The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Food desert no more: the tightening battle for D.C. grocery shoppers

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For years, the grocery options were slim in the neighborhoods between the District’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center and Union Station. There was a decades-old Giant Food on O Street NW that was demolished in 2011, and there were a handful of corner stores specializing mostly in alcohol, cigarettes, candy and chips.

The area was a classic “food desert” – a place where few traditional grocery stores would venture and fresh food was difficult to find.

That’s hard to imagine today.

Seeing an influx of young professionals to the city, grocery store chains began racing to open new stores in the Washington area, even if they were just a few blocks from one another.

Neighborhoods like these – including parts of Shaw, Mount Vernon Square and NoMa – are now ground zero in a fierce grocery store competition. Safeway opened at 5th and L streets NW in the fall of 2008, and over the next five years, Giant, Harris Teeter and Wal-Mart all opened stores within a half mile.

Similar crowding of grocery competition is happening in places such as Capitol Hill, Alexandria and Vienna, and the trend is hardly new in the suburbs. In Olney, Md., one intersection boasts grocery stores on all four corners.

The stakes for these companies as they enter emerging neighborhoods are particularly high: Although many grocery shoppers are loyal to one chain or another, with so many residents arriving from elsewhere, chains here have a chance to make their mark.

To get a sense of the competition, we sent reporters to each of the four new stores in the Mount Vernon Triangle-NoMa area.

Each went with the same shopping list in hand, a dozen items long, based loosely on Census data of commonly purchased items: wheat bread, eggs, milk, butter, hamburger meat, Red Delicious apples, iceberg lettuce, Coke, coffee, spaghetti, potatoes and carrots.

Our survey offered just a snapshot. A main takeaway: Cost is not always a driving factor. Grocers have long competed on price with circulars, buy-one-get-one deals and value cards, and our Wal-Mart and Giant Food shoppers did save more than 10 percent on their bills when compared with our Harris Teeter shopper, who had the priciest bill.

But in speaking with shoppers, it’s clear that particularly in dense urban environments, stores will need to win over customers with access, selection and experience. Here’s how they fared.


490 L St. NW
Opened: September 2008.
Receipt total: $38.14 (second highest).
Time spent: 38 minutes (second slowest).
Selection: Good.
Parking/access: Underground parking, Capital Bikeshare around the corner, two blocks to Metro, Metrobus stop immediately outside. Open 24 hours.

Walk into this City Vista supermarket and you can see why it was nicknamed the “sexy” Safeway when it opened six years ago.

There’s a Starbucks to the left, helium balloons to the right and fresh flower arrangements all around. Apples and mangoes are lined up and stacked in neat rows. A banner overhead advertises selection of 125 types of organic produce.

The store also has a Wells Fargo branch, a dry cleaners and a pharmacy – amenities that store officials say help draw people in.

“Anytime you can increase the likelihood of people coming into the store, that’s a good thing,” said Craig Muckle, a spokesman for Safeway.

The first items on my list – vegetables, fruit and meat – are easy to find. After that, I’m stumped. I’m less than halfway
through the store when I hit aisles full of bath tissues and magazines. The next several aisles are filled with trash bags,
shampoo and paper plates. No more food in sight.

It turns out groceries are split into two areas, and the other is on the far end of the store, past the pharmacy and cleaning supplies. Once I get there, I see a lot more emphasis on premium wines (which take up three aisles), than dairy, which by comparison, is tiny. A small freezer contains Safeway’s brand of milk and little else.

Looking down at my list, only one item continues to elude me: spaghetti. I meander through the store, reading the signs above the aisles. No pasta in sight, and no employees to help out, either.

I find it six minutes later, wedged next to “Hispanic Foods” at the front of the store. I’m done!

But considering I’ve only seen a handful of customers, I’m surprised to see nearly three dozen people waiting to check out. The line for self-checkout weaves into the cereal line. Three other lines are five or six people deep.

I get in place behind three 20-somethings who are buying Gatorade, ginger ale and limes. They were staying at a nearby Hampton Inn.

“It’s very clean in here,” said Juan Zapateiro, 28, who was in town from New Jersey. “It kind of feels like Whole Foods.”

By the time I’m finished checking out, it’s taken me 37 minutes and $38 to pick up a dozen items. My Safeway card saves me $1.62, but customers said they weren’t here to save money.

“The prices here are about average,” Ben Birndorf said, pushing a cart full of groceries to the underground parking garage. “I come here because it’s close to me.”

Others said the same thing: they chose Safeway for proximity, not prices.

“I never really compare prices,” said Craig Plazure, 27, a political analyst who had stopped by for granola bars and Greek yogurt. “My office is right down the street so this has become my weekday grocery store.”

