Giant Eagle opens its first Market District Express


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If Giant Eagle's foodie-oriented, upscale version of its grocery stores had a fling with one of its better-dressed GetGo convenience stores, the result might be the Market District Express.

The latest prototype in the O'Hara grocer's ongoing test kitchen of supermarket/convenience store development opens today on the site of a former car dealership along Route 19 in McMurray -- a 15,500-square-foot restaurant-pharmacy-market nestled into its own parking lot next to a gas station.

The mom with a sick child should be able to pick up medicine in the drive-through on the opposite side of the building where diners are ordering Yuengling beer on tap and having their grilled chicken Caesar wraps delivered to their table.

"We really think this is going to be a local neighborhood store," said Rob Borella, senior director of corporate communications, as he walked the site Wednesday showing off the 84-seat indoor dining room framed in reclaimed barn wood next to the prepared foods counters, the self-serve frozen yogurt station, the produce section and the beer department carrying more than 300 varieties.

Giant Eagle considers this location a test but the company already has plans to add two Market District Express locations in Ohio, one in the Columbus area and the other in the Cleveland area, an indication of the confidence officials have that they've got something consumers want.

And they might, said Jeff Lenard, vice president, strategic industry initiatives at the National Association of Convenience Stores in Alexandria, Va. Mr. Lenard hasn't seen the new concept, but he noted the past decade has seen a considerable blurring of the lines between grocers, convenience stores and other formats.

Part of the evolution, he said, has been in convenience foods. "People expect good food on the go," he said. Companies like Altoona-based Sheetz have been part of the improvement in convenience store foods, but so, in a way, have grocers such as Trader Joe's, which started out as a convenience store chain in the 1950s and now is known as a specialty grocer.

There's a Trader Joe's up Route 19 from the new Market District Express, along with the region's only location for Greensboro, N.C.-based chain Fresh Market, which also emphasizes prepared foods and fresh baked goods.

Nationally, other major retailers are trying modern takes on the old neighborhood market, including Walmart and Kroger.

Giant Eagle's Market District Express will accept the grocer's loyalty cards and allow customers to pile up gas discounts on items allowed by the state -- turns out a glass of wine won't earn fuelperks -- but Mr. Borella said the store will be only loosely tied to the rest of the grocer's promotional program. Customers can qualify for the free antibiotics program, but that deal on stacks of frozen dinners might not be found at the Express store.

One key to making a merged format like this work, said Mr. Lenard, is making sure that the folks enjoying a beer and their friends' company don't impede those running in for milk, eggs and a pack of gum. "Lines are a convenience store's enemy."

That may explain the layout that carefully separates those two departments. The grocer is also testing a delivery system that helps servers track diners to their tables rather than having the customers come back to the counter.

Mr. Borella expects customers to quickly grasp the store concept and welcome it, which would be rather a different experience than Giant Eagle had with its first Express store opened back in 2007 in Harmar. The expanded convenience store concept didn't appease nearby residents who had recently lost a more traditional grocery store.

Over the next few years, that Express store was remodeled more than once as the company tried to get the right mix. At one point, a local activist in Oakmont campaigning for a new grocery store there said he would prefer some version of the upscale, foodie-oriented Market District concept that Giant Eagle was also growing in the form of sprawling stores in Robinson, Shadyside and Bethel Park.

There are now eight Market District stores companywide, with a ninth planned in Strongsville, Ohio. The Giant Eagle at the Waterworks Mall is being renovated into that format.

Mr. Borella looked around the new Market District Express store Wednesday and saw the building blocks for any number of varieties of locations that could be reassembled to fit different neighborhoods -- maybe including the gas station and car wash in one place, eliminating the frozen yogurt for another store, slotting a Starbucks shop or fresh sushi rolls or in-store bakery for a third.

"You can really toggle these on and off, depending on the available real estate you have," he said, although he said some sort of parking would probably be required in any version.

The new Market District Express will employ about 120 people, which compares to 300 to 350 at a traditional Giant Eagle store, 500 to 600 at a full-size Market District grocery and 25 to 30 at a GetGo convenience store.

The O'Hara privately held company reports annual revenues of $9.9 billion with a total of 420 retail locations in all its different formats.

Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.


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