends. They want healthy, high quality items and they are willing to spend the time to find them — and the money. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that Americans spend $1.4 trillion on groceries each year.
In recent years, Baltimore and its suburbs saw the opening of three new, high-end grocery stores: MOM’s Organic at the Rotunda, Seasons kosher grocery store in Pikesville and Wegmans in Owings Mills, along with the renovation and relocation of Trader Joe’s in Towson. Construction also is underway on a larger Whole Foods in Harbor East and is expected to start on a store in Towson.
“Consumers’ desire for healthy foods and specialty gourmet foods has been a main driving force,” writes Jie Zhang, a marketing professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and the Harvey Sanders Fellow of Retail Management. “Most high-end specialty grocery stores not only offer a broad selection of health and gourmet foods, but have focused on providing high-quality ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat home meal replacement options,” Zhang continues. “They offer healthier alternatives than traditional fast food restaurants in serving consumers with busy lifestyles.”
Zhang, who corresponded with STYLE while in China on a business trip, says, “it’s not that we are becoming foodies at home,” but that specialty grocery stores are becoming more affordable to the mass market and many of their offerings are replacing traditional fast food and casual restaurant spending. “Consumers don’t necessarily spend more on the meals than in restaurants,” she writes. “But they get to enjoy the convenience and psychological benefits of having home meals and often doing so with their families.”
For some Baltimore shoppers, the high quality products that Zhang mentions are at the top of their grocery lists. Robin Belsky, a newly married Baltimore resident, is one such consumer. Belsky keeps a kosher home, often cooks for three and entertains often, spending about $200 a week on groceries. She loves the new Seasons prepared gourmet take-home entrees, homemade baked goods, deli and other kosher products gathered from all over the world.
Karen Rosenberg, a self-described Wegmans “geek” who lives in Reisterstown, met Danny Wegman on the opening day of the Owings Mills store and took a selfie with him. She once went to three different Wegmans in three different states in one day and swears by the chain’s fresh products and friendly staff.
Faith Paulick is with her in spirit: “I am obsessed with Wegmans all day long. Best fancy finds, cheap eats, grab and go, and lots of cultural options, not to mention the stunning items available at the bakery and in-house florist,” she says. “When I need inspiration to write a new menu, I simply loop around the sections, always starting with the exciting produce entryway.”
Other shoppers are fond of Baltimore mainstays. “My favorite is Graul’s in Ruxton,” says Jill Dudley Cohen. “They have a great selection of prepared foods and salads. Their help is friendly and knowledgeable. … I love their bakery and signature buttercream frosting. They even offer single slices of cake.”
Martha Amereihn, who lives in the Hereford Zone, rarely cooks and often ventures to Eddie’s of Roland Park, where prepared crab cakes and side dishes are her go-to purchases. Dan Collins, a lifelong Eddie’s shopper, likes the store for its offerings and for the occasional Peter Angelos sighting. (And “it’s a Baltimore institution, after all; just ask author Anne Tyler.”)
Are we always going to be this loyal to our favorite stores? The grocery store market is becoming more competitive, Zhang says. Mainstream grocery stores are putting the pressure on the high-end specialty stores, but they, in turn, are trying new strategies to be more efficient and keep prices low. Plus — and this may be due to the popularity of cooking shows or the way that restaurants are increasingly likely to use locally sourced goods — a greater number of middle-class customers are willing to try new products.
“Many higher-end specialty food retailers feel the need to open more stores in their intended target markets in order to better compete with each other and mainstream food retailers,” Zhang writes. ”
What about online shopping? “Great question! Yes, online grocery shopping and home delivery services are seeing a rapid growth in recent years,” Zhang writes. The trend is fed by some of the same factors that affect specialty grocery stores: Busy consumers want high quality and convenient options. As retailers improve logistics, online grocery shopping and home delivery services are going to become more affordable to more consumers.
—With reporting from Brianna Baker