Abha Bhattarai


99 H St. NW
December 2013.
Receipt total: $35.38 (second lowest).
Time spent: 27 minutes (second fastest).
Selection: So-so.
Parking/access: Underground parking, Capital Bikeshare immediately outside, three blocks to Union Station. Open 24 hours.

When I stepped out of my car in the underground parking garage below the Wal-Mart store at 99 H St. NW, I thought I was in the Amazon rainforest – the place felt so hot and humid. I gasped as I hustled to the elevator.

The garage was the first sign that I was not in your average sprawling, off-the-Interstate Wal-Mart. The store is only 80,000 square feet, less than half the size of the average Supercenter. There are 300 apartments on top of it and an electric car-charging station in the parking garage.

Wal-Mart sells more than food, but groceries account for 55 percent of its sales nationally and commands about 25 percent of the grocery market. Walking off the elevator into the store, a couple of the ways in which the chain distinguishes itself come into view.

For one, although I know Wal-Mart has them, I don’t see a circular. For another, every product has just one price – not one for members and one for everyone else. There is no membership program, no loyalty card to affix to my keychain.

This was a big bonus to Tyeshia Rhames of the District, who was there to buy a bunch of snacks, juices and bottled water.

“It’s not just that their prices are good, it’s that their prices rarely change,” she said.

As I begin shopping, there are a series of prepared foods featured with “rollback” prices near the cash registers – Velveeta cheese sauce for $1.98, Old El Paso taco shells for $1.39 – but none are on my list. The grocery section is on the far side, across from housewares and home decor.

This is part and parcel to how Wal-Mart aims to one-up the competition, by offering not just low prices but dependably low prices, according to company spokesman William Wertz.

“Customers can find low prices on a wide range of groceries – from fresh produce to canned goods, and they don’t have to shop on certain days of the week or watch for special sales,” he said in an e-mail.

I find that selection and organization of the produce leaves something to be desired, however. After going through a couple unlabeled bins, I find that I can’t get the big bag of gold potatoes that I wanted.

One bright spot: My plastic produce bag clearly uses less plastic than the usual ones, and says on the label that they are made of 30 percent recycled plastic. I haven’t seen that elsewhere.

There is a better spread of coffee and milk options. There is organic milk, almond milk, lactose-free milk and chocolate milk.

For all the complaints about Wal-Mart’s employment practices, there sure seem to be a lot of employees here. Some are joking around in an electronics aisle. One of the women at my register is eating a chocolate bar.

To Shaunette Griffin of Maryland, some of the employees’ behavior is a turnoff, despite the prices.

“Some of the workers here are playful and childish,” Griffin said. “They don’t have a lot of customer service.” But the prices, the prices are good.

– Jonathan O’Connell

Harris Teeter 

1201 First St. NE
December 2010.
Receipt total: $39.45 (highest).
Time spent: 17 minutes (fastest).
Selection: Great.
Parking/access: Underground parking, Capital Bikeshare located immediately outside, one block from NoMa Metro station. Open 7 a.m. to midnight.

Nearing its fourth birthday, the NoMa Harris Teeter occupies a prime corner in an increasingly trendy part of town. Only a block from the New York Avenue Metro station, the 50,000-square-foot store is the chain’s largest in the city, and built beneath upscale apartments.

Once inside, shoppers enter a familiar procession – produce and fresh meats, followed by aisle after aisle of assorted goods before finishing in the frozen foods and dairy sections. There is an unusual abundance of chrome finishings.

During my visit, the only exception to the store’s otherwise neat-and-tidy atmosphere was the hundreds of tiny green tags promoting newly reduced prices on standard goods such as tomatoes, paper towels and Cheerios.

“It’s very beautiful in there, and I was pretty happy with the prices,” Linda Wolfe said while waiting on the elevator. Normally a regular at the Safeway a few blocks away, this was Wolfe’s first visit to this Harris Teeter. “I’ll be back,” she said.

Breezing past the security guard, flower offerings and “Free Wi-Fi” sign, I spot the apples and carrots, but run into an early hiccup when I can only find lettuce labeled organic. After circling around a bit, I find the non-organic variety in the organic section. Confusing.

I have a similar problem finding non-organic milk, until a helpful worker explains that the non-organic dairy offerings are in a different section on the other side of the store. Why are organic and non-organic alternatives placed so far apart? It would help with price comparison if they weren’t.

Strolling down nearly every aisle, I pass more employees than shoppers, perhaps explaining why I don’t spot a single item out of place, turned sideways or otherwise out of order during my spree.

I check off my list in less than 15 minutes, and I am politely ushered into one of the four open checkout stations by a cashier – no line (mental fist pump).

