When Wegmans announced last month that it was in talks to open its first North Carolina store in Cary, it was the supermarket equivalent of the rich getting richer.
Already home to 26 major supermarkets, this western Wake town of roughly 155,000 has become the municipality that seemingly no grocer can resist.
“A lot of times, developers will call me and say they have a site in Cary they want me to look at,” said David Livingston, a Wisconsin-based supermarket analyst who helps grocers identify and evaluate new store locations. “It just seems like that name pops up a lot.”
Twelve different grocery chains now operate within Cary’s borders. At a time when some areas of the country are being labeled food deserts, Cary offers shoppers a level of competition and variety that is unmatched.
“I like the convenience of going to them all,” said Apex resident Lucille Druther as she left the Publix store in Cary this week. “We do a lot of price comparison, and I like the variety.”
Cary’s emergence as a supermarket capital is no accident. In the cutthroat, low-margin grocery business, no chain opens a new store without researching the demographics and competition in a location.
In recent years, the entire Triangle has become one of the most attractive markets for food retailers because of its growing population and rising incomes. Last week, the industry publication Supermarket News published an article speculating that the region may now be the most competitive in the U.S.
Lots of kids
Even within the Triangle, Cary’s demographics stand out.
Among large cities in North Carolina, Cary had the highest median household income in 2014 at $92,000, according Census Bureau data. Raleigh, by comparison, had median household income of $53,475, while Charlotte’s was $55,178.
Cary also has an abundance of families with young children. The town’s average household size was 2.74 in 2014, tying it with Jacksonville for the highest among larger cities in the state. At 38.4 percent, Cary also had the highest percentage of families with children under 18.
“Families with children, that is the demographic that’s going to spend the most dollars per week in the grocery store,” said David Connor, an executive vice president in Raleigh with commercial real estate firm Lincoln Harris. “Lots of kids, lots of milk and eggs.”
Still, demographics don’t entirely explain the Cary supermarket phenomenon.
Livingston, the industry analyst, said more grocers are now moving aggressively into North Carolina because they see an opportunity to take advantage of the state’s growth and steal market share from established players, such as Food Lion and Walmart, that are struggling.
“There’s just a glut of stores that are going to probably disappear over the next few years,” he said. “(The Triangle is) an attractive market for a lot of newcomers now, especially ones that are well-financed and have well-run stores.”
Take Publix, the Florida-based chain that opened its first store in the Triangle in Cary last year. The company already has plans to open two more Cary stores, including one in a former Lowes Foods. All three locations are within blocks of Harris Teeter stores.
“Publix, they just see it as low-hanging fruit,” Livingston said. “They’re not afraid to compete with Harris Teeter.”
As for Wegmans, Livingston said he’s always surprised when the retailer expands, because the Rochester, N.Y.-based company builds so few new stores. “They’re very slow and methodical,” he said.
The Cary store would be more than 200 miles from Wegmans’ nearest store in Virginia, which he said speaks to the attractiveness of the Cary market.
“It’s a perfect storm for them,” Livingston said. “Weak competition. Good demographics.”
Wegmans isn’t commenting on its plans beyond confirming its interest in a site near Cary Towne Center. Tim Morrison, an architect in Charlotte with the design firm Little, said he expects the retailer will build a showcase store designed to draw shoppers from across the region.
“They aren’t going to put an average store in,” said Morrison, whose firm has done design work for about 20 different supermarkets. “They’re going to try and make a mark with their latest ideas and try to make a splash so people will bypass a lot of other stores to get there. It takes an effort to do that.”
The Cary Towne Center location, while away from much of the residential growth taking place in western Wake, would provide easy access to Triangle shoppers off Interstate 40.
Morrison said Cary, like Charlotte, is just one of those places that are catnip to grocers.
“There are just certain spots around the country – they’re just hot spots,” he said. “Everybody wants to be there. They see the growth there, and they want to be part of it.”
Much of the grocery expansion in Cary has occurred over the past decade, and the town’s concentration of stores is even more impressive when you consider the growing number of stores in neighboring Morrisville and Apex.
When Bob Kay, 69, moved from outside New York City to Cary 10 years ago, the only supermarket near his townhouse was a Lowes Foods.
Today he lives near Davis Drive and High House Road, which has become Cary’s supermarket alley, with six chains operating within a 2-mile radius. Like many Cary shoppers, Kay patronizes all of the stores, hunting for the best prices and quality.
The situation is a far cry from the situation he left in New York.
“The closest store was a ShopRite 6 or 7 miles away, so you had to take what they had,” Kay said. “And it wasn’t a very good ShopRite.”
News researcher David Raynor contributed.