Not until the very end of an otherwise routine checkout process, after Judy has swiped my VIC card (Harris Teeter’s version of the loyalty and savings program), does confusion set in again. She informs me that my VIC card has not been registered for E-VIC savings – what I soon learn is a second loyalty program layered on top of the existing VIC card offerings.

Had I signed up for E-VIC online, she says, my eggs would have cost 67 cents (instead of $1.99). She points out as she hands me my receipt that I have still saved $1.62 (thanks to specials on pasta, potatoes and soda) by using my existing VIC card.

But then, it doesn’t appear that price is necessarily the driving factor for the shoppers here. Ryan Burdick said he frequents the store weekly because of the “consistent quality of the food,” particularly produce. He normally buys his vegetables here, but tends to find cheaper wine at Whole Foods and other items for less at Target.

Still, deals can be found at Harris Teeter if you know when to shop.

“I know their stuff comes in on Wednesday, so they usually have sales on Tuesday,” said Burdick, a television producer who works and lives nearby. “Or if there’s something I really need, I know I can always find it when they restock on Wednesday.”

Harris Teeter also attracts people working nearby for lunch. Everett Bowens, who works across the street, was one of about a dozen people eating in the store’s small dining section, even though his family, in Gainesville, often buys groceries at Wegmans.

“We shop for value,” he said. “Overall, I think it’s about even between Wegmans and Harris Teeter, so we shop at both.”

– J.D. Harrison


1400 7th St. NW
November 2013.
Receipt total: $34.11 (lowest).
Time spent: 40 minutes (slowest).
Selection: Excellent.
Parking/access: Underground parking, two blocks to Mt. Vernon Square/7th Street-Convention Center Metro station, Metrobus a block away. Open 6 a.m. to midnight.

An easel advertisement outside the entrance boasts happy hour prices on beer and wine from 4 to 7 p.m. this evening: “It’s finally here: 5 Dollar Fridays.”

“Happy hour?” a boy says to an older man as they walk past. “That means you can drink at Giant?”

Indeed it does. The Giant at O Street Market may not check ID at the door, but in the cafe, shoppers of age can buy a glass of wine or a beer to sip on as they stroll the aisles. On tap today are brews from Old Dominion, SweetWater and Twin Lakes. The wine list includes Josh Cellars and Clos du Bois, among other corked choices.

In a neighborhood full of grocery stores where prices for standard items don’t fluctuate much from store to store, these are the kind of offerings that persuade customers to return week after week, stores claim.

“Giant was the first grocery store in the District, and has remained a local staple for over 78 years – and customers recognize this,” spokesman Jamie Miller said.

That sounded like corporate lip service until I encountered 31-year-old Tracy Ofori. The Giant at O Street Market is closest to her home, though sometimes she’ll visit the Rockville location near her office.

“I usually go to Giant because I know the layout very well. It’s quick for me,” she said.

However, Ofori added, “There are certain things I know I can’t get here, so I’ll go to Whole Foods or something like that.”

Walking the aisles of the sprawling supermarket – one of the city’s largest at 72,000 square feet – it’s hard to image what they don’t carry here. The store was rebuilt before reopening in late 2013, and it now offers the amenities shoppers have come to expect from an urban grocery store, such as an extensive wine and beer selection, an assortment of organic products, and a grab-and-go section with sushi, salads, sandwiches and more.

There’s even a smaller market within the store that spans three aisles and a row of freezers, consisting solely of natural packaged foods, everything from coffee to cookies.

This place would leave a yuppie’s pantry well stocked.

The produce section offers an almost dizzying number of choices. I pass seven types of apples – Braeburn, Pink Lady, Jazz, gala, McIntosh, Granny Smith, Fuji – but Red Delicious apples aren’t in sight. I ask an employee for help, and I am directed to an end cap where Red Delicious and Golden Delicious are on sale at $1.69 per pound.

I find myself asking for help more on this grocery shopping trip than most – I’m usually the wander-until-you-find-it type – but I got a tip from frequent shopper Louise Davis that the staff here is especially friendly.

“Everyone is always courteous,” Davis told me. “If you need something they’re very helpful.”

Sing out, Louise.

I go to grab a head of iceberg lettuce from the produce case when an employee interjects. “Excuse me, sir?” He opens a container holding the latest lettuce shipment so I can pull one fresh from the box.

They’re equally as nice over in the bread department. A vendor is stocking the shelves when I come looking for a loaf of whole wheat. There’s none to be found, so he sends an employee to fetch some and even compliments my watch while I wait.

With my last item in the cart, I head to self checkout – $34.11 is the total. It would have been 15 cents lower if I had remembered my reuseable bags. Perhaps next time.

– Steven Overly

